Friday, January 30, 2009

Mandel: Oh, the Horrors of a Rich Man Actually Spending his Money!

As I read this piece by Stewart Mandel complaining about Tennessee spending lavishly on assistant coaches for Lane Kiffin, I kept thinking to myself "you can't possibly be this naive, Stewart, can you?" Tennessee's football program, like most other major programs in the SEC, generates an enormous amount of revenue. The SEC is about to be flush with TV cash as a result of its new deals with CBS and ESPN. Why in the world would Mandel criticize Tennessee for spending some of that money to assemble a staff that gives the Vols a better chance of winning? Put another way, with Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and LSU all spending piles of cash on accomplished head coaches, how could Tennessee do anything but spend heavily on its new coaching staff if it expects to compete with those programs? If the Vols' neighbors are building tanks, then isn't it imperative for Tennessee to move beyond the cavalry era, especially when they have the money to do so? If one accepts the premise that head coaches are overrated and assistant coaches are underrated in terms of their impact on wins and losses (Exhibit A: Penn State), then Tennessee's strategy is smart.

This argument by Mandel is especially naive:

For a handful of highly endowed athletic departments -- Florida, Texas, Ohio State, Georgia, et. al. -- these rapidly escalating assistant salaries will merely become another part of doing business. They can afford it. However, the vast majority of Division I-A schools cannot. Already feeling the pinch of massive increases in travel costs and tempered donations from boosters hit hard by the ongoing financial crisis, these programs will be hard-pressed to retain assistants that achieve any level of notoriety.

"This is what shocks me the most: We're on the front end of a very serious economic downturn," Dutch Baughman, executive director of the Division I-A Athletic Directors Association, recently told The State in Columbia, S.C. "For the first time, we're seeing coordinators receive multiple-year contracts and levels of compensation that have actually caused some schools in some conferences to be at a major disadvantage."

Uh, when was Vanderbilt not at a disadvantage against Tennessee? Tennessee draws 102,000 fans for every home game. The demand for tickets causes Vol fans to donate huge sums to the athletic department for the right to sit in choice spots. Tennessee fans regularly outfit themselves in creamsicle monstrosities, further filling the school's coffers. None of these statements can be made about Vandy fans (and that's fine with every Vandy fan I know), so why shouldn't Vandy be at a financial disadvantage next to Tennessee? If Stewart wants to write about a socialist sport with forced revenue equalization, the NFL is ready when he is. And that's before we get to the hypocrisy of Mandel complaining about a college football program seeking to benefit from its an intense, loyal fan base, all while Mandel's salary is paid by hits derived from a number of intense, loyal fan bases, Tennessee's included.

Here's the bottom line: college football's popularity is increasing, as are the ways for college programs to convert that interest into dollars. As a result, revenues generated by major college football programs are also increasing. The financial rewards for success are getting greater, as are the risks for major programs that do not win. In that environment, it is foolish for major programs not to spend heavily to increase their odds of success. Collectively, the SEC programs have greater fan intensity and interest than the programs of any other conference. SEC programs don't need to be castigated for making use of the fruits of that interest. If other conferences want to complain, then they can fill their stadia with 82,000 screaming lunatics for seven Saturdays in the fall. They can create fan bases that get into fights about the 1972 Iron Bowl at Braves games.

The seven regular readers of this blog might be wondering right now: am I the same guy who whined about the Yankees' spending on free agents? Yes, and here's why I'm not a hypocrite:

1. There are at least ten major programs in college football that can spend lavishly on coaches and facilities. The Yankees have no peer in baseball in terms of revenue and spending.

2. American pro sports are supposed to be relatively even playing fields. That's why the worst teams always pick first in amateur drafts. There is no such assumption with college sports.

3. The Yankees can spend like they do because they are the oldest team in the largest market in the country. You'd be hard pressed to show how Tennessee has a similar natural advantage. Put another way, Tennessee is a high revenue team because of decades of success and good management, not because there are a lot of eyeballs in the State of Tennessee. The Vols, unlike the Yanks, weren't born on third base thinking they hit a triple.

4. Spending on coaches and facilities is an indirect way to get talent. Offering 20% more than any other team in baseball for free agents is different. There's no baseball equivalent to Miami, a program with terrible facilities and average coaches that still recruits extremely well.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The increase in assistants' salaries is simply a reflection of the market catching up to the true value of assistants. I agree that good assistants are crucial for success. As good a head coach as Spurrier was a UF, he didn't win a MNC until he hired Stoops as DC.

I believe assistant coaches have been badly underpaid for, well pretty much forever. $80,000 a year simply does not come close to compensationg assistants for the long hours, public scrutiny (abuse) and constant threat of termination they must endure.

All that said, increasing the pay also moves up the time table for success at a program. Kiffen better have UT in the SECC game in 3 years or he will end up being known as "Tennessee's Zook". It's early, but some parallels are already beginning to emerge.