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June 19, 2013 10:25 AM UC Berkeley’s Disaster Sports Program

By Michael O'Hare

Time to update the amazing failing-upward saga of the UC Berkeley Intercollegiate Athletics program, because we have hit the front page of our local paper with another humiliating roundup. Just to review, we are talking about a $70m-per-year business that loses $10m sending athletes to compete against other schools in a couple of dozen sports where they have fun, do fairly well, and mostly graduate without a lot of handholding and tutoring. It also sells tickets and television access to people who want to watch about 150 men play basketball and football, and rights to make the usual chotchkes and sweatshirts. There are about 850 so-called student-athletes in the care of IA; our other 20,000 students are allowed to buy tickets and watch them, but IA has nothing to do with “students being athletes” in any general sense. (Given that the average playing time for a member of the football squad is eight minutes per year, it’s not so clear that those guys should be scored as athletes either…they do get $10,000 each for those eight minutes, so maybe they should be compared to pro stars.)

Nor does IA have much to do with anything else on campus, other than absorbing a Niagara of student fees and tuition money. It was once supposed to be self-supporting, like the parking garages, but the regents – the university’s governing board – fixed that silly rule for us several years ago so the chancellor can give it money that would otherwise be wasted on labs and scholarships and other frills. It even has its own spiffy web site (with a .com, not .edu, suffix).

A few years ago, it was discovered that our art museum and our stadium were too dangerous to occupy with the BO (big one) getting organized under our feet. The museum was temporarily propped up with some awesome steel braces, we designed a really nice new museum at a downtown corner of the campus that would benefit from foot traffic and street activity, and we set about fundraising.

The stadium, which is indeed beautiful and in an awesome location, isn’t actually very good for the business-type football we use it for because there’s no parking and thus no tailgating, it’s a big uphill hike to get to from your car or transit, and there’s no commerce around it for eating and drinking. We do, however, have two pro football teams in the neighborhood, and one has a stadium with a big parking lot, at a transit station, that was available on the seven or eight relevant fall Saturdays for about $5m per year, a sum that could have been secured forever with about a $100m endowment. Rebuilding the stadium would cost about $350m, which we didn’t have. But it’s pretty clear that spending $350m to enjoy football seven days a year in inferior circumstances is much better than spending $100m to do it in an appropriate venue, right?

Fundraising for the museum fell short in a difficult economic environment, and our campus leadership certainly wasn’t going to spend money on something so peripheral to our core business as art, so the new museum will be half the planned size. Fundraising for the stadium barely got off the ground, but we’re not talking about amusement or frills here; football was at stake, a core educational value! So the decision was to borrow the money and go for it. And while we were at it, we undertook to build a building that’s about a third each coaching office palace/party venue for players and boosters/athlete conditioning space (for some of the 850 letter athletes) right next door, for another borrowed $150m.

The university regents (our governing board) went along with this, with the clear understanding that while the bonds were in their name, the Berkeley campus, not the whole UC system, was on the hook for the whole sum. I should point out that the regents are Hard-headed Republican No-nonsense Business people, people who can Read a Balance Sheet and do not fall for Ponzi Schemes nor let their university get into dangerous financial waters. They were fine with the idea that IA, this $70m business that lost $10m per year, would figure out how to suddenly make $35m more to retire the bonds and get the campus subsidy down to $5m, and our chancellor, on the way out as of last month, was fine with it too. Indeed he got to go to a whole season of football games there last fall!

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

Comments

  • Tim Smith on June 19, 2013 11:18 PM:

    As a former student-athlete at Cal as well as a Cal grad and major donor, all I can say is ...another hatchet piece by whiny little anti-sports wanker. Part of what makes Cal a great, world-class institution is the fact that we have a fabulous sports program. Our student-athletes excel in the classroom and on the field. Deal with it.

  • kate on June 21, 2013 11:17 AM:

    As a former graduate student tutor at Cal, I would caution donors, journalists and supporters of Cal sports as well as anti-Cal writers to be careful about the way sports program are lumped together and not lose sight of the need for less practice time (maybe less = more targeted & effective time) for players. Student athletes in the revenue sports are not graduating well and not getting through without handholding through no fault of their own.
    Instead of adding more money aesthetic of the sports, why not add more money to increase the quality of the programs that need it & improve the time set aside for education so that the athletes can actually be students, and learn to be independent students. That said, many athletes do excel in the classroom, but if you broke the Cal student athlete population down by dollars earned for the school, you would see major gaps in the educational achievement of students.

  • Benny Kovacs on June 24, 2013 2:37 PM:

    Intercollegiate athletics is a fundamental part of UC Berkeley. The mismanagement of money is not the fault of Intercollegiate Athletics; it's an endemic problem that starts with tons of mid-managers with large salaries who do next to nothing and continues with the fact Cal is the only UC campus that robs funds from its state allotment to maintain the "Physical Plant" and uses it for academic reasons. Athletics is a scapegoat to the university's financial situation due to it's visibility. Without athletics, fundraising for academics would drastically suffer; this according to every development officer I've ever encountered. Cal has one of the best athletic departments in the country and the stadium remodel was mandated by the state due to earthquake. Cal will never be the University of Chicago; and your specious logic gains attention but lacks truth.