Marshall Column: The College Football Arms Race

Phillip Marshall discusses the financial arms race that is exploding accross the country in college football.

There are some harsh realities in 21st-century college football.

You want a top-flight coach? Be ready to shell out $2 million a year or close to it

You want a top-flight coaching staff? You'll have to spend $1.5-2 million on salaries to hire and keep top assistants.

You want to compete for the kinds of recruits that win championships? Spend millions on facilities, not because they are needed to prepare your football team but because your competition is doing it.

You want to have an athletic program that competes for championships in all, or at least most, sports? Swimming national championships are nice, but you'd better do all of the above, because swimming and most of those other sports spend lots more than they make. Your football program has to make enough to pay for it all.

Of course, the fans are the ones who end up having to carry the financial load in ever-rising ticket prices and, now, rising costs of "donations" for the privilege of paying those prices. Every year, big-time college football moves closer to the NFL, where families have been priced out of the market. It's an expensive proposition to take the wife and kids to a college football game.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that Auburn has changed its priority system to make the better seats more expensive than the less desirable seats. The real surprise is that it took as long as it did. Most other SEC teams--and all the usual contenders--have already done it. Most of them raised their prices more than Auburn, some of them a lot more.

It's an arms race with no end in sight.

Even as it won the Southeastern Conference football championship, Auburn found itself falling into the bottom half of the league financially. Its operating budget last year was the eighth highest among SEC teams.

Here are the numbers:

Florida $73 million, LSU $72.9 million, Tennessee $65 million, Georgia $56 million, Arkansas $52 million, Kentucky $51 million, South Carolina $51 million, Auburn $47 million, Alabama $46 million, Ole Miss $39.5 million, Vanderbilt $31 million, Mississippi State $29 million.

Auburn was trailed only by probation-strapped Alabama and three football bottom-feeders. That is not an acceptable place for a school that is serious about being a major player on the national stage. If Auburn stayed there, it would soon not be a major player on the national stage.

Tim Jackson, executive associate athletic director, says that other revenue sources are also being explored. Athletic director Jay Jacobs has a stated goal of making Auburn's athletic department second to none. That mission is costly.

Jay Jacobs says he wants Auburn to have the preeminent athletic department in the country and for AU fans that comes at a cost.

You have to wonder how long it can go on. How long will it be before the system collapses on itself? The NCAA, for years, has tried to bring costs under control. It has never worked and there is no sign that it ever will.

Even though coaches are getting rich, it's not all good for them, either. Fans don't like it when they are asked to pay more. They never have and never will. When the fans are asked to pay more and the coach is making a king's ransom, the fans don't have much patience. That's understandable.

When Auburn fans are asked to pay more and cherished tailgate spots are blocked by green bollards, the fans don't like it. And that's understandable, too.

When fans are asked to pay more and the supposed leaders of their university sneak off on an ill-conceived and dishonest trip like they did in November 2003, fans scream bloody murder. And they should.

But the reality for the foreseeable future is that costs will continue to escalate, especially at schools that strive to compete for championships and play on an elite level. Today isn't the last time prices will go up.

There are only two choices for elite college football programs and those who are striving to reach that level: Pay up or give up.

That really is the harsh reality of 21st-century college athletics.

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