Sports, Column

The Hidden Revenue Behind Non-Revenue Sports

Running around the track of the Plex last January, I couldn’t help but remove my headphones to try to figure out what the source of yelling and screaming on the basketball court below me was. Upon further inspection, I realized I was watching a sport I had never seen before—fencing. Being unfamiliar with a sport is a rare occurrence for someone like me, who fills literally every free moment with sports.

After a few minutes, two other curious onlookers had gathered, and after some deliberation, we concluded that BC was winning. Of course, we were totally oblivious to what was happening, but the energy of the fencers was contagious. 

As it turned out, BC was winning, and the meet (Match? Contest?) that we were watching was the Northeast Conference Meet. BC swept the men’s and women’s categories in the conference, and I later learned that the Eagles also took second place in their version of the Beanpot (instead of BC, BU, Northeastern, and Harvard, the Fencing Beanpot includes BC, MIT, Harvard, and Brandeis). 

Other than my small cohort of passersby, BC fencing didn’t seem to have many fans in attendance. Fencing, of course, isn’t the revenue sport that football or men’s basketball is at most schools, which drove me to wonder why it’s existed at BC for at least the past 20 years. If not money, what benefit does a team like fencing bring to the University?

The short answer is that non-revenue sports don’t add anything nearly as concrete as cold, hard cash to the University like football does. What they do provide, although oftentimes hidden from the naked eye, is arguably more important in the long run. 

NCAA non-revenue sports, for example, had an average four-year graduation rate of 90 percent in 2019. Revenue sports, on the other hand, hit only 78.06 percent in that same category. 

It doesn’t seem like much, but when a high school prospect—revenue or non-revenue—does his or her research, student-athlete graduation rate can be a huge factor. I’m not an athlete, but my college adviser in high school told me that one of the most telling signs of a quality school is a high graduation rate, and I took that to heart. I’d imagine the same is true for non-NARPs. 

If more students are drawn in to colleges by a high graduation rate, more students submit applications (with a hefty fee), and more students pay tuition (a heftier fee). The more students that apply, the more money the University makes—hidden revenue which the University wouldn’t see otherwise. Plus, more applicants means the school gets to be more selective, protecting its yield and increasing its chances of a higher rating in other metrics. As those metrics go up, applications go up again, and the cycle continues. 

Plus, the phrase “non-revenue” doesn’t necessarily mean that the sport actively loses money at every turn. It just means that it doesn’t consistently generate immediate money for the University. 

Most metrics don’t count men’s and women’s hockey as revenue sports, for example, but I’ve seen plenty of times where the Conte Forum stands were twice as full for a hockey game than they were for a basketball game. BC men’s hockey earned $2.67 million in 2016—over $100,000 per athlete who didn’t see a cent of it, but that’s for a different column.

Of course, there are non-monetary benefits to non-revenue sports, as the name would suggest. For the individual athletes, competing in their sport allows them to find their place or their home at BC, a goal which BC freshmen are told to anticipate since the moment orientation begins. 

Sports have also been proven time and time again to improve the mental health of the participant. Playing sports, whether or not there are fans in the crowd, improves an athlete’s mental sharpness, stress levels, sleep patterns—the list goes on. 

And, just like higher graduation rates, higher quality of life for students draws in more applicants, which draws in more money, and you know the drill. So, even if all the University cares about is money—which I am not saying is necessarily true—the benefits of non-revenue sports outweigh the costs.

As COVID-19 has shown us, however—in the cases of Dartmouth Swimming & Diving or Cincinnati men’s soccer, for example—non-revenue sports are the first to go when athletic departments begin to feel the hot breath of budget constraints on their necks. Dartmouth cited its desire to draw in more “applicants who excel in other pursuits” as part of the decision to cut five sports, though the swim team’s class of 2024 had higher average ACT and SAT scores than the averages for the general class of 2024. The Dartmouth administration eventually realized the decision was a mistake, reinstating the team on the morning of Jan. 29.

Sports such as football and basketball exist for the same psychological benefit as non-revenue sports, but they also exist as a vehicle through which other sports can operate. In no way do I wish to diminish the importance of revenue sports to the function of an athletics department as a whole. 

Still, it’s obvious that the idea of cutting the men’s basketball team to save money would cause much more outrage than cutting the fencing team, even though BC men’s basketball has been known to lose money. In the 2011-12 season, men’s basketball lost $623,000. It has since rebounded, and finished $353,139 in the green in the 2018-19 reporting year

I would argue, however, that the distinction between revenue sports and non-revenue sports is actually wholly unimportant to the financial status of the University. All together in 2018-19, subtracting total expenses from total revenue of all BC sports, the athletics department finished with just over $2 million in revenue. Sure, $2 million sounds like a lot to you and me, but for a school with a $2.52 billion endowment, $2 million more in assets is a drop in the bucket. The endowment doesn’t contribute to the athletics department’s funds, but if budget cuts at BC were to become necessary, athletics isn’t the place to do so. Cutting non-revenue sports only saves a couple hundred thousand dollars per year at most. 

BC has made no indication that cutting non-revenue sports is or will be necessary. But if one day down the road money is tight and BC does cut these programs, the school will be worse off for it. Denying the importance of non-revenue sports in favor of saving the equivalent of a couple bucks is an obvious mistake in the long run. 

For that reason, I’d encourage you, and hopefully those in charge of making financial decisions in athletics departments across the country, to go watch a fencing match (Game? Bout? The name doesn’t matter, but the sport and all that accompanies it does).

February 8, 2021