Why Does Rice (still) Play Texas?

Sunday morning, I was looking up the football game score for my alma mata on Yahoo. Go ahead, take a look.

That’s not a basketball score, nor was it against football powerhouse Texas. (In that game, the week before, Rice gave up only half as many points.) It was San Jose State Spartans. Still, you have to admire the spin of Ken Hatfield, Rice’s football coach for the last 11 years:

It’s what the WAC is all about, a lot of explosiveness. — Ken Hatfield, Rice head coach

And no defense. The game set several Division I-A records, including: highest scoring I-A game (in regulation time), most points in a loss (us — wohoo!), most combined touchdowns (19), and most points per fan in attendance.

Okay, I made up that last one, but the timing is interesting because in last week’s WSJ, Amy Merrick wrote that Rice had sponsored a study earlier this year to evaluate its options for continued participation in Division I-A football.

The football program has hemorrhaging money since, like, forever. One cause is the school is small. For example, the entire alumni base, taken over the school’s existence as an institute of higher learning would not still fill up the 70,000 seat football stadium. According to the Journal, an average home game is attended by 300 students and 12,000 non-students. (NCAA’s numbers are higher, but include attendance from both teams. Thus, when Rice plays Texas, a ranked school with a strong alumni base, the numbers are skewed.)

But that’s only part of the story. The study noted:

Rice is not alone. The McKinsey report notes that fewer than a dozen schools, regardless of their division, profit from their sports programs. And on average, a football team costs more than three times as much to support as a basketball team, and more than nine times as much as a baseball team. — Amy Merrick, Wall Street Journal

When the report first came out, there was a furor that Rice might actually accept the standing invitation to compete in Division III — with other schools whose primary focus is also academics (U of Chicago, Carnegie Mellon, New York U). This seems like a no-brainer since the strong academic program would benefit from association with like schools. Moving would resolve the program’s budget deficit. However, the more fervent, donating, and involved alumni soon rallied around the 1962 Kennedy Speech:

But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain. Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. — John Kennedy, 9/12/1962

The university has tabled any notion of pulling out of Division I-A, is trimming some of the budget, and has hired a new person for fund raising, for both the university in general and athletics specifically. The WSJ article was right that football is unprofitable, when measured as game receipts minus game expenses, but it failed to consider the profitability when alumni donations are factored in.

Go Rice, but I still won’t be donating.

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