Speaking of football, a controversy has been brewing at Colorado State over plans to construct an enormously expensive new stadium at its main campus in Fort Collins. Colorado State currently has a fairly minor football program in the highest division of NCAA football. As with many such schools, athletics boosters claim the new stadium will help out with intangibles such as increasing school visibility, attracting visitors (and also probably lucrative full tuition paying out of state students), and increasing school spirit. They even claim that the stadium will provide a useful venue for major non-athletic events.
While in the past people may have just uncritically accepted these arguments, that is no longer true. Most athletics programs lose millions of dollars, requiring large amounts of tuition money and student “fees” to break even every year. When tuition at public universities is rapidly increasing, asking students to give more money to support athletics while accepting cutbacks to other student activities and even academics becomes untenable.
Furthermore, supporters of major athletics programs never seem to justify their arguments in favor of things like new facilities. Does revenue really go up enough to offset the costs? Probably not if another new stadium will be needed a few decades from now. After spending that much money, there will be pressure for the program to succeed, which could lead to the kinds of athletics scandals seen at many schools nowadays. If the revenue doesn’t come in, how will the school pay for everything? I doubt students will accept even higher tuition rates or reduced academic offerings to pay for this if the crowds never materialize. This may be a particular danger for a school like Colorado State, since selling out games will likely require drawing fans from Denver – more than an hour’s drive away. The university’s claims that the stadium will be a more practical benefit by providing a big venue for events also sounds disingenuous, unless its athletics department is uniquely generous. Athletics departments are notoriously protective of their facilities and money – often demanding support from the rest of the community while refusing to contribute much of anything. It seems to me that it is most likely that the stadium will be used for one or two university-wide events each year and then will be more or less off limits the rest of the time while occupying a great deal of space (especially if additional parking lots are needed for tailgating by out of town visitors).
For an example of what could happen, we just need to look at UConn, which made the move to Division IA in the early 2000s. The state of Connecticut spent huge amount of money was spent on a stadium in East Hartford instead of Mansfield (around 30 mi/50 km away from campus). While attendance isn’t terrible, games don’t really sell out. Even worse, while UConn was able to start out with a major conference to join, that conference (the Big East) collapsed, leaving UConn in a minor conference that doesn’t get the kind of media deal needed to make the investment worthwhile. CSU doesn’t even have a major conference and is simply hoping that they’ll eventually get a bid. If anything goes wrong, CSU will be saddled with a huge amount of debt, and with the state of Colorado unwilling to invest much public money in its universities, it will fall to the regular students to pay the debt.