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Saturday, March 23, 2019

Football or basketball? Boise State or Gonzaga?

A thought hatched while watching the first two rounds of March Madness and the various mid-major schools winning or playing competitive: If you run a university and want to make a name for yourself through athletics, would you rather have a good football program or a good basketball program and is it better to throw (a limited amount of) money into developing football or basketball?

The prevailing answer is football, because that draws more alumni interest and money. Schools such as UNC, Kansas, Duke, and Kentucky (or Indiana and UConn back in the day)--consistently great in basketball, generally non-competitive with the rare-blip exception in football--still believe that football success is essential. Jealousy of football contributed to the fall of the original Big East (which has been reborn as a basketball-first conference of Catholic schools, all technically east of somewhere). On the other hand, success in basketball seems easier to obtain--a basketball program costs less than a football program and success can be established by snagging two or three great players. And basketball comes without football's physical and moral baggage.

This question is especially salient for schools such as FIU--non-flagship public schools in a low-mid-major conference (comprised of similar schools and one former SWC school no one else wanted) with a finite amount of money to spend on this project. Consider:

Sustained football success caps out at competition in the conference, conference championships, and invitations to obscure, middish-December bowl games that no one watches against similar low-mid-major schools. The chance to make that leap is limited by the conference. And even if you make the leap, you remain locked out of the highest level of competing for a national championship, which will never look beyond the power conferences and Notre Dame. And all this requires a lot of money and a lot of player, who may suffer severe mental and physical problems because of the sport.

Sustained basketball success could mean consistent appearances in the NCAA Tournament, with early-round games watched or followed by many people and early-round victories offering more opportunities to play top-level teams on national tv. There is a chance, however remote, to play for a national championship. The Tournament Selection Committee is at least a bit more solicitous of non-power-conference schools, this year inviting multiple schools from some non-major conferences.

The question, in short: Is it better to be Boise State or Central Florida in football or Gonzaga or Wichita State or Towson or George Mason in basketball? The prevailing wisdom is the former; I would take the latter.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 23, 2019 at 04:14 PM in Howard Wasserman, Sports, Teaching Law | Permalink


Great question , if I was an AD at a university I would play the long game and invest in baseball and basketball , as a die hard FLORIDA State fan I feel more guilty every year rooting for our football team (but haven’t stopped watching )

Posted by: Greg Saldamando | Apr 1, 2019 9:58:29 PM


The NFL reported a 29% decrease in concussions in the 2018 season, and the decline in youth football has been less than 7%. With new rules and better technology, the slight decline will likely be a blip in football's memory.

What will likely keep football relevant for a very long time is that there's a lower barrier to entry compared to basketball. There's only one position in football with an average height over 6'4 (offensive linesman) and only one in basketball under 6'4 (point guard).

If football is ever going to be threatened, it won't be by basketball, it'll be when major league soccer starts pulling in large audiences, and the childhood obesity rate comes down.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Mar 27, 2019 11:41:58 AM

"would you rather have a good football program or a good basketball program and is it better to throw (a limited amount of) money into developing football or basketball"

These are two very different questions. In terms of what you would rather have, football wins hands down. It brings in lots more revenue, and it will bring more national attention. As Boise State and UCF show, it's possible to move up in the mid major conferences to the point where you probably aren't playing in the playoff, but you are playing in bowl games on or right before New Year's Day.

In terms of what you'd rather try to build from scratch, though, basketball wins hands down. As you and others point out, it costs a fraction of football (even if you include the women's team in that), and it is infinitely easier to build -- you really just need to get lucky and attract one great player (or a few very good ones), and that almost guarantees several seasons of success (which you can then build off and recruit more good-to-great players).

It's like asking whether you would rather win the lottery or a big blackjack hand, or whether it's smarter to try to win the lottery or win counting cards in blackjack. Obviously, you'd rather win the lottery, and obviously, if you are trying to make money gambling, counting cards in blackjack is the better way to go.

Posted by: Anon good nurse | Mar 26, 2019 2:48:19 PM

Basketball is exponentially cheaper. Facilities are cheaper to build and maintain, fewer staff are needed, and insurance isn't even in the same stratosphere. There's also both men's and women's basketball. Basketball's definitely the way a school considering building up a major sports program should go.

Posted by: jrprof | Mar 26, 2019 1:19:04 PM

Football has a limited future, as parents will increasingly refuse to allow their children to play. Like boxing, which was once the most popular sport in America, football will eventually lose a significant number of fans -- perhaps in as soon as a generation. The capital expenditures for football are enormous, and the stadiums cannot readily be repurposed. The smart move, therefore, is to emphasize basketball.

I would prefer to see big-time college sports de-emphasized across the board, but money is better invested in basketball.

Posted by: Steven Lubet | Mar 24, 2019 5:38:43 PM

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