Authors: Brad Stinnett1, Scott Lasley2, and Josh Knight2

1School of Kinesiology, Recreation & Sport, Western Kentucky University, United States
2Department of Political Science, Western Kentucky University, United States

Corresponding Author:
Dr. Brad Stinnett
Western Kentucky University
1906 College Heights Blvd. #11089
Bowling Green, KY 42101
Phone: 270.745.4329

Stakeholder Evaluation of the Policy Effects of University Decisions Regarding Athletics


At public universities across the country, key stakeholders see intercollegiate athletics as a mechanism to raise the profile of their institution. Specifically, many universities have identified moving up in level of athletic competition as one part of a strategy to enhance a school’s visibility and reputation. Like all decisions made by public institutions, these are policy choices made by public officials that have consequences for institutions of higher education. The purpose of this study was to explore the attitudes of two stakeholder groups (faculty and staff) at a Southern regional public university that has made the transition from the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) to the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). Specifically, this study examined and compared how key stakeholders evaluate the decision to move from the FCS to FBS level of competitions. An electronic survey was administered to university faculty and staff to collect data on their attitudes relative to intercollegiate athletics. Aggregate faculty and staff evaluations of the transition from FCS to FBS football and other strategic changes to athletics were compared to each other.  Additionally, faculty and staff opinions on the emphasis placed on academics, athletics, and the arts at the university were explored. Results indicate that staff generally view the impact of transitioning to the FBS level more favorably than faculty. Additional findings reveal that faculty, more so than staff, feel that too much emphasis is placed on athletics. This study draws attention to the apparent division that exists on how faculty and staff view decisions made regarding athletics. This divide between faculty and staff relating to decisions and outcomes can make policy questions involving athletics difficult to address. This study can help shape future research on university athletics and how it influences higher education policy. University administrators, such as directors of athletics, can utilize the findings for more effective decision making and to build a bridge with key constituents such as faculty and staff.

Keywords: athletics, intercollegiate, policy, stakeholders


While many Americans view college athletics primarily as entertainment, it is becoming increasingly clear that decisions made by American universities regarding their athletics programs should be viewed as policy decisions that impact a wide range of stakeholders.  Decisions made by regents, presidents, and athletic directors in governing university athletic programs not only impact on field performance, but also affect the bottom line of universities and influence strategic priorities.  The consequences of these decisions will impact coaches and student-athletes. Additionally, the significance of these policy outcomes will be felt by other stakeholders including students, faculty, and the general public. 

Over the past two decades, major college athletics has emerged as big business.  The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has a contract with CBS and Turner Broadcasting that runs through 2032 and will ultimately be worth over a billion dollars per year towards the end of the agreement (24). ESPN is in the midst of the twelve year contract to broadcast the College Football Playoffs for more than $7 billion (20).  Major power conferences like the Big Ten and the Southeastern Conference have established their own cable networks to generate additional revenue for their member institutions.  Six universities feature college sports programs that generated over $150 million of revenue for the 2015-16 year (25).  As the profile of and money associated with college athletics has increased, more schools seek to receive their share of the attention and revenues associated with big time college sports. 

From 1987 through 2016, 28 football programs made the transition from Football Championship Subdivision (FCS and formerly Division I-AA) to the more prestigious Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS and formerly Division I-A).  Proponents of moving up to FBS level of competition cite a number of reasons for the transition including increased exposure and prestige for the university. In a study of colleges and universities that recently added football at their institution, Kelly & Dixon (9) found that universities view football as a mechanism for building a sense of community and increasing the institutional value of their respective school.  It is common for advocates to highlight how an increased stature for athletics will enhance the academic side of the university as well. Appalachian State University viewed a move to FBS football as promoting the University’s efforts to be a nationally prominent institution (2).  Georgia Southern University identified the transition to FBS as a milestone to help reach the goal of national recognition (8). At least rhetorically, there is evidence that university leaders see decisions regarding college athletics as part of a strategic process to achieve desired institutional and policy outcomes. 

While administrators and other proponents of college athletics frequently cite what a vibrant college sports program can do for a university, there are plenty of critics that are skeptical of the benefits that athletics have for a school. Critics cite high costs associated with college sports and question university priorities (11). Costs affiliated with running successful athletics programs have increased appreciably and place significant budgetary pressure on institutions to cover those costs (12). Compounding challenges facing transitioning schools is the reality that there is a large variation in revenues generated by FBS athletics departments.  A quick analysis of college sports finances reveals a significant difference between the revenues and expenses of schools who participate in one of the NCAA designated autonomy governance conferences (Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten Conference, Big 12 Conference, Pac-12 Conference, and Southeastern Conference), versus members of non-autonomy governance conferences (American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, Mid-American Conference, Mountain West Conference, Sun Belt Conference). Almost all transitional football programs end up as members of the non-autonomy conferences (also known as Group of Five conferences) and ultimately end up in the lower half of programs when it comes to revenues and expenses (13).  Although advancement in competition level often leads to greater revenues, additional expenses to support the higher level of competition typically outpace the growth in revenue (7).

The financial impact of decisions related to university athletics is particularly salient at a time when public institutions of higher education are receiving lower levels of state support.  Since 2008, only a handful of states have seen an increase in funding for higher education when adjusted for inflation, while half of the states have seen a decline in funding of 20% or more (17). Declining state support has led to higher tuition for students and widespread cuts across many universities. When institutions make policy decisions to increase budgets in intercollegiate athletics, students frequently pick up the tab by means of additional fees. Student concerns about increased costs are expressed in their responses to surveys. Students that do not support the school’s transition up in football generally indicate that costs associated with the transition are the primary source of opposition (3).

The aforementioned has focused primarily on strategic decisions made by universities regarding football. The competition level in football is just one of many choices made by institutions related to athletics that have policy outcomes for its stakeholders. University leaders routinely make decisions related to athletics facilities and personnel that affect the rest of the campus.  Redd (21) reported on the “arms race” in college athletics and the notion that there’s little chance of it slowing despite the questions on spending, particularly from faculty. Another common practice is for universities to add or drop individual sports. These decisions not only have budgetary impacts, but also influence the ability of the university to comply with federal law, in particular Title IX.  Therefore, the purpose of this study was to explore the attitudes of two stakeholder groups (faculty and staff) at a Southern regional public university (Western Kentucky University) that has made the transition from FCS to FBS football within the past 15 years.  This exploratory study attempted to answer the following two primary research questions:

  1. How do faculty attitudes on the transition to FBS football and other changes regarding athletics compare with those held by staff?
  2. How do faculty and staff evaluate university priorities and how much emphasis is placed on athletics, academics, and the arts?


Western Kentucky University (WKU) is a public four-year comprehensive institution located in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  With an enrollment of over 17,000 undergraduates, it is the largest four-year comprehensive institution in Kentucky (26).  In 2006, the Board of Regents voted to make the transition from FCS to FBS football.  The transition was part of a broader strategic effort by President Gary Ransdell to raise the profile of the University (23).  The move was generally supported by students, but opposed by faculty.  In a poll conducted by the WKU Student Government Association, 65% of students supported moving up a level of competition, while 65% of faculty were opposed to the proposal in a campus wide vote.  The first season that WKU football competed at the FBS level was in 2009.  Since the decision to move to FBS level of competition was made in 2006, WKU made several additional changes to the athletics program.  A decision to discontinue the men’s soccer program was made in 2008.  In 2014, WKU switched conferences from the Sun Belt to Conference USA.  The men’s tennis program was eliminated and, in 2015, the men’s and women’s swimming and diving programs were suspended for five years. 

As these changes were taking place within the Department of Athletics, WKU was operating in a challenging economic environment shared by many public institutions across the country.  Adjusted for inflation, public spending on higher education in Kentucky dropped by 32% between 2008 and 2016 (17).  Enrollment growth fell short of projections which helped lead to annual budget deficits that have had to be addressed on an annual basis.  Moving forward, WKU faces annual budget shortfalls of over $10 million.  For perspective, the Department of Athletics received about $4,000,000 in student fees for the 2015-16 academic year and approximately $13 million dollars in school funds to cover expenses.  Finance trends for WKU reflect the experiences of many other athletics programs that made the transition from FCS to FBS football.  Revenues produced by WKU Athletics have more than doubled since 2006, but so has the amount of school funds needed to cover athletics expenditures.


This section presents the methodology employed to conduct the study. Overviews of the research design, participants, instrument, procedures, and data analysis are included.

Research Design

This study concentrated on faculty and staff from WKU, using convenience sampling, and utilized a case study research technique. The case study approach is a form of descriptive research and can be used in studies involving institutions. Andrew, Pedersen, and McEvoy (1) define a case study as an exploratory research technique used in sport management to intensively investigate a situation.  An electronic survey was administered to collect data on faculty and staff attitudes relative to intercollegiate athletics.


Since the intent of the research revolved around faculty and staff attitudes toward intercollegiate athletics, all full-time faculty and staff at WKU served as the population of interest for this study. Participant contact information was secured via a university maintained list and loaded into a database. Participants were sent an invitation e-mail to participate in the study followed by additional correspondence.

It is fairly common to survey faculty on their thoughts and attitudes towards intercollegiate athletics at multiple levels of competition (6,14,15,19,22). Lewinter, et al. (16) surveyed staff at the University of North Carolina following a recent academic scandal that impacted athletes at the school.  The current study differs from most previous survey research of university faculty and staff because of the specific focus on how WKU faculty and staff evaluate decisions made by University administration regarding athletics at the institution.


As suggested by Dillman (4), the faculty/staff survey was created in collaboration with an array of professionals well-versed in the areas of higher education and intercollegiate athletics. This practice also provided the instrument with face validity. Sections within the survey strived to collect data on attitudes related to WKU as an institution, Title IX knowledge, interest and involvement levels in WKU Athletics and sports in general, and some basic demographic information. The survey consisted of 73 questions structured with various answer types such as Likert-scales, slider bars, and multiple choice.


Many specific procedures were used during the data collection stage of the study. The electronic survey was created and administered by using the Qualtrics online research software. The survey link was sent to all faculty and staff at WKU and accompanied by an invitation e-mail, an implied informed consent, and thorough instructions on how to complete and submit the survey. A reminder e-mail was sent to participants that had not completed the survey two weeks after deployment.  As an incentive to participate, participants were able to enter a drawing to receive one of 10 gift cards from the University bookstore.    

The Institutional Review Board at WKU analyzed and approved the study. All required protocols were properly followed throughout the research project.

Data Analysis

Upon completion of the survey, data collected through Qualtrics was downloaded and imported into IBM Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) 24. For this particular study, two sets of questions were analyzed.  For each set, SPSS was used to compare aggregate responses from faculty and staff for each question. 


Surveys were completed by 582 faculty and staff, resulting in a response rate of approximately 30%. Of the 582 respondents, 275 (47%) were faculty and 307 (53%) were staff.  For this survey, staff members serve a dual role.  First, staff members are key stakeholders at American universities and are directly impacted by policies established by university leaders.  Second, staff members can serve as a general proxy for the broader community in which the university is located. University employees provide a convenient and heterogeneous population for experimental studies and frequently reflect the demographics of the community in which they are found (10). 

Research Question 1

WKU faculty and staff were asked whether they agreed with a series of statements related to changes in WKU sports over the past 10 years.  Four statements focused on the transition from FCS to FBS football, while four additional statements addressed other changes affecting WKU athletics.  These changes included the decisions to discontinue men’s soccer and men’s tennis, the suspension of the men’s and women’s swimming teams, and the move to Conference USA from the Sun Belt.  Table 1 illustrates the percentage of faculty and staff who agreed with each of the statements.

Table 1
Faculty and Staff Evaluation of the Impact of University Changes Regarding Athletics

Change Faculty
Moving to FBS football had positive impact on WKU as an academic institution… 34% 60% 46% 18%
Moving to FBS football had a positive impact on athletics… 49% 65% 28% 14%
Moving to FBS football has increased visibility for WKU as an institution… 68% 81% 18% 6%
Moving to FBS football has increased pride in working at WKU… 23% 41% 55% 27%
Moving to the Conference USA has had a positive impact… 40% 59% 23% 11%
Support the decision to eliminate men’s soccer… 12% 15% 57% 53%
Support the decision to eliminate men’s tennis… 12% 16% 54% 49%
Support the decision to suspend the swimming and diving teams… 42% 49% 39% 32%


A comparison of faculty and staff levels of agreement, with statements pertaining to the transition to FBS football, shows that staff generally view the impact of the transition more favorably than faculty.  The majority of staff respondents agreed that the transition had a positive impact on WKU as an academic institution and on WKU athletics.  While 60% of staff indicated that the transition had a positive impact on WKU as an academic institution, only 34% percent of faculty agreed with that sentiment.  Slightly less than half of the faculty agreed that the transition has had a positive impact on athletics, although 21% more faculty agreed with that evaluation than disagreed with the statement. While the overall athletics budget has increased significantly over the past decade and the football team has achieved on-field success, two men’s programs have been discontinued, men’s and women’s swimming has been suspended, and the track and field program has seen significant budget cuts.

Although higher for staff members, there is agreement across most faculty and staff that moving to FBS football has increased the visibility of WKU as an institution.  This lends at least some credence that a move to FBS football is able to meet at least one strategic objective associated with the transition.  While there is a general consensus that the transition has raised WKU’s visibility, the results are mixed on the effect of the move on the level of pride associated with working at the University.  A fairly substantive percentage of staff (41%) agreed that the move to FBS football increased pride in working at WKU.  This significantly outnumbers the 23% of faculty who agreed with that mindset. 

Congruence between faculty and staff attitudes did emerge on recent administrative decisions discontinuing men’s soccer and tennis and the suspension of the swim programs.

Only a small minority of faculty and staff supported the decisions to drop the men’s soccer and tennis programs.  Unfortunately, the study does not effectively tap into reasons why there is broad opposition to the discontinuation of those sports.  Based on anecdotal discussions, faculty may attribute some blame for program cuts on increased expenses related to moving up a level in football.  It is also possible that the nature of the discontinued sports might attract sympathy of faculty.  Levels of agreement on the suspension of the men’s and women’s swim programs were more evenly split with staff being somewhat more supportive of the decision to suspend the programs.  The five-year suspension of the programs came following accusations of inappropriate behavior and a Title IX investigation, but it remains to be seen if the suspension will ultimately be a vehicle to discontinue the programs.

Research Question 2

Respondents were also asked a series of questions related to university priorities and areas of emphasis.  Respondents were asked whether the University placed too much, too little, or about the right amount of emphasis on athletics, academics, and the arts.  As shown in Table 2, very few staff indicated that WKU placed too much emphasis on academics or the arts, while almost two-thirds of faculty and half of staff indicated that too much emphasis was placed on athletics.  Eighty-two percent of faculty believe that too little emphasis is placed on academics, while 54% of staff echoed those feelings.  Taken together, faculty are more critical than staff on what the University places emphasis on, but there is a significant number of both faculty and staff that question strategic priorities of the University.

Table 2
Faculty and Staff Attitudes on Emphasis Placed on Athletics, Academics, and the Arts

Emphasis Area/Level Faculty Staff
Too much emphasis on athletics… 67% 48%
Too little emphasis on academics… 82% 54%
Too little emphasis on the Arts… 55% 44%
Realize that athletics does not generate positive net revenue… 61% 42%


It is also worth noting that a majority of WKU staff did not know that athletics does not generate enough revenues to cover their expenditures.  While a majority of faculty indicated awareness of that reality, almost 40% of faculty did not know the Department of Athletics operates with an annual shortfall. 

Looking at the results, several topics that merit discussion emerge.  First, it is difficult to ignore the gap between how faculty and staff view decisions made relating to athletics.  Assuming that staff serve as an imperfect proxy for the broader public, a fairly wide gulf is likely to exist between faculty and the general public on many of these issues as well.  This makes policy questions related to athletics difficult to address because of how differently key constituencies view these decisions and outcomes.  A key question is whether it is possible to close the gap between faculty and other stakeholders.  If it is possible to close the gap between key stakeholders, discussions between different stakeholder groups will likely need to begin with a similar set of assumptions and information.

Even with gaps between faculty and staff beliefs, there is a sense that too much emphasis is placed on athletics and not enough on academics.  This is especially salient at a time where the University, like many other schools in similar situations, struggle with declining state support and increasing expenses.  In WKU’s case, the institution is facing projected budget deficits that are roughly the size of institutional subsidies to cover athletics expenditures.  The budgetary reality reinforces the gap between how faculty evaluate athletics when compared to other stakeholders.  Since college athletics programs do provide some direct and indirect value to a university, it is important to continue efforts to define and measure what that value is.  While there are success stories like Gonzaga where on court success in men’s basketball helped revitalize the school (18), other schools like Georgia State and the University of Buffalo deal with budgetary challenges that competing at the highest level of competition brings (5,27).  A discussion on what value athletics brings an institution and what type of subsidy students are willing and should be asked to pay are discussions that need to take place.


This study can serve as a pilot that can help shape future research on university athletics and how it influences higher education policy.  A preliminary analysis of this survey’s results suggests two avenues that are worth pursuing.  First, it will be useful to continue to collect information from other key stakeholder groups including students and the external community.  Students and their families are a key part of the puzzle since they are frequently asked to pick up the tab for rising college costs.  Second, this study provides insights on what types of questions still need to be explored more fully.  It is important to get a better sense of why faculty end up feeling the way they do on key decisions made by university administrators.  It will also be useful to develop survey instruments that will help provide better insights on how to value college athletics and get a better sense of what they are worth to different constituencies.  There is value to raising a school’s profile and building a sense of community, the challenge is to figure out what it is ultimately worth.


This study produced data regarding the effects of university decisions pertaining to intercollegiate athletics. University administrators, primarily directors of athletics, can utilize the findings to aid in decision-making processes and to build a bridge with key constituencies such as faculty and staff. Analyzing findings from this study, such as faculty and staff attitudes regarding changes in athletics, can benefit higher education administrators in a way that does not continue to expand the divide. Additionally, data regarding the evaluation of university priorities and emphasis placed on academics, athletics, and the arts can benefit others, such as policy makers, booster clubs, and potentially community members. Finally, the existing literature of intercollegiate athletics is enhanced by this study assessing faculty and staff attitudes on various issues in the field. Scholars, interested in this area, may discern significance in these findings given the way they help make sense of the topic.   


Funding received from a Faculty-Undergraduate Student Engagement (FUSE) grant helped facilitate the study. FUSE grants are designed to support undergraduate students’ intellectual development by fostering active engagement in the areas of research, creative and scholarly activities, and/or artistic performances.


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