Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Are you ready for some tax-deductible football?

Apparently, donations to college athletics booster programs are tax deductible in much the same way that donations to charities are. College sport is big business, both directly in terms of revenues from games and indirectly in terms of enrollment boosts at the school.

Then Charles Clotfelter has to come in and ruin all our fun. According to his editorial at the Chronicle of Philanthropy, some 45% of funding for some bigger college programs comes from tax-deductible donations through booster clubs. He advocates for an end to the subsidy, which costs taxpayers some serious money.

But I wanna stop and think about this for a moment. I'm not a football fan. I really don't care about the whole March Madness thing (other than as an excuse to gamble, and I base my brackets entirely on superficial impressions of the state/city the college is in, or even the name of the school). But colleges rely on sports programs. While very few college sports programs are actually profitable, even with booster clubs, I know something of the impact of football programs on schools.

My college, the College of Idaho, used to have a football program back in the day, and while I attended the school was debating with itself on whether to re-institute the program. Even proponents of the program acknowledged that it would itself lose money, but they felt the benefits would outweigh the downsides. Those benefits include:

1. Football is awesome. FTW.
2. Football leads to increased alumni contributions (hence the Booster clubs). While those contributions would not pay for the program outright, they would mitigate the costs and, more importantly, increase alumni involvement and grow the alumni giving percent (an important metric on college ranking lists).
3. Football grows enrollment. You gain a bunch of football players who otherwise would not have been interested in the college at all, but you also gain other students; girlfriends, friends, siblings, cheerleaders, and athletes who compete in football during that season and other sports in other seasons.

I don't know where I stand on the issue. I mean, contributions to schools that are 501(c)(3)'s are deductible, in general. And there are all kinds of areas of education that lose money. I mean, people don't even pay to watch science. Schools make it work with grants, revenues from tuition, and donations, largely in the form of alumni contributions. And there are TONS of student athletes out there who just won't be interested in a school that doesn't have a strong athletic program. They may never be professional, but at least college gives student athletes the ability to live the dream just a little bit, on a smaller scale, before they settle into hohum lives of science and accounting and other things that people don't watch or cheer you on for.

Ultimately, college is about keeping students happy, helping them learn, giving them the tools to succeed, and making a better world. I think that as long as college athletics contribute to that to the tremendous degree they do now, some subsidy is fine with me.

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