The Value Of Division-I Athletics

During my thirty year higher education career, I’ve had the good fortune to work at a number of top-ranked research universities hosting some of the most high profile athletic programs in the nation, including the University of Arizona, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and most recently Texas A&M University. It’s from that context that I find myself reflecting on not just the very special environment we offer our students at NDSU, but the growing contribution we make to the betterment of our state.

The interplay of a research university environment and athletics is a sometimes misunderstood relationship, but I believe we “have it right” at NDSU. As illustrated by NDSU teams in recent years reaching NCAA Division-I league and national championship levels in soccer, volleyball, golf, softball, cross country, track and of course football, the story is a very exciting one. That’s not just in terms of athletic success but in terms how we’ve achieved that success and what it has provided our students, campus, local community and state. 

It goes without saying that we as a country pay considerable attention to college sports. For better or worse, athletics often becomes a proxy measure of a successful university. In fact, with the exception of private, heavily endowed Ivy League institutions, it is difficult to find a university considered to be academically elite that doesn’t also field a competitive athletic program. As important as scholarly success is, it rarely if ever on its own captures the attention and enthusiasm of the public. Reciprocally, a competitive athletic program brings wide spread and in the case of NCAA Division-I universities even national attention, which in turn tends to suggest the academic merits of the institution. One can argue that’s not how it should be, but it’s difficult to argue that’s not how it is. 

And that attention is important to North Dakota in many ways. The best students not only in our state but throughout the nation see our university in the same light as the nation’s finest, as do the best faculty, researchers, entrepreneurs and business leaders, all of whom are as a result increasingly being drawn to North Dakota. That infusion of the “best and the brightest” brings with it new resources that contribute to our state’s demographic and economic future success.

In a more direct measure, NDSU’s 2011 football season provides an inarguable example of direct economic stimulation. It goes without saying that the three near sellout crowds that packed the Fargodome for playoffs, beyond similar sellouts throughout the season, contributed literally millions of additional dollars to the local and state economy through ticket sales, dining, hotels and related services. Stores throughout the state carrying NDSU merchandise have reported sales shattering past records, meaning millions more contributed to our local and state economy. That direct contribution, and the substantial additional sales taxes derived from it, benefits all North Dakotans. 

Perhaps the most meaningful feature of a successful research university hosting a similarly successful athletic program is the sense of unity and pride it brings not only the campus and its surrounding community but our entire state. While each of us may understandably favor one of North Dakota’s various college or university teams over others, when a team from our state makes it to a regionally or nationally recognized level of competition, we can all take pride in North Dakota being represented and seen throughout the country in an exciting light. When we do so with student athletes who meet and exceed the academic performance of their peers, and an athletic program that has moved from NCAA Division-II to Division-I almost exclusively through private support and sponsorship rather than additional financial burden to its university, and in combination immediately established a winning tradition at the most competitive level in the country, we have even more reason to be proud of North Dakota. 

To be sure, both in previous settings and here, I’ve heard a variety of criticisms regarding college sports. Those concerns range from prioritizing athletics over academics to their excessive expense. It would be fair to say that some of those concerns, in some settings, warrant that criticism. For example, a common criticism is exorbitant coaching salaries. However, that’s generally only the case in men’s football and basketball, and limited to a handful of “major” Division-I athletic programs and specifically their head coaches. The vast majority of coaches, including the coaches at NDSU, are compensated reasonably and often through private support.

However, and as I suggested at the start, through experiences working with some of the biggest and most renowned university athletic programs in the nation (as well as smaller institutions hosting Division II and Division III athletic programs), I believe NDSU has it right. We offer an exciting research university environment to our students, and an appropriately oriented and prioritized, financially responsible, and extremely successful “mid-major” NCAA Division-I athletic program. In combination they are an invaluable part of our state’s growing reputation as a successful and very special place.

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