One might assume that sports-related revenue is a godsend for academic programs at these universities, most of which are being hammered by the one-two punch of a reeling economy and drastic government funding cuts.
One would be wrong.
A recent study produced for the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics revealed that schools in the most powerful football conferences are spending up to 11 times more on athletes than on the average student, and that disparity continues to widen.
The findings, made public last week during a commission meeting in Washington, highlighted the financial pressures bearing down on college athletics: As revenue sources decline, athletic costs continue to skyrocket, up 12 percent annually at the largest schools.
"This model could lead to a loss of credibility," predicted a commission report on the subject, 'Restoring the Balance,' "not just for intercollegiate sports but for higher education itself."
According to 2009 figures compiled by the Delta Cost Project, the amount and growth rate of athletic spending in the five biggest football leagues dwarfed academic expenditures.
Schools in the football-mad Southeastern Conference, for example, spent an average of $156,833 per participant. By comparison, academic spending per student was $13,471.
That ratio of more than than 11 to 1 marked the greatest gap, but the four other largest leagues weren't far behind. The disparity was 9.4 to 1 in the Big 12, 7 to 1 in the Pac-10, 6.8 to 1 in the ACC, and 6.1 to 1 in the Big Ten.
"And that figure on academic spending includes graduate students, those in medical and law schools," noted Knight commission member Charles Young, the former chancellor at Florida. "If you just did the comparison with undergraduates, the gap would be even wider."
Temple and the other schools in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) are, like the big BCS leagues, members of the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). MAC schools spent an average of $48,185 on each athlete, compared with $12,575 on academics for the average student.
Even with their TV riches, athletic departments at the largest football schools still need university assistance to meet their budgets, which averaged $98 million in 2009.
It cost an average of $91,000 annually to support an athlete at an FBS school. Of that figure, $18,000, or roughly 20 percent, came from university subsidies.
Since MAC schools and those from the other large non-BCS leagues earn just a fraction of the TV revenue netted by the more glamorous programs, their athletic-subsidy levels tend to be far higher.
The picture is even bleaker at the next level down the football food chain. Football Championship Series (FCS) schools such as Villanova and Lehigh subsidized 65 percent of their total athletic costs.
At Division I schools without football, 77 percent of athletic budgets were subsidized by the schools.
"Reliance on institutional resources to underwrite athletic programs is reaching the point at which some institutions must choose between funding sections of freshman English or funding the football team," the commission report said.
The Knight Commission, a longtime critic of the growing commercialism of college sports but with little power to exact change, proposed a series of reforms to deal with the crisis. Among them were:
Increased financial transparency;
A system that ties NCAA revenues to academic performance;
The elimination of nontraditional seasons, such as fall baseball;
Reducing scholarships, the length of seasons, and the number of events.
"We're trying to promote the financial stability and values of a unique American tradition," said Brit Kirwan, the Maryland chancellor who serves as a commission cochairman. "[The NCAA has a] meaningful reform agenda. However, the commission is concerned that the fragmented governance of the biggest engine driving college sports, football, limits the long-term effectiveness of any transformational efforts."
Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068, email@example.com, or @philafitz on Twitter. Read his blog, Giving 'Em Fitz, at www.philly.com/fitz.