In the USA, college sports are popular, and colleges may offer scholarship based on athletic skills. Yet, universities spend significant money on sports, and nobody earns as well as the head of the sports team.

Considering that the universities are losing money on it, and it's not their core task, then why do they spend big money on sports? Who benefits, and how? Do all major universities have commercialised sports teams, or are there major exceptions of universities choosing not to take part?

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    I think this is a really good question. Where I come from we do not have the tradition of college sports, and to me as an outsider it seems rather perplexing and, frankly, entirely non-sensical for universities to (as a side-gig of sorts) also engage in quasi-professional sports.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Jan 30, 2014 at 22:24
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    "are there major [] universities choosing not to take part?" Caltech for one. Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 2:38
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    As a European I see this as an excellent question, it's a bit like tipping, what the heck is going on?
    – PatrickT
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 7:11
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    Krowe is right. It is true that the majority of US univ sports don't make money, but the ones that do (football, basketball, hockey in northern schools) pay for all the others. Regarding CalTech, their sports booster site looks just like every other school's.
    – fool4jesus
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 13:13
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    @krowe If the argument for college sports is that "it makes money", then why don't universities have whole divisions for exploiting other lucrative businesses like IT services, management consultancy, banking and brokerage? If the argument is public good (encouraging athletic lifestyle) then why does the US have such a high obesity rate and unhealthy lifestyle compared to European nations which don't encourage college sports? Why have countries like China and USSR been able to compete in the Olympics despite having much less emphasis on college sports?
    – Superbest
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 17:19

14 Answers 14


Here is one side effect of a university having a famous sports team as mentioned by Federico Poloni in a comment: people know your name. This helps recruit new students, it helps alumni impress potential employers with a degree from somewhere they have heard of! I only know that Boise State University is actually a real university (and as it turns out a pretty good one) because their football field has blue turf.

One feature of American colleges and universities that is easy to forget is that they are often in the middle of nowhere. Pennsylvania State University is in a town named State College. You can guess which came first. So imagine you have thousands of young men and women in a place that is barely a town. What do they do on Saturday afternoon? Some will start organizing teams to play sports and then start going to nearby schools to play their teams. This grew greatly since the old days but the idea that a residential university is partly responsible for providing non-academic activities for their students take part in still exists as a real force. At smaller schools which do not have sports scholarships the sports teams are more about playing because the students enjoy it and it is just part of campus life.

Also at many schools the mission statements include character formation such as "building leadership skills." If this is the case you can actually argue that having some level of athletic competition on campus actually is part of the core mission. Maybe not an absolute vital part but one that contributes to the mission.

I am of course ignoring in large part the money and corruption that is part of the NCAA Division I level of college athletics. Of which there is an extraordinary amount of both.

Most schools, except for d3 schools, break even with their athletic programs. Americans want to be proud of something, that something for colleges is athletics. Most people wouldn't want to go to Harvard if they didn't have a good football team. I helps to bring diversity (age, interests, grades, and money) into colleges.

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    "So imagine you have thousands of young men and women in a place that is barely a town. What do they do on Saturday afternoon?" Ahem.
    – Jon
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 16:03
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    It would be nice to see actual evidence (in a scientific sense) that sports teams improve name recognition in any way that is useful to the university or its graduates.
    – Dan Fox
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 17:20
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    Wouldn't an emphasis on sports discourage the majority of academically brilliant students who are not athletes? I'm admittedly not American (nor brilliant), but when I see a school's website try to sell itself with things such as "student life" (Lame bars to go to and get laid 2 days before your finals!) and sports (Hope you don't need to park on game day, sucker!) I roll my eyes and skip over. It seems like a rational person would care about alumnus outcomes, quality of faculty and student resources (such as counseling and healthcare) rather than having a famous football team.
    – Superbest
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 17:26
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    Frankly, all the points in this answer are attempts at justification in hindsight, and failed attempts at that. A side effect is not a reason, it is a side effect. And all of these side effects can be accomplished by other means, and in fact are accomplished by other means in other countries. Countless universities in Germany, France, Russia, you name it, are literally in the middle of nowhere, too. Yet somehow miraculously they make do without a sports team, let alone a professional sports team known nationwide or even outside the country.
    – ЯegDwight
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 21:17
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    "Most people wouldn't want to go to Harvard if they didn't have a good football team" -- Harvard doesn't have a good football team (the Ivy League is D-1, but it's the lower half of D-1; Harvard's good relative to the Ivies, but compared to actual top football schools, not at all). Assuming it's anything like at Yale, the Harvard-Yale game matters, but most people don't care about the football team at any other time (their stadium generally isn't even half full except for Harvard-Yale).
    – cpast
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 5:20

The University of Chicago's president (can't remember which one) chose to not have sports teams many decades ago.

I think the practice of having college and university sports teams arose from one of the older functions of "colleges" and "universities", namely, as finishing schools for children of the wealthy, especially young men. (As opposed to theology seminaries, or medical or law schools, or teachers' colleges.) Just one more entertainment for them, but/and obviously the degree of quasi-professionalism was much less.

In any case, it seems that alumni generally are more entertained by sports than by science or literature, say. I think it is believed that maintaining general alumni enthusiasm via sports may spill over into donations for other things. Certainly the box office revenue and alumni donations make sports programs close to self-supporting, sometimes running at a profit, depending on how one does the accounting.

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    As opposed to theology seminaries, or medical or law schools, or teachers' colleges — do medical or law schools typically not have sports teams?
    – gerrit
    Commented Jan 30, 2014 at 20:17
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    I think that medical, law, and business schools in the U.S. seldom have sports teams, yes. Commented Jan 30, 2014 at 21:22
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    Indeed, because those schools are for students at the graduate level, whereas it's the undergraduates who play sports.
    – David Z
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 0:40
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    The Maroons are now a member of the NCAA and have a number of D-3 teams.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 6:55
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    @DavidZ actually grad students play sports at the NCAA level. This is especially common for undergraduate students who only played for 3 years in undergrad (due to a redshirt year or an early graduation) and want to get a free masters degree. Commented Feb 2, 2014 at 0:05

A partial answer is that the proposition that universities lose money on sports is controversial. Some sports bring in large amounts of money, making the athletics department as a whole not lose too much money, and most universities believe that the alumni donations brought in by the existence of sports teams more than make up for any remaining loss. (For public universities this is even more extreme, since the state legislatures that apportion money are often very fond of those athletic programs, to the point that state universities do better in state appropriations in years when their most important teams are doing well.)

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    Also, free advertising. Commented Jan 30, 2014 at 21:38
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    For an example of free advertising, look at the influence of Stephen Curry on Davidson College.
    – Zach H
    Commented Jan 30, 2014 at 23:17
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    @FedericoPoloni I don't doubt that college sports is an effective form of advertising. But "free"? Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 10:34
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    "state universities do better in state appropriations in years when their most important teams are doing well" - really?! I don't disbelieve you, its just that it so fits my world view that I thus immediately am skeptical because it's almost too good to be true. :)
    – BrianH
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 14:14
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    But even if university sport teams don't lose money, this is no explanation of why they exist. Oil extraction platforms don't lose money, but most colleges don't have their own oil extraction platforms.
    – rumtscho
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 15:57

There are good answers already for why does there continue to be a huge emphasis on sports in American academia but none really answer the question.

The fact is that sports in America were introduced at universities out of necessity. Where in most parts of the world there has been long traditions of clubs or the local handling of games/sports, America had nothing. One small town might play another small town in a "sport" but that didn't satisfy everyone. You had elitist or exceptional athletes that wanted to compete against their equals, not Gary the blacksmith.

So this is mid 19th century and America is boiling. A nation divided on many subjects. So instead of a local rowing club or in today's terms playing for your company team, the easiest thing to gravitate to is a local university. They had the money, organization, place to play the game, and so on.

And back then universities had opinions and power concerning government and policy. So the elite universities (most were in this group at the time) wanted to take their debating and add physicality to it. Races, rowing, simple games. It invoked pride and if Harvard won the rowing competition then they must be right about slavery.

I didn't even ask who has time for games in mid 19th century? Well you are probably a male, somewhere between 20-35, you have lots of money, and no job - you go to school. This is the epitome of sports culture. Where are all of these people stacked at... Universities. So it was just the perfect storm.

Now once it started the early collegiate sports scene really was much like we see today - except it was admittedly like that in the late 19th century and early 20th century. What do I mean? Well players were old. You might not have many players on your football team under 20 and a few in their 30s. Some players student-status was highly questioned. There weren't really any rules at first and when they started the rules in the late 19th century there were ways around them.

Players were paid, sometimes "pros" went back to college, there were boosters... the schools were driven by pride, power, and money. Maybe the only things different were (lack of) media and that they were not preying on teenagers.

And the evolution of sports in the 20th century has gone from we have money and power so we will form the best teams, to we will get money and power from having the best teams. The big D1 schools are the worst. They hide huge huge earnings by allocating costs to sports teams so they can make millions/billions on tuition and licensing - yes everyone buys Texas Longhorns shirts for their Economics department.

Some universities "claim" to be losing money. There have been economic impact studies done showing that almost none that made the claims were even near losing money on sports. When they factored in advertising, enrollment, exterior sales, and so on. Really the only thing that makes sports somewhat costly for universities now is Title IX. Very few women's sports make money and most women wouldn't go to a university because their softball team is good.

So now we have the NCAA, colleges, tied-in businesses getting profits and tax breaks for players that are playing for free. This may change now that there has been talk of unionizing but could be years and years down the road.

Even if this happened and the landscape changed were the big sports went to a club system there would still be sports in American universities. They would function because students expect this now. Things would probably work like they do for club sports at current universities or how things work at most DIII schools. You play local teams, you drive to the game, pay for your equipment, maybe offset a little by entrance fees or a nice booster.

So why are there sports in American colleges? Pride, money, free-time of students, and the fact that there weren't other organizations to handle these things in the new America. Why will sports be played in American colleges in 100 years? Same reason they are played at clubs in France. Tradition.

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    I don't buy your argument that universities were the only organizations capable of organizing sports clubs. None of your reasoning is specific to the US so it should hold equally true in Europe. Except it doesn't, as you know. Most European universities have sports teams but almost all of them are just "Greg the blacksmith, well, er, metallurgy student". If there is a "long tradition" of sports clubs in Europe (I'm not sure that's actually true: few sports clubs are more than 150 years old), why didn't the dominant population of the US, European immigrants, continue that tradition? Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 10:48
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    Where in most parts of the world there has been long traditions of clubs or the local handling of games/sports, America had nothing. Actually, college sports have been a tradition here for quite some time, and I'm surprised tradition hasn't been mentioned yet. It deserves its place in the discussion. In the U.S. college athletics stretches back well over a century. To ask why we have what we have now is to ask why things evolved the way they did.
    – J.R.
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 10:49
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    @J.R. inter-collegiate sporting competitions started with Harvard-Yale in either 1852 with rowing or if you are a traditionalist 1875 with American football.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 11:12
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    @fool4jesus No, I'm talking primarily British universities and, to the best of my knowledge the rest of Europe is broadly similar. Sport in British universities is not "big business" or, in fact, any business at all. The only British university sporting event that the average member of the public might even be aware of is the annual rowing race between Oxford and Cambridge. For anachronistic reasons, 5 or so university cricket teams play matches against professional sides and those get literally a couple of column-inches in broadsheet national newspapers. Everything else may as well not exist. Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 23:51
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    @fool4jesus The difference between the BUCS and the NCAA is about a bazillion orders of magnitude of exposure. Ask 1000 Americans what the NCAA is and my guess is that 950+ will give the correct answer. Ask 1000 British people what the BUCS is and I'd say you'd be lucky if even one of them could tell you. I'm pretty well informed and I've studied/worked in British universities for nearly 20 years: your post was the first I've ever heard of the BUCS. Commented Feb 1, 2014 at 0:29

In addition to looking at this from the perspective of universities, it's also worth looking at this from the point of view of professional sports leagues. In Europe soccer is based on a free market system with intense competition for players between leagues and between teams in the same league. As a result, teams sign younger and younger players. Thus top soccer players don't go to college (or even high school). In the US, by contrast, the leagues are strong cartels who collude to keep down the cost of talent. Both football and basketball in the US have strong salary caps (limiting how much a team can spend overall, and in basketball on how much they can spend on each player), revenue sharing (where the richest teams have to give money to the poor ones), etc. In particular, the leagues are able to enforce an age minimum. In basketball they require that americans be one year removed from their high school graduation date, and in football that's 3 years. This means there's a huge pool of future professionals who are barred from working in the professional leagues. In steps the NCAA, which is again a cartel which keeps down labor costs, and who has barred any member schools from paying their athletes. This seriously decreases the costs of running a sports team, and thus makes the cost/benefit analysis more favorable.


In order to understand why big college sports exists in the US, I think it's important to understand the role that they play. For someone coming from Europe, I think this is the best explanation:

Big conference American Football is the closest U.S. equivalent to international soccer in Europe.

The Ohio State-Michigan game is our equivalent of a Netherlands-Germany soccer match. It's what gets millions of people of all ages across a state out wearing team colors and rooting together.

It makes a lot of sense that states should be running sports teams to play each other in the US the same way that countries in Europe run sports teams to play each other in Europe. (Remember that many US states are larger than a lot of European countries.) That the states happen to run their teams through their state-run universities is a bit strange, but the underlying concept of state-based sports teams makes a lot of sense.

  • But that's not true, there's Pro American football teams based on states and cities as well, NFL likely being the most recognizable and the NFL arguably attracts more attention. For example, the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks are not associated with any University and yet, both the University of Washington and the University of Colorado: Boulder both have their own American football sports teams.
    – Irwin
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 16:18
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    City-based pro teams are like European city-based pro teams while college sports are more like national teams. Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 16:22
  • I agree that the rivalries are similar, but I don't think that really has much to do with the "why" part of this question. Also, I don't agree that "it makes a lot of sense that states should be running sports teams." In fact, I think that's what prompted this question – that really doesn't make much sense. I mean, it's not like a bunch of college presidents sat around a table and said, "You know what this country really needs? Athletic rivalries, like they have in Europe. And what better place to do that than on our college campuses?"
    – J.R.
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 21:38
  • @StephanBranczyk, actually NYC has essentially no college teams worth talking about in any sport (and I say this at Columbia!). However it has 2 pro baseball teams (Yankees and Mets), 2 pro basketball teams (Knicks and Nets), and 2 pro football teams (Jets and Giants). So I agree with (my former professor) Noah Snyder
    – chmullig
    Commented Feb 3, 2014 at 3:25

In the US, you're less likely to have multiple professional teams in the same sport representing the same city. The number of franchises is set by the professional leagues themselves (with the US government exempting them at different times from antitrust monopoly regulations).

The cities in the US that have two teams have either stolen an existing team from another city, or they've been able to convince the professional leagues to expand the set number of teams (the latter of which very rarely ever happens).

In Europe, there are no such restrictions, if a homegrown team is good enough, it will just start moving up through the ranks even if the city it inhabits already has other teams that are playing at that level. This artificial scarcity is what's providing American Universities with the opportunity to have semi-professional teams.

Unlike major team sports in North America, where franchises are awarded to nominated cities, most European teams have grown from small clubs formed by groups of individuals before growing rapidly.


Clubs therefore had an equal chance to grow to become among the strongest in their particular sport which has led to a situation where many cities are represented by two or even three top class teams in the same sport. In the 2011–12 football season, London has five teams playing in the Premier League, while Liverpool and Manchester also have double representation.


If you think about it, in the case of American Football, 32 franchises is not nearly enough for a country like the US (which has way more than 32 cities potentially capable of supporting one or more real football teams at the professional level). And the cities could all battle it out with their own football teams, to see which ones are the better ones that should enter those leagues, but the professional leagues do not want teams selected that way.

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    I think you may be overstating the relationship between sports and the government/military. Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 17:24
  • It may be noteworthy that the US military has been all-volunteer for quite some time, now, regardless of the various quasi-wars in which they're actively engaged. I'm really not sure I see any particular relationship with sports team, though; as you pointed out, after being in the military perhaps one might get one's college paid-for, but if you can afford college yourself, you probably won't join the military; ergo, sports scholarships are competing against potential military recruitment…
    – BRPocock
    Commented Feb 1, 2014 at 11:43
  • Yes. After doing further research, I think you're both right. And I've edited my post accordingly. Commented Feb 2, 2014 at 3:04
  • It is simply not true that the US can't have multiple teams in the same sport for the same city. Chicago and NY each have two baseball teams, NY has two football teams, and NY and LA have two basketball teams.
    – Henry
    Commented Feb 2, 2014 at 14:35
  • @Henry, I've just corrected my post. You were right. Commented Feb 2, 2014 at 23:43

We shouldn't forget that most American universities were founded at a time when there was great admiration for classical culture. Academics in the mid 1800's would have been well aware of the Athenian ideal of "A Perfect Mind In A Perfect Body". The Apollonian and Dionysian ideals were very alive for these people.

It was only the demands for a relevant education in WWII and the 1960's that ended the classical educational curriculum with it's requirement that all students learn Latin or Greek. American universities remain a forest of Ionic columns.

You can get a good sense of the position of 'sport' in the culture of the upper class in the 1920's by watching Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis'.

I'd remind that one criterion for Rhodes scholarships is that of athletic prowess.

Even as late as my own adolescence in the 1970's there was an assumption that the 'best' [male] students were the athletes. The ideal was Tommy, the quarterback of the high school team, and Suzy the cheerleader.

Also remember that many universities in the US were training grounds for the military.

In Europe, universities were more likely to have grown from the church.


Most of these answers address the existence of large sports competing at the highest level, or historical reasons for why sports first appeared. Here, most of the major points have been covered. It's important to note that the effects on alumni donations and new student enrollment (quantity and quality by standard metrics) are not speculative. See this paper and this paper. At the college where my dad teaches, when the basketball team makes the NCAA tournament, their applications increase both in quantity and quality. For this reason, the president loved the basketball team despite not caring a whit about sport.

I'd like to address why smaller colleges would choose to have sports programs, despite negligible ticket sales and no TV contracts or media coverage. The rationales they present are typically in the form of character building, and this aspect should not be ignored. As a college athlete, I learned a great deal about social interaction and that awful buzzword 'teamwork'. At our athletics department banquet, someone always quoted the (apocryphal) words of the Duke of Wellington, "The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton." As institutions pride themselves on crafting the whole individual, it makes sense that they provide the opportunity to play sports.

Another important aspect is recruiting. My choice of college was heavily influenced by the opportunity to play volleyball. Since graduating, my alma mater has added six new sports teams, all of which are sports traditionally played by the children of upper-middle class families. This is not coincidental: colleges are competing for students, especially those who can pay full tuition. For an explicit discussion of the economic benefits to the institution, scroll down to the Division III section of this article on why colleges are adding football teams (the first section addresses the financial and aspirational benefits to larger colleges).

Lastly, the role of sports in helping students identify with their college is immense. This is larger at universities with major sports programs, but still non-trivial. When we played our rival, people came out and watched (which they almost never did otherwise). At those competitions, students identified with our college in a visceral way. As seen above, this can significantly influence the student's relationship with the institution.


Do all major universities have commercialised sports teams, or are there major exceptions of universities choosing not to take part?

In the U.S., most major universities have sports teams, but not necessarily "commercialised" sports teams. For the most part, the bigger and more well-known the school, the stronger the commitment to big-time athletic programs, although there are some exceptions – a few very well-known universities do not have major sports programs. For example, MIT and Carnegie-Mellon are known for academics first, and sports teams second, although even these schools field intercollegiate squads in sports such as tennis, track, and volleyball.

As for why they have sports teams, that is rooted in tradition. Collegiate sports rivalries go back into 1800s, and grew from there. It's part of campus life, in the same way other extracurricular activities are. The U.S. is a sports-obsessed society, and, to some extent or another, sports programs attract a rather strong spotlight in both high school and college.

Why do they spend big money on sports?

Not every school spends big money on sports, and not every school spends big money across all sports equally. In the U.S., universities form athletic conferences. Some of the more well-known athletic conferences include the Pac 12, the SEC, and the Big 10. (The Big 10 so rooted in tradition that it still calls itself "The Big 10" even though there are presently 12 teams in the conference). Other conferences, such as the Mid-American Conference, are comprised of teams that would not be considered athletic powerhouses. Teams in the same conference compete against each other in several sports. The Ivy League consists of some of the oldest and most prestigious schools in the U.S., and they compete against each other in both major sports (football and basketball), as well as other sports (such as volleyball, golf, and ice hockey).

A key thing to understand is that not all schools devote the same amount of resources to their athletic programs. Conferences are generally made up of universities of comparable size, in roughly the same geographic region, with a commitment to athletics commensurate with other schools in that conference. Moreover, some schools might be known for having a very strong team in just one or two particular sports (for example, Wichita State University usually fields a very strong baseball team).

Joining a major conference means a major commitment to athletics – you wouldn't see Eastern Texas Baptist University trying to join the Big 12 unless they were prepared to dedicate the resources needed to field competitive teams in that conference, and the conference wouldn't let them join without that commitment, either.

As for why a vast amount of money is spent on sports teams, that is rooted in prestige. In a sports-obsessed culture, a well-known sports team can put your university on the map. The average person on the street couldn't tell you much about the chemistry program at USC, or the computer science courses offered at Notre Dame, or the economics department at Michigan State, but five men in a barber shop could talk about their football teams all afternoon.

There are hundreds if not thousands of universities in the U.S. The state of Georgia, for example, has about six dozen places where a student could obtain a degree. Most of these schools probably have sports teams, but only about four or so have have big-time, big-money commitments and nationally-recognized sports teams. The rest of the schools have athletic teams with everyday students who just happen to be on the diving team, or the wrestling team, or the softball team, participating in what amounts to an extracurricular activity, rarely playing their sport in front of more than 50 fans.


Something I couldn't understand in American culture. Last summer, I've read an article - an interview with some south-american novelist (I can't remember his name).

He said, it's a psychological trick. Generally, people going to university are among the best. They were the best, or one of the best in school. Now some of them have to be worst. People dislike being the worst, even if they are the worst among the best, and it's very discouraging. Many talents could get lost because of that.

But if we get sportsmen, they would be usually the worst in the class, and they would be perfectly happy with it, as long as they would get promotion and could concentrate on sport.

It's a logical argument for me.

  • By south-american, do you mean from the USA south or from South America?
    – gerrit
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 10:14
  • Somewhere from South America...
    – user5657
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 10:15
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    @gerrit South-American = Argentina etc.; southern-American = Alabama etc. Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 10:56
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    @DavidRicherby Right. I thought so, but considering the context, I was wondering if ŁukaszL meant the same.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 12:39
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    A few hundred "worst" out of 40,000 students does not have an appreciable effect. There are plenty of much better reasons, and I'm surprised anyone familiar with American higher ed agrees with this assessment.
    – Zach H
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 15:02

Considering that the universities are losing money on it, and it's not their core task, then why do they spend big money on sports? Who benefits, and how?

Big money is only really spent on Football, and to a lesser degree, Men's Basketball. Football generally does turn a profit, provided you are a successful enough team. Think of it as an investment. Pouring money into your football program is a huge risk. What if the team performs poorly? What if there is a lack of interest from students and the community? Your money could easily be wasted if this were to happen. That being said, if the team wins and the community supports it, there is a great deal of profit to be made.

The money that lost in athletics usually comes from other, less popular sports. College football teams have multi-million dollar TV deals and merchandising rights. Certain programs have helped develop a brand for their university and in turn generate a demand for everything from t-shirts to admissions.

Less popular sports however, do not generate such buzz but still require money to stay afloat. When Title IX became law in the '70s, it did amazing things for women's athletics and civil rights as a whole. Unfortunately, public interest is not that high for many "Title IX" sports. These teams, by law, must exist and while more popular sports such as football and basketball can generate profits, the less popular sports consume more than they can generate. This is where the losses come into play.

Now, why do colleges and universities bother to host athletic teams if in the end they only cost money? It comes down to branding. Each college and university in America is competing for the best and brightest students. American higher education is a business, and a great majority of these schools exist in order to turn a profit. Why would a student choose to go to the University of Alabama over Harvard if he or she were accepted into both? Because of Alabama's brand. Harvard may offer a better education and hold a more prestigious position in the academic community, but Alabama wins national championships and that appeals to the youth of America. This also entices kids from the opposite of the country to attend school there. Each state hosts multiple colleges and universities, so a popular sports team can be a good reason to lure a kid out of his or her home state.

Plain and simple, college sports teams (as a whole) are loss-leaders. They are investments in marketing and allow the schools to have a national appeal. This appeal allows schools to justify higher admission costs and creates a demand among high school graduates nationwide.


I am gong to assume that the NCAA is a reasonable proxy for "commercialised sports teams". The NCAA has 1,200 members which while large is not every accredited US university. A quick check of your list of major universities reveals Pomona, with an endowment of 1.6 billion, is not a member of the NCAA. Despite its sizeable endowment, with only 1,600 undergraduates I am not sure it qualifies as a major university.

As for the who benefits part, I will just quote the NCAA

The result is that NCAA student-athletes are graduating at a higher rate than other college students. More than eight out of 10 student-athletes will earn a bachelor’s degree.

Student-athletes work hard throughout the year to be among those who qualify to compete for 89 NCAA championships. That experience teaches them time management, leadership skills and the importance of working toward a common goal. They are the tools for success that last a lifetime.

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    The reason that colleges run athletics programmes is certainly not that athletes get better grades. Better grades for a handful of students for so much money spent would be a terrible return on investment. Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 10:54
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    When we speak of the "college athlete", what often springs to mind is Division I football or basketball. That seems to be a world of its own, where college campuses are essentially training leagues for professional sports. However, that's a minority of college athletes, the bulk of which compete on swim teams, on crew teams, on fencing teams, on polo grounds, on lacrosse fields, etc., often with hardly more than 30 or 40 people in the stands (mostly parents and significant others). Even college baseball (though baseball is a huge sport in the U.S.) has a relatively small following.
    – J.R.
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 10:56
  • @DavidRicherby - I don't think StrongBad or the NCAA are making the claim the athletes get better grades. Rather, they are trying to offset the stereotype that college athletes are nothing more than dumb jocks taking watered-down courses. Though I won't deny the existence of that, it doesn't tell the whole story. There are many athletes who excel in the classroom and have a more fulfilling college experience due to their participation in athletics – that's all that's being said here, I think.
    – J.R.
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 10:59
  • @DavidRicherby you are correct. I was answering the "who benefits" part. I edited to clarify.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 10:59
  • 1
    @DanFox - Just to offer some contrast, my roommate was a two-sport college athlete (lacrosse and swimming). He was also a mechanical engineering major with a GPA over 3.00. He didn't get any special tutoring. It was a small state school that played Division I in only one sport. Big-time sports may be big business, but smaller sports are more about offering students a chance to participate in extracurriculars, not too unlike the school-run newspaper, the school-run radio station, the Greeks, and the organized outdoor rec programs found on our campus and on the many others like it.
    – J.R.
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 21:29

I'm going to start here with a disclaimer, This is my opinion based on how I think it came about. I have no references except life experience from which to draw this opinion.

To me, sports teams came about because they needed to tire out their students. A large group of young people with nothing to do except study need an outlet. If all they did was sit in their chair and study all day, students would become restless. Restless powder kegs of young people developing world views is not good for stability. Provide a healthy distraction that keeps people fit and active. If you aren't a member of the teams at least you can go out, get some fresh air, watch and play vicariously.

Sports also provide a method by which people goal oriented can be motivated to remain strong and healthy; similar to Shaolin monks developing their exercises to enable them to stay awake during religious lectures(sounds like college to me).

Once these sports teams were in place, a desire for organization and status essentially lead to formation of leagues and regulations. Arms race capitalism happens and here we are today.

Also, above people mention there are places in Europe, far from everyone else that make due without sports teams. To put some sizes in perspective, Penn State, mentioned above, in the city State College, is in the center of Pennsylvania and surrounded by barely populated farm country. Pennsylvania as a "state"(technically, commonwealth), is literally half the size of the United Kingdom. If you were on that campus back when the school was founded back in the 1850s, there was really nothing to do and no where to go.

my 2 cents, thanks for reading.

  • 3
    Only a small percentage of students on a college campus play for their college sports team. If the goal was to "tire out students", that would have been done with mandatory gym classes, not organized sports teams. If the end goal is to provide an outlet, why bus 12 people 350 miles or more, instead of having them play in their own gym?
    – J.R.
    Commented Feb 2, 2014 at 0:24

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