Here at VICE Sports, we hate to say we told you so, but …
Wait, who are we kidding? We're a sports website. We love to say we told you so. Especially when the facts are behind us. Last fall, the University of Alabama-Birmingham eliminated football, prompting a flurry of finger-pointing, political infighting and general ill-will. We asked economist Andy Schwarz to dig into the math underlying the decision, and from the start, the data made one thing clear:
The school can totally afford a team, no matter what its administrators claim.
Surprise, surprise: UAB announced today that it will restore its football team, the same program school president Ray Watts insisted last December was simply too expensive to keep. At the time, Watts waved the bloody shirt--well, it was really more like a bloody brochure--of an economic report from a UAB-hired sports consulting firm, CarrSports, purporting to show that football was going to cost an additional $49 million over the next five years.
This, of course, was bullshit. Bullshit because the report ignored many sources of school revenue that hinged on football: alumni donations, tuition revenue from walk-ons, and most importantly, access to the FBS money trough through Conference USA. And bullshit because CarrSports was using the same sort of accounting tricks deployed across college sports to make the profitable business of big-time football and men's basketball appear to be a money-losing enterprise, which in turn tricks outsiders into thinking America is on the verge of a mid-major college sportspocalypse, and darn it, how will anyone ever be able to afford paying those greedy players?
But we digress. Point is, we knew UAB's numbers were fishy from the start, and stunk even more upon further review. And we weren't alone. CBSSports.com writer Jon Solomon showed that the CarrSports report contained simple calculation errors and seemingly flawed assumptions. Kevin Scarbinksy of AL.com suggested that UAB's move was fueled by local politics, and that the CarrSports report was probably written after a decision had been made--in other words, the report didn't lead to an unpopular decision, but rather was purchased to help sell an unpopular decision to a pissed-off Birmingham community.
Eventually, UAB hired Schwarz and his colleague Dan Rascher, who wrote a 150-plus page report showing how the school likely would have made as much as $2 million had it not cancelled football and two other sports. UAB then brought in a third consulting firm, CSS, which also found that football was financially viable. All of which shows that killing UAB football was never an economic decision, not unless losing money makes good business sense.
It was, however, a political decision. And here's the thing about political decisions: they're reversible. You can't will data into saying something it doesn't; selling iPhones isn't an unprofitable venture for Apple, even if you really, really want it to be. By contrast, you can will politicians into changing their minds. As such, all it took was enough work by enough people in Birmingham to make sure that enough money got thrown at UAB to make the school see the actual cost of dropping football. It's a rare day when a school has to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into accepting a reported $27 million in donations, yet Watts and other UAB bigwigs dragged this ordeal out for months, made athletes cry, and sowed tremendous community distrust before ultimately relenting and accepting a huge bag of money to restore a sport that almost certainly was making the school money even without the new donations.
That's the power of football. That's why National Football League teams can extort hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars just by mentioning a shiny new stadium in Los Angeles. UAB couldn't do the same, but the school did show that threatening to kill the sport is a great way to extract extra cash from local residents. In the end, the only real surprise regarding UAB's flip-flop is that it took the school so long to realize the obvious: big-time college football is a good investment, good enough that no school has dropped a major program since 1995. But perhaps we're not giving Watts and company enough credit. Maybe, just maybe, this was all a long con. Maybe they knew the terrible truth: that a gun-to-the-helmet was the only way to make sure UAB football sucked up every last available penny.