How Sports Economics Aided the University of Missouri Protest - Pacific Standard

How Sports Economics Aided the University of Missouri Protest

Could the possibility of a Tigers strike have expedited Timothy Wolfe's resignation?
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This photo was posted by Tigers Head Coach Gary Pinkel, with the caption "The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players." (Photo: Twitter)

This photo was posted by Tigers Head Coach Gary Pinkel, with the caption "The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players." (Photo: Twitter)

The University of Missouri football team just scored a major victory, this one off the field. Yesterday, both Timothy Wolfe, the president of the statewide system, and R. Bowen Luftin, the chancellor of the school's Columbia campus, resigned their positions.

The announcements come in response to student protests over race relations at the school, which have been disintegrating throughout the fall. A timeline on the website of Mizzou's paper describes the escalating tensions, which were touched off by a viral Facebook post written by Missouri Student Association President Payton Head describing racial slurs yelled at him. Several "Racism Lives Here" rallies in protest of the administration's tepid response followed, along with sit-ins, petitions to remove the school's Thomas Jefferson statue, clashes between protestors and police, and a "hunger strike" by graduate student Jonathan Butler. Last Thursday, students, faculty, and staff conducted a walkout in support of Butler's hunger strike, and tensions continued to escalate throughout the weekend.

The Missouri football team just demonstrated that it's not just pro athletes who have the power to initiate social change.

And then things got really serious.

On Saturday night, Anthony Sherrils, a defensive back for the Missouri Tigers, announced via Twitter that the team's black members would be boycotting all future football activities until Wolfe resigned. The team's coaches and white players joined in the protest on Sunday. Gary Pinkel, the Tigers head coach, even tweeted "The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players," along with a picture of the entire team.

By the next day, Wolfe and Luftin were out.

It's tough to say if the football strike was the real cause of Wolfe's resignation. But it's certainly interesting that Wolfe's departure came so closely on the heels of the team's strike, which could have cost the university some serious money. If Mizzou had forfeited its scheduled game against Brigham Young University next Saturday, it would have owed BYU $1 million.

Protesters celebrate after the resignation of University of Missouri President Timothy M. Wolfe on the school campus. (Photo: Brian Davidson/Getty Images)

Protesters celebrate after the resignation of University of Missouri President Timothy M. Wolfe on the school campus. (Photo: Brian Davidson/Getty Images)

And that's only the beginning of what the strike could have cost the school.

According to the Kansas City Star, in fiscal year 2014, Mizzou made over $17 million from football ticket sales, including over $14 million in football distributions from the National Collegiate Athletic Association and Southeastern Conference. Alumni contributions to the athletic department, inspired in part by the football team's successful 2014 season (though they're just 4–5 this season, the Tigers have won 15 bowl games dating back to 1924), were over $20 million. Revenue from broadcast rights (for the entire athletic department, not just football games) came in at over $4.4 million. All in all, the University of Missouri reported over $35 million worth of football-specific revenues—a huge chunk of the athletic department's $83 million in total revenues, a number that includes all other sports.

The numbers seem staggering, but they're actually just a drop in the bucket for college sports revenues. The University of Oregon, the highest-earning system, collected over $196 million in sports revenues in 2014, while Texas made over $160 million. In 2013, according to the Department of Education, college football was a $3.4 billion industry.

As the New York Times reported last December, it's television contracts that are driving the skyrocketing revenues. "Under the championship playoff format that began this season, ESPN is paying $7.3 billion over 12 years to telecast seven games a year—four major bowl games, two semifinal bowl games and the national championship game," wrote Times reporters Marc Tracy and Tim Rohan.

College football players, of course, don't see any of that revenue—though there's a movement afoot to start paying college sports players, an effort by the Northwestern University football team to unionize was shot down earlier this year—but it looks like the Missouri football team just demonstrated that it's not only pro athletes who have the power to help move along social change.

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