Iowa Public Television


The Future of College Sports

posted on February 14, 2014

Hot ticket. College athletics walking a tight rope. Amateur athletes in a business yielding millions of dollars.  But changes could be on the horizon.  A conversation with two university athletic directors, the Cyclones' Jamie Pollard and the Hawkeyes' Gary Barta on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: Scoreboards are only a part of college athletics.  Revenue is also determining winners and losers.  The Saturday afternoon football game of a few years ago may now be Thursday, Friday or Saturday night, depending on when it might deliver a TV audience that network TV adding to the millions in stadium tickets, some from fans in upscale box seating.  Some universities now divorcing their traditional conferences jumping to alliances with bigger TV markets, more exposure for attracting students and more revenue.  Those dollars are subsidizing other college sports, baseball, track and swimming, for example, and gender equity for women's athletics.  But for athletic directors it is a balancing dilemma and a marketing challenge.  Gary Barta has that responsibility for the University of Iowa.  His counterpart at Iowa State University is Jamie Pollard. Gentlemen, welcome to Iowa Press.  It's probably safe to say that you didn't need any introduction.  Your names are probably more familiar to Iowans than the presidential candidates coming to the state.  But nice to have you on the program.

Barta: Thank you, thanks for having us.

Pollard: Thank you.

Borg: Across the table, James Lynch who writes for the Gazette published in Cedar Rapids and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Gentlemen, on behalf of our viewers, just a little disclosure, I work for Learfield News, Radio Iowa is a division of Learfield News.  Learfield sports has business relationships with both of you, the Cyclone Network and the Hawkeye Network.  Just want to make that clear for viewers from the get-go.  I want to begin with my childhood, if you will.  I remember how exciting it was when Iowa and Iowa State resumed playing one another on the football field.  Mr. Barta, can you guarantee Iowans who love that rivalry that that will continue for the foreseeable future?

Barta: Well, let's dig right in, right?  It's a topic that both Jamie and I have talked about publicly and I'll speak for myself but I think Jamie feels similar.  It's great for college athletics to have rivalries and the only unique situation we face is we're not in the same conference.  And so it has been my intent, and I know Jamie feels the same way, to continue the rivalry for as long as we can.  And the only thing that could derail it from my perspective would be is if that, if our conference, if the Big 10 conference were to make changes that just didn't allow it anymore.  So we have long-term agreement in football, ongoing intent to play in basketball and really the only thing I could see derailing it someday and hopefully not while I'm there is something that would happen -- our number one goal is to compete for a Big 10 championship or a national championship in all of our sports.  If that ever changed to where we couldn't compete against Iowa State that would be the only thing I would foresee that would change it while I'm there.

Henderson: Mr. Pollard, what are your thoughts on this matter?

Pollard: Very similar.  It's a great day when Iowa and Iowa State play for this state, especially in football, but as we saw in basketball this year, both men’s and women’s, it was a very unique set of circumstances that created more excitement than usual.  Same thing in the Big 12, we play 9 conference games, we can play 3 non-conference games and we choose to have the Iowa/Iowa State game be one of those three.  If something were to change in the Big 12 or the Big 10 that limited the number of non-conference games you could play then we'd have to have a really tough discussion because it is bigger than Gary and Jamie, far bigger than us.

Henderson: What about UNI, playing UNI, a division II program in football?  It might be to some people cheaper to bring an in-state school into play in a non-conference game?  Is that how you view it?

Pollard: Well, we have, in our long-term scheduling, have created a sequence where we'll play Northern Iowa every other year in football.  And for us historically it has been a great opportunity to have a visiting fan presence.  And I have always been one that I like it when there is a bigger presence of the visiting team in the stadium because I think it creates a college atmosphere.  And that has been one of the schools that has been able to do that.  The also have a really good program.  And some would argue that maybe too good, that that's not what you're looking for in that game.  But I think that is also unique for us, that it's part of who we are and we enjoy having them.

Henderson: Mr. Barta, what about the UNI/Iowa matchup on the gridiron?

Barta: Well, I worked at UNI for seven years and so I have a great appreciation, I met my wife there, most importantly, during that period of time.  It is similar to the discussion about Iowa State.  It's great for the state when we play Drake, when we play UNI, certainly when we play Iowa State, but if it ever takes away from the greater goal, and the greater goal is to win Big 10 championships, that is the time when we have to evaluate.  We did have to make a modification in our basketball matchup and that was driven not because we don't enjoy playing each other but because of some changes that have occurred in the Big 10 scheduling and some other basketball scheduling that made us modify it.  We didn't want to eliminate it but we had to make some changes.  So, again, it is good for the state, it's good for the fans, as long as it doesn't take away my primary responsibility is my conference affiliation and competing at that level.

Lynch: Both of you have mentioned the conference realignment and we have seen this scramble in recent years, teams coming and going from the Big 12 and the Big 10.  I want to ask you, Iowa State was left nearly as a school without a conference.  Are we done with conference realignment?  Or what is going to be the next step in conference realignment, Mr. Pollard?

Pollard: Well, putting me on the spot of the crystal ball.  From my opinion, for the foreseeable future at the level that Iowa and Iowa State are at I don't foresee any additional conference realignment in the foreseeable future.  But you have to look at it historically and our industry over the last 50 years has gone through cycles, probably every 10 to 15 years.  So I'm not going to say it's not going to happen.  But what we experienced three years or four years ago where the industry was, that was the discussion every single day, that is, at least from my perspective, that is not the discussions that are being, taking place at this point.

Borg: What did that phrase, at the level that Iowa and Iowa State are at?  What do you mean?

Pollard: Well, I still think that there could be some schools moving at the non-BCS level.  You see it all the time, the University of Cincinnati right now, they were one of the schools that didn’t get in and so they publicly have said this is our mission.  So whether that happens that somebody moves at that level, but I don't see the five major conferences and that isn't the forefront of the discussions, at least today.

Henderson: Do you wish Louisville had joined the Big 12?

Pollard: Hindsight is 20/20.  At that particular moment in time the discussion within our league and with the television partners was West Virginia and Louisville and for better or worse the television partner said, it's West Virginia, it's not even close.  And so that is why West Virginia came to the Big 12.

Lynch: Mr. Barta, from your perspective, has the realignment been good for the University of Iowa?  What is the upside, the downside of changing -- I think you're the Big 14 now aren't you? 

Barta: We're the Big 10 and that has a lot to do with branding.  We feel great about -- when you say Big 10 there's certain things over a long period of time that you affiliate, so the number is going to remain the Big 10, the name is going to remain the Big 10, the number has increased.  There's positives and negatives to everything you do.  Historically when the Big 10 added Penn State I wasn't at Iowa but I know it was controversial and people said, why are you doing it, they're so far out there on the east side and it has been a wonderful addition.  We added Nebraska and then most recently the move further east, they are like universities in many ways, we still have a continuous conference where all of our schools are along a pattern, we really just strengthen now instead of Penn State being the easternmost we went into that corridor of 60 million people, you mentioned television sets have affected our business like it has many businesses.  So at the end of the day there's a lot of positives.  One of the positives for Iowa and Iowa fans, it made us redistribute our divisions and so now every year our fans are going to see us play Wisconsin, Nebraska, Minnesota, Illinois, Northwestern, which is great for our fans.  So more good than bad I feel confident in saying.  We have yet to see where the negatives are.

Borg: Mr. Barta, I'll ask you first of all because you were the first to mention it, but the question will come to you, Mr. Pollard, too in the Big 12.  But you said, in playing Iowa/Iowa State, your bigger picture is winning a Big 10 or a national championship.

Barta: Correct.

Borg: That causes me to ask, is that ever realistic?  I know it's heresy for me to say this, but is that ever realistic given the population base of Iowa and recruiting athletes, I know you recruit nationally, I understand that, but not like at Texas?  And is it realistic in the terms of TV market here that you will ever play at that level?

Barta: Allow me to tell you the way I approach this.  It isn't just to win a Big 10 championship or a national championship.  I expect us to win championships, graduate every student athlete and conduct ourselves in a way that every Iowan is proud.  Is it possible to do all those things?  Yes.  Is it going to be a challenge?  Absolutely.  We do have -- so the challenges we have, our population base, etc. but I am the makeup -- I took a job at Ford Motor Credit Company right out of high school, right out of college, my goal was to become the President of Ford someday.  I think if you don't set your goals at the highest level you're never going to achieve them.  And so yes, when we hired Fran McCaffery he said to me, I want to win a national championship at Iowa.  And as long as we graduate our student athletes and we're striving toward that national championship and we do it the right way we're going to continue to push toward that big goal.  And along the way my guess is we'll do better than we ever did because we're shooting for the top.

Borg: Mr. Pollard, Iowa State over the years, over the decades Iowa State has had trouble moving into the upper echelon.  You're there now but can you ever be at the top, that is the basis of my question, because of what I said to Mr. Barta?

Pollard: Absolutely because, again, as Gary said, my guess is the question to most is framed in a football sense but we represent 400 and some student athletes at each of our institutions and they have won national championships in wrestling, we have won them in wrestling, we have won them in cross country, so there's other sports that have achieved at that level.  Football is tougher, it's tougher because of the demographics.  The most skilled football players are coming from Florida and Texas and California and so both of our institutions are further removed.  But it's not out of the question.  The University of Oregon has played for, has been in the hunt the last three of the last four years. 

Borg: But do you need a T. Boone Pickens who contributed big time to Oklahoma State or the big oil money that fuels Texas athletics?

Pollard: I tell every employee that starts at Iowa State in the athletics program this, if it was all about money then certain schools would never have to make a coaching change.  And it is a cliché but it's about your people.  And our margin of error may be a little slimmer but if we get the right people we can do extraordinary things and I think that is a big part of the reason Iowa State has had the resurgence, based on some of the coaches we have right now, they're the right people for Iowa State.

Henderson: Let's turn now to the student athletes.  There is a big debate nationally about paying student athletes.  There is an NCAA committee that is researching what proper stipends may be that universities given to student athletes.  Northwestern players may be unionizing. Mr. Barta, what are your thoughts about paying or giving a stipend to the athletes at your institution?

Barta: Well, it might not surprise you to hear me say -- let me go at this two different ways.  I was a student athlete and I came from a family where without that scholarship I wouldn't have gone to college.  No one in my family had ever gone to college.  We didn't have the resources for me to go to college.  And so I look back on my college days, even though it was a long time ago, and I credit a lot of who I am because of my college athletic experience.  So I am very interested and committed to making our student athlete experiences the best they can possibly be.  If that means enhancing our scholarship, paying even greater attention to medical health, to creating a trust fund someday, those are all on the table.  Whether the current media attention is there or not, it has always been on the table.  Unequivocally and without hesitation I tell you that student athletes are not employees of the university.  And, again, you wouldn't be surprised to hear me say that.  So I think there's other ways to get to goals if student athletes feel like, and my sense is most do not, but if there are some student athletes where the media feels like the student athletes need more there are other ways to get there in my opinion other than unionization because unionization is only for employees.  And I'll probably choose to do something else for a living if we ever had to go that route because it's so complex.  Do you pay the division III football player as an employee?  Do you pay the tennis student athlete as an employee?  If you do the value of coming to our university on a full scholarship is estimated upwards of $250,000 during your course or more, it has tremendous value.  Can we improve it?  Absolutely.  I'm committed to that goal just like I'm committed to winning and graduating and everything else.

Henderson: Mr. Pollard, you have been outspoken on this saying it will really change the dynamics of collegiate sports.  If you could elaborate on that?

Pollard: Well, similar to many of the comments Gary made, unionization, they're not employees so I don't believe that is the right pathway to ultimately achieving maybe what some believe needs to be done.  We're all committed to the wellness of our student athletes and we continue to do a lot for that, that unfortunately doesn't get talked about probably enough.  But our student athletes, when we talk to them, feel very well taken care of and we're committed to their academic mission and those that want to have that opportunity to play beyond their college experience.  We're a great internship.  But at the end of the day, 450 student athletes, they're there, the bulk of them are there for their education and we're providing a debt free education.  And when you look at the 33,000 other students on the Iowa State campus, many of them are working a part-time job 20 hours a week in order to pay their tuition, in order to fund their living expenses and many of our student athletes, we're doing that for them.  So it is a very complex, complex discussion.

Lynch: That sounded like a no from both of you but there doesn't seem to be any question about paying coaches and paying them handsomely.  I'm just wondering if you're not paying the athletes who are actually performing, how do you justify those multi-million dollar salaries, endorsement deals, sponsorships for coaches, and especially those painful, at least to the fans those painful buyout clauses that continue for years after the coach is gone?

Borg: Mr. Barta?

Barta: I get to start, huh?

Borg: Yes.

Barta: I have a lot of opinions, over 30 years in this business I have developed them.  I would love if the marketplace were to say, you can only pay a coach -- if we had some sort of exemption from the federal government to say in college athletics you can only pay your coaches X.  That is not the case.  And in reality I really wouldn't love it but it would make my job easier if someone were to come out and say, this is what you can pay a coach maximum.  That is not the case.  We invest millions of dollars into our facilities for our student athletes.  Our scholarship bill this year will be over $10 million to invest in our student athletes.  That's just the scholarship.  That doesn't include all the other things.

Borg: And you pay that back to the university.

Barta: Yes, yes, we're 100% self-sustaining so there's no tax dollars, no university funds, no student fees.  It is all generated through the revenue that we are able to bring in and create.  As it goes to coaches I just hired a volleyball coach.  If I were to work in a for-profit entity and I paid the person what I had to pay competitively it wouldn’t have made sense because volleyball doesn't bring in more revenue than it costs.  We're a not-for-profit but we have to compete with the marketplace and the marketplace says that this is what a football coach makes, this is what a basketball coach makes, this is what a tennis coach makes and I am expected to win, I am expected to graduate and so I have to participate in that marketplace and I'm happy to do so.

Borg: Mr. Pollard, the coach's salary justification.

Pollard: Well, I'll break it down to a simple question.  A student athlete when they're choosing which school to go to chooses based on facilities, based on coaches, based on the academic institution.  If Gary or I took the opinion that we're not going to pay the market rate for Paul Rhoads or for Kirk that would impact some of those decisions those student athletes would make.  So we can all sit and say well they're overpaid or that is a lot of money to be paid but it is the marketplace, it is what it is.

Barta: Could I add something?  We did an economic impact study in partnership with our chamber of commerce a couple of years ago about football.  7 home football games brings in over $115 million into our community in economic development.  So, yes, football coaches make a lot of money.  But when you look at the things that Jamie just mentioned and you look at the impact, again, it's the marketplace that drives it but clearly that is what pays for all of our 24 sports to be funded.

Borg: Mr. Pollard, earlier this week the Board of Regents initiated a contract with a New York City based firm, Deloitte, for an efficiency study.  And the chairman of the Board of Regents, the president of the Board of Regents, made a point of saying back in the 1980s we had an efficiency study to under Marv Pomerantz who was chairman or president of the Board of Regents at that time but it didn't include athletics.  This one does.  Give us a preview of -- and maybe some hints -- as to where you might see some efficiencies that that committee, that consulting firm might find in Iowa State University athletics.

Pollard: Well, I welcome the process because, again, as Gary mentioned earlier, we're self-sufficient so every dollar that we spend we have to cover through ticket sales, donations, television revenue and anything we can do to save money I'm all ears because it is, in some ways would make my job easier.  I think we run, at least within the athletics department, run a very streamlined operation and work extremely hard to try to be as efficient as possible.

Borg: I would assume, Gary Barta, that your answer would be the same.  But I'll modify my question a little bit.  Over the years, universities have dropped sports in order to make ends meet.  Are there some sports that are in jeopardy? Or might you be looking at adding a sport?

Barta: Well, first I will echo the sentiment.  Any time someone comes in and looks at your operation from a different perspective I think it's healthy. And so I'm very comfortable with that.  I don't anticipate adding any sports and I'll tell you why.  Right now I'm not winning championships in every sport that I have and therefore if I added it would dilute the resources that I can put toward the 24 that I have.

Borg: What about sports in jeopardy?

Barta: On the flip side, it is my -- the last thing I want to do is cut a sport.  Now, I'm not going to say I never will because I can't predict that future.  But our goal and our philosophy is broad-based so I would love the opportunity to keep the 24 that we have but I can't predict that.  And some of it might be externally driven.  There are some sports, men's and women's gymnastics, I'm not singling them out because we offer them at Iowa but nationally those are sports that have shown a decline over the years.  Wrestling has shown a decline.  Now, I can promise you we will not be dropping wrestling and I don't intend to drop the other two I just mentioned.  But what if something happens nationally in those sports.  So we keep an eye on it but it is certainly not our goal.

Borg: Mr. Pollard, I need to get you on that record too on either dropping or adding a sport.

Pollard: Again, from just what our core mission is, we have no intention to try to drop a sport.  We have 16 --

Borg: What about adding hockey?

Pollard: Put me on the spot for all the hockey fans out there.  I don't foresee that.  I don't foresee baseball either for the same reason Gary mentioned.  We're about trying to provide every one of our student athletes from a very broad-based perspective the opportunity to excel at the highest level and historically we haven't done that.  And so until we can do that across the board it is pretty tough to bring another piece into the equation.

Henderson: Gentlemen, we have several topics, not much time left, so you don't need to spend a lot of time answering these questions.  But if you turned on sports talk radio or watched ESPN this week you would have heard about Marcus Smart and the whole fallout from the Oklahoma State situation.  Is there a code of conduct for players, fans and coaches?  Does it need to be reevaluated?  Either one of you can take a swing at that one.

Pollard: Well, from just a very global standpoint, to say a code of conduct for fans -- what is acceptable in our society today? That to me was what really drives it versus saying you can't do this, this or that.  What happened that particular night?  I wasn't there to know exactly what was said.  I can observe what I saw on the TV screen.  Clearly a student athlete can't do what Marcus Smart did.  But something triggered that and so I think there was fault on both sides. Any code of conduct is not going to change what happened in that particular moment.  I think as just a global perspective what the environment has started to become on the road for visiting teams unfortunately has probably gotten away from what we'd all think is acceptable yet you look at movie lyrics, you look at song lyrics, it's a tough issue because there's -- we deal with it with students.  If you asked any single one of them they'd tell you that vulgar language isn't really acceptable but put them in a mob mentality at a game and you get what you get.

Henderson: Mr. Barta, you had some maybe harsh words for Fran McCaffery for an episode that happened at an away game in Wisconsin.  Talk to us about your earlier reference to, you want to be a good example for the entire state.  How have you had that discussion with Mr. McCaffery?

Barta: Well, let me start by saying, I don't know that my words were harsh.  What I said was I love his passion -- Fred is a tremendous basketball coach and a great person.  In that particular instance he crossed a line that I don't think was acceptable, he understands and agrees was not acceptable, but I wasn't harsh other than saying, we can't go past this line.  What I will tell you is Fran, his players love playing for him and I love having him as our basketball coach.

Henderson: First, just really quickly, Michael Sam, the Missouri football player this week disclosed that he told his teammates he was gay before the season started and nobody thought it was a big deal.  Would that be the case at Iowa and Iowa State?

Barta: I would certainly hope so and whenever something happens nationally whether it is the Oklahoma State incident or the announcement that was made that this student athlete was gay, first of all, I'm shocked in a good way that they learned about this in August and it didn't become public until later.  That's a credit to his teammates.

Borg: Quick answer, Mr. Pollard?

Pollard: I would hope so too, that our society would and the Iowa State community would accept it the same way.

Borg: Jim, half a minute.

Lynch: Yeah, half a minute left, tough question here.  What drives college athletics today?  Is it you?  Is it the athletes themselves?  Is it TV?  Is it ESPN?  The revenue?  What is driving college athletics?

Pollard: Our society.  There is a passion for college athletics.

Barta: My answer is the core is the same as it was when I was a student athlete and long before that, love to play, love competition.  A lot has changed around the game but the core is the same.

Borg: Well, you're all familiar with time clocks.  We deal with it too and our clock has run out.  Thank you so much for being with us today.

Barta: Thanks for having me.

Pollard: Thank you.

Borg: Well, next week another edition of Iowa Press and we'll be diving back into the Iowa legislative session, this time tackling the issue of expanding broadband access as Internet across our state.  And that is Iowa Press at the usual times next week, 7:30 Friday night and noon on Sunday.  I'm Dean Borg.  For our guests today and panelists, thanks for joining us today. 

Tags: athletes athletics college sports collegiate athletics cyclones Gary Barta government Hawkeyes Iowa Iowa State University iptvsports Jamie Pollard money news politics sports University of Iowa