Since moving to Australia last year I have grown used to talking with people who do not understand many aspects of America. Things like US politics, our view on guns, our appreciation of good Mexican food, etc… seem to baffle many Australians. This lack of understanding continues to sports and one of the things that many Australians seem to have a hard time understanding about Americans sports, other than our realization that cricket is boring, is our love affair with college sports. It’s not that Australians do not understand or appreciate American sports, the NFL, NBA, and MLB all have decent followings over here; NFL and MLB games are on free television here at least once a week and you can find NBA jerseys in many sporting goods stores here. This interest in American sports does not extend to the college ranks though and many Australians cannot understand the passions that Americans have for college sports and the amount of money that is involved in them.
A big reason why Australians do not understand the love of college sports is that students here have a very different relationship with the university they attend than students do in the States. The obvious difference is that college sports do not exist here but it goes even beyond that. When most Americans go to university they live in the dorms for at least a year and then move to an apartment, normally near campus. This means that most American students spend a major portion of even their non-class time on or near campus. It is a very different story in Australia where dorms are pretty much non-existent, the small amount of on campus housing that exists is mostly in the form of residential colleges which function as a sort of academic fraternity in many ways, and a large percentage of students live at home due to the high cost of housing. This means that students here tend to spend far less of their non-class time on campus.
When you combine the fact that Australian students spend less of their non-class time on or near campus with the lack of college sports you get a very different atmosphere on college campuses here than you do in the US, at least at large American universities. In the States there is a sense of energy and community that permeate most university campuses, especially during football and basketball seasons, and students tend to have fairly strong loyalties and a sense of connection to their school. Since I work as a researcher at the University of Sydney and live just off campus, I spend a fair amount of time walking around campus and it did not take me long to notice that there wasn’t the sense of energy and community on campus here as there is in the States. Now that does not mean that campus is deserted on weekends or that students are not enjoying themselves as those things are not true. In fact, if one looked at a picture of campus it would seem like an American university campus with students walking to class, sitting outside to study, or playing games with friends in the campus green space. Despite that, there still isn’t the same energy. At first I thought that this might just be me but graduate students here who have visited American universities agree with me that there is a lack of energy. They actually go further and say that a lot of the students here do not really have a real connection to the university, seeing it more as just a service provider whose job it is to provide them with an education.
So why am I writing about this? Australian students have a different college experience than those in America, big deal, everyone has a different college experience don’t they? And how does this relate to college sports? First, I do want to say that I am not saying that the American system and college experience is better than the Australian one, they are just different. The whole idea for this article came from a discussion with some of the graduate students here who complained about the lack of student involvement in the future of the university and the difficulty that Australian universities have in fundraising through donations compared to their American counterparts. While Australian universities do tend to receive better financial support, they still need to raise additional money through donations just as American universities do and Australian universities do not have the same success as American universities do when it comes to fundraising.
A quick look at a few numbers shows the major difference in fundraising levels between Australian and American universities. As of 2004, only three universities in Australia had endowments of over $1 billion dollars (current the Australian and American dollar are roughly equal) while 53 American universities had endowments above the $1 billion mark one year later. Earlier this year Graham Tuckwell made news in Australia with his $50 million donation to Australia National University, the largest donation ever to an Australian university. Compare this to the $65 million donation to Ohio State by Leslie and Abigail Wexner in 2011 which was good enough to rank them only 21st in terms of largest donations to American universities that year!
Now some people would say that these differences in donations is simply due to the United States having a much larger population and thus has far more potential donors. The explanation is simply not that easy as while the US has a much larger population, it also has a much larger number of universities. In fact, if you look at the enrollment numbers at Australian universities you find that they are comparable to those of American universities with several Australian universities have enrollments well over 30,000 students.
So why do American universities tend to receive more in donations? I would argue that a key factor is the amount of connection that students feel with their university. A student who feels a close connection to the university while they are in school, one who feels that they are part of the university and the university plays a key role in their lives, would probably be more likely to donate to the university in the future than one who only sees the university as a service provider that is giving them an education. Now there are many reasons that students may or may not feel a connection to their university but I would argue that college sports certainly plays a role in that. College sports gives students a common cause to band together over while in school, all students, regardless of major, can come together to cheer on their team. It is often said that nothing brings people together like having a common enemy and college sports kind of plays into that, bringing students together in a community to support their team against that from another school. This feeling of community doesn’t just involve the students but it extends to the faculty and staff of the university as well, fostering a general connection between students and the university that sticks with them well into the future.
It is hard to determine just how large of a role college sports plays in creating a connection between students and the university and it is likely that living in dorms or in apartments near campus as opposed to at home plays a larger role, but I firmly believe that college sports is a factor. This is an important consideration in this day and age when college sports is under fire from many directions for many reasons. Many people are questioning whether college sports should even exist for financial reasons. Despite the large amount of money that is involved in college sports, only a few athletic departments even break even and most universities have to subsidize athletic departments with tuition dollars. Considering the fact that students are finding it harder and harder to pay for school these days, should their tuition money go to support sports on campus?
The role of an emotional connection between students and their university on future donations and the role of college sports in helping to create this connection adds a new dimension to the debate over the fiscal value of college sports. If college sports are helping to create a college environment that makes students more likely to want to help out the university in the future via donations then the financial impact of these donations needs to be considered when one is thinking about the money that the athletic department brings in. While an athletic department may not be able to directly bring in enough money to cover its costs, it is very possible that they help to get alumni to donate enough money to overcome the financial deficit.
This article is largely based on speculation, I have no solid numbers showing the impact of college sports or living in dorms or anything else in terms of future donations to the university and I’m not sure it is possible to actually come up with solid numbers for these things. Still, I think it is logical to think that college sports do help bring in future donations to the university as a whole, and not just the athletic department, and this needs to be considered when one thinks about the place of college sports in American universities.