THE PROBLEM OF AKRON FOOTBALL

Last month, The University of Akron revealed it was facing a $60 million shortfall in its finances and announced it was taking dramatic steps to close the gap. They included cutting 215 jobs, charging higher fees, shuttering several programs and eliminating its baseball team.

Baseball, I thought, really? Why baseball? It's a chance for 25 students to play a varsity sport, and only costs a couple of hundred thousand dollars.

Why not cut football instead? It is far more expensive and, more to the point, Akron stinks at football. Since 2000, the team has won just 64 games while losing 114, including three seasons it went 3-33. It takes work to be that bad. And here I am not blaming the players. They are who they are. The problem is Akron football has nearly always been more aspirational than real. Yet like so many other smaller, poorer schools Akron insists on playing at the highest, most expensive level, and falls victim to a line of magical thinking that playing football somehow makes it a better school.

The argument that one can't have a real university without a Division 1 football team costs scores of universities -- think Eastern Michigan, New Mexico State and Florida Atlantic, among others -- tens of millions of dollars each season. In many cases, these schools are forced to sacrifice their teams to larger, richer and more powerful programs -- Alabama, Oregon and Ohio State, for instance -- to make some money (athletic directors call these payments guarantees; you are guaranteed to lose but hey you get paid!). Their stadiums are often half-empty (or worse) and they have little or no revenues from ticket sales, premium seating or television. After all, who wants to watch a 1-11 team play?

In the 2012 fiscal year, the most recent year for which I have data, Akron earned more money sacrificing its football team to larger schools ($1.3 million) than it did from ticket sales ($1 million). Overall, football generated $2.4 million in revenue but $6.7 million in expenses, not including $2.2 million in debt service on a 29,000-seat, $60-million stadium Akron opened in 2009. The stadium finances are -- how should I put this? - problematical. To make ends meet, Akron rents out the press box for receptions and uses three floors for academic support services. 

Yet weirdly when Akron announced its draconian cuts, it didn't touch football. Despite millions in losses, football is a marketing asset that attracts students, Akron's president, Scott Scarborough said at the time.

Did he really mean that, I wondered, because it makes absolutely no sense. Why would students want to attend Akron to watch a losing football team? And assuming they did, are those the kind of students you want? 

Akron has a football problem. But like many schools addicted to college football, it can't bring itself to admit it. 

In 2013, while working on BILLION-DOLLAR BALL, I visited Akron to interview then president Luis Proenza about the program. When I asked him the inevitable question: Why football? And why such a big, shiny stadium? Proenza responded that a big, urban school like Akron needed football. "You can't buy that kind of exposure from a PR standpoint," he told me. Then he added, "From a larger perspective, I can't get that large an audience focused on any other aspect of the university -- period."

What is the opportunity cost of playing football? I asked the president.

"That's a very good question," Proenza said. "If I look at it strictly from a business sense, it doesn't make sense. The question right now is we're betting on the future, recognizing it takes a number of years. I will remind you that a lot of teams don't make money. We're not alone in that."          

After eliminating baseball, Akron will have less than 170 male athletes on scholarship, according to university records. Of those, 90 will be football players, meaning one of every two varsity athletes walking around campus will be a football player.

That strikes me as an awfully high price to pay for a team that has won just one of every three games it has played since the start of this century, not to mention truly bad economics. No wonder they call it a dismal science.