On Jan. 2, USA Today published a report titled "New Expense for College Football Programs: Looking Good." It's a thorough analysis of the amounts a sampling of NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision schools spent on display graphics for their football programs—the large, colorful images decorating the walls of practice facilities, stadiums and the like.
The key finding: The 29 schools that responded to USA Today's requests for information spent a combined average of more than $2.5 million a year on graphics from 2011 to 2014—up from an average of less than $500,000 combined from 2007 to 2010. That's a $2 million increase in spending of late, peaking at more than $3.1 million in 2014.
"Athletics directors cite recruiting—primarily of athletes, but also of donors—as the top reason for investing in this work," reads the report. "But does it have the desired effect?"
It's a valid question, and one that's drawn quite a bit of fire. The NCAA's spending habits, particularly for its athletics programs, have been under scrutiny of late, as debate over the organization's amateurism policies has intensified. The schools insist the graphics are a necessary expense for attracting top-level recruits and impressing would-be big-money donors, which in turn leads to more funds for the schools to pour back into their football (and other) programs, which leads to even more top-level recruits and big-money donors, and so on. The graphics are just another tool in their marketing and fundraising toolkits.
But not everyone sees it that way.
“Everybody’s crying about how poor they are, but meanwhile they’re just going hog wild with stuff,” Richard Southall, director of the College Sport Research Institute at South Carolina, told USA Today. “It’s just amazing how they just keep spending stuff and keep finding ways to do it."
And while many of the school representatives interviewed in the story said the graphics made a major difference for their football programs—the year after its $600,000 graphics were installed, Western Michigan University posted the best recruiting class in conference history—student athletes were mostly ambivalent.
Lost in the "necessary or wasteful" debate, though, is the bigger question: How much do these aesthetic upgrades actually affect schools' bottom lines? Take a look at the chart published alongside USA Today's report:
The top three spenders on facility graphics since 2007 are Florida (at $2.6 million), Auburn ($1.6 million) and Texas A&M ($1.4 million), with another six schools topping $500,000. By themselves, these dollar figures are jaw-dropping, but they're without context. According to USA Today's own NCAA Finances database, Florida's athletics department spent $828.3 million from 2007 to 2014. That means the $2.6 million it spent on facility graphics over that same span accounts for just 0.31 percent of its total expenditures. Likewise, Auburn spent just 0.21 percent of its $741.5 million total athletics budget from 2007 to 2014 on graphics. Texas A&M spent 0.22 percent.
These figures reflect only athletics-department expenditures. As a percentage of each school's total operating budget, the dollars spent on graphics are a drop in the ocean. (Auburn, for example, spent $1.7 million on its philosophy program in 2014 alone—more than it spent on graphics from 2007 to 2014 combined.) Could schools be using money spent on graphics elsewhere? Sure. But that doesn't necessarily mean they're spending on graphics at the expense of other programs.