The economic downturn that started about six years ago flattened wages and crushed jobs. But sports programs at the nation's top public colleges have thrived: Revenues continue to reach record levels while payrolls have risen on average about 40 percent.
Total revenue from the nation's top-tier college sports programs -- the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision -- has increased by about a third, fueled by ticket sales, donations and lucrative television contracts that together resulted in about $8 billion.
"We thought college football was big time 30 years ago," said Brian Goff, an economics professor at Western Kentucky University who also writes a sports money blog for Forbes. "In some ways, it was just getting going."
How much college athletic departments earn and spend has always been a hot topic, but it's taken on more import in light of movements to give athletes a share of the money. On Friday, football players at Northwestern University voted on whether to unionize. A trial is scheduled to begin in June to decide whether college athletes are entitled to any of the money made off of their names, images and likenesses. And the NCAA faces a third major threat in the form of an antitrust lawsuit that charges it with unlawfully capping player compensation at the value of an athletic scholarship.
ESPN's "Outside the Lines" analyzed figures from six years of revenue and expense reports submitted to the NCAA -- acquired through public records requests -- from public FBS schools, along with data on private schools provided to the U.S. Department of Education, a total of 123 schools.
From academic year 2007-08 to 2012-13, operating revenues at all schools increased by about 32 percent. The nation's wealthiest athletic department program, the University of Texas, brought in $166 million in revenue in 2012-13. Texas officials did not respond to interview requests. (In 2011, the university signed a deal with ESPN to launch the Longhorn Network worth $300 million over 20 years.)
At many schools, the bank of college athletics defies soaring tuition costs, university budget cuts and shortages that strain other parts of campus.
The Texas Memorial Museum at the University of Texas is facing salary cuts of $507,000, leaving it with a budget of $109,000. The top-earning Texas athletic department had a surplus of $18.9 million in 2012-13 and spent $1.3 million on its cheerleaders and spirit squad. But it also sent $9.2 million back to the university's general fund. At the University of Nebraska, officials are sweating over a $4.7 million deficit, and the chancellor has suggested reducing planned raises at the university and making other cuts. In contrast, the athletic department enjoyed a $5.2 million surplus but did do its share to help, transferring about $2.7 million to the university in 2012-13.
Operating revenue listed by athletic departments includes what's often referred to as a subsidy -- money the university (including student fees) or a state government provides to an athletic department to help it cover its expenses. But even if those dollars are removed, which is possible for public schools that disclose that information, the percentage increase in "earned revenue" is still about the same.