Flawed football economics Clemson can afford to keep giving students free tickets

Clemson students cheer for the Tigers during a football game last season at Memorial Stadium. Gwinn Davis/Special to The Post and Courier

Father Guido Sarducci, the Don Novello character in his classic Saturday Night Live skit, theorized that higher education was best boiled down to a “Five-Minute University” with one line spent on each subject.

“Economics?” Sarducci said. “Supply and demand.”

Not surprisingly, Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich picked the April following the Tigers’ College Football Playoff national championship game appearance to officially suggest students should pay for football tickets they have traditionally received free. The plan to sell 9,000 season tickets for The Hill or lower deck at $225 apiece would net approximately $2 million — for a school that last fall christened a new $55 million, 140,000-square foot football building complete with a mini-version of The Hill.

The student scheme was revealed minutes after the approval of a new contract for head coach Dabo Swinney that will pay him more than $30 million over the next six years. Major college coaches who win 56 games in a five-season stretch come at a high price, and send schools scrambling for revenue streams.

This is about Clemson in particular but public universities in general: Students already acquiring excessive college debt should not be ATMs for athletic departments and school presidents should protect young people who, at this rate, might not be able to contribute to their schools when they get older.

Clemson should find another way to get its apparently critical $2 million.

Why not let the students vote? At “All In” Clemson, the idea might pass, and seem less obnoxious.

Cut out free meals for the media for the next 20 years. BYOB (Bojangles).

Give a wealthy booster exclusive naming rights to The Hill in exchange for student ticket funding.

Hold a major annual music festival at Death Valley annually (but think of a better name than Death Valley Daze).

Have an alumni bake sale simultaneously staged in every county in South Carolina, plus three in Georgia.

That most SEC and ACC schools charge students something for tickets and that Clemson will still offer 3,300 free student tickets in the upper deck isn’t a good excuse; Clemson hasn’t been like that at most schools.

Still, Clemson student season tickets at $225 are sure to sell like discount chicken burritos. It’s the last chance to see 2015 Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson play quarterback on campus, among other draws.

For all of Watson’s impressive numbers last season, add this: Clemson’s previous record for freshman applicants, 22,396 in 2015, was broken in February. The Class of 2016 number is up to 23,234, Clemson director of admissions Robert S. Barkley said Thursday, and the application deadline is open until May 1.

Sure. Clemson continues to move up or hold its place in various rankings of college academic prestige. But obviously the near-constant national exposure for football in December and early January, including ESPN saturation and Sports Illustrated covers, helped boost interest.

Trickle down economic impact?

Not so much.

As Clemson professor Dr. Raymond Sauer pointed out in December, the big bucks a football team makes on its way to national championship games doesn’t usually enrich a university as a whole.

“The money side of things is mostly self-contained to the athletic department,” said Sauer, president of the North American Association of Sports Economists. “That’s a truism that goes back a long way in college athletics.”

Add a couple of sobering numbers:

— Clemson, according to a November survey by the Washington Post, was one of 28 Power Five conference athletic departments that ran a deficit for 2014 ($3 million). South Carolina was $2.8 million in the red.

— Clemson ($528 million) ranks last among ACC schools in total endowment, per a 2014 list compiled by the National Association of College and University Business Officers. Eight ACC schools have endowments of over a billion dollars, led by Duke at $6.04 billion (South Carolina at $544 million ranks 11th in the SEC, ahead of only Auburn, Mississippi and Mississippi State).

So it’s easy to see why suddenly there is no such thing as a free lunch or a free Clemson-Pittsburgh game at Death Valley, which just happens to be one of the most popular hangout spots in college football. You don’t need a degree from a Five-Minute University to know the Pickens County demand is ripe for the picking.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff