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Plain Talk: Times are tough, but college sports' pleas for cash fall flat

Plain Talk: Times are tough, but college sports' pleas for cash fall flat

Camp Randall Exterior (copy)

Camp Randall Stadium in Madison

The letter that UW-Madison Athletic Director Barry Alvarez sent to Badger fans earlier this week warning that the department could be facing a $100 million hit to its budget did sound like it was setting the stage for a plea to donors to come to the rescue if money-making football isn't played this fall.

"The reality is that this financial crisis threatens our ability to sustain the success we’ve celebrated," Alvarez wrote. "It threatens our pride in what we’ve built. It threatens our position in college athletics.

"I believe we will reach a monumental crossroads in the coming days. We will have two choices: remain at the head of the class or fall behind. Everything we pride ourselves on — competing at the highest level, developing world-class student-athletes and raising trophies — relies on our ability to financially support our student-athletes," he continued.

"What gives me hope is that, as Badgers, our strength has always been in our people and our willingness to work toward a common goal," Alvarez added. "That drives my belief that we can overcome this tremendous challenge — and EMERGE STRONGER THAN EVER."

In other words, if generous Badger backers don't help us out, we might have to say goodbye to all the success the UW has enjoyed since Pat Richter and he were brought on board in 1989 and '90, respectively.

That it's a financial dilemma is for certain, but it seems more than a bit hyperbolic since most athletic departments in the Big Ten and the other power conferences will be facing the same problem.

Interestingly, longtime sports columnist for the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Patriot-News, David Jones, who has covered Penn State for nearly three decades, wasn't impressed by the Wisconsin athletic director's plea. In fact, he suggested in a column this week that it explains what is so wrong with big-time college spots today.

He noted how the athletic departments in big-time programs like Penn State, Wisconsin and all the others have grown exponentially in the past 20 years, adding positions and programs that have nothing to do with developing athletes, but everything to do with raising money.

"They are enabled by a mindset of ever-spiraling growth and obsession with revenue generation. They are in different ways both emblematic of a sports-industrial complex in which academia should not be involved," he wrote.

"And now, rather than using the virus as a reason to take a breath and examine what major college sports has become in the past two or three decades and why – and maybe consider ratcheting it all down a notch – it seems inevitable that COVID will simply be another excuse for universities to ramp up fundraising further and figure out how to feed the beast more, at any cost. And even how to rationalize playing college football during a raging pandemic," he continued.

To be fair, Alvarez has made it clear that the health of the athletes will be first in considering how fall sports will be played, if at all. And, the department's top 25 salaried staffers, including Alvarez and most of the big sports coaches, have taken 15% cuts and 350 other employees have reduced their hours by as much as 50%. Salaries, benefits and bonuses account for $56.7 million, after all, roughly 37% of the annual budget.

Plus, it also needs to be noted that none of the department's budget comes from taxpayer funds; it's all derived from ticket sales, Badger Fund "contributions," TV and radio contracts, the share in NCAA tournaments, licensing agreements and other sources.

Jones did compliment the Wisconsin AD:

"Alvarez and former AD Pat Richter are the two biggest reasons Wisconsin football rose from a laughingstock when he arrived in 1990 to a powerhouse today. He built it from sticks, pebbles and sawdust and deserves all the credit he gets."

But, he concluded, he's bought into the notion that more and more has to feed the beast.

"The business has demanded more-more-more for many years. And asking for a public handout now, either in the open or under cover, simply to keep the machine running at its accustomed RPMs, just doesn’t seem right to me. In fact, it sounds about as tone deaf as it could be," he said.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.  

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