I have always been a basketball fan. Years ago I used to play some – in school, recreational and church leagues and pick-up games with friends. With that background you can imagine my response when I was handed a ticket to a Mavericks game at a business meeting last week in Dallas. Rather than the usual evening meal at a boisterous restaurant, the company’s CEO thought a change a pace was in order.

    Traveling downtown to the American Airlines Center, it occurred to me that it had been more than 40 years since I attended a live professional basketball game. I took Carol to a number of games before we were married. The venue for a date may have been weighted in my favor, but in the dating process comfortable surroundings tend to help. A school friend and I attended many games when the Pistons first moved to town. I was thinking while the others chatted in the car as we traveled along Harry Hines Boulevard that in those early days there were many double-headers on the schedule. Two other NBA teams squared off before the Detroit game.

    Sitting through two games may seem unthinkable to me today, but for young basketball junkies it was terrific. Old Olympia Stadium was rarely full for basketball; the place was designed and built as a hockey venue. The two games, four different teams, afforded us the opportunity to see some of the legends of the game play. Oscar Robertson, Jerry West Elgin Baylor, and Wilt Chamberlain were just a few of the big names.

     Time has changed many aspects of American life and culture, but perhaps none more than athletics, professional and at the collegiate level. The price printed on the ticket I was handed was $100. The company purchased them at a group rate that included parking passes ($20 each) and $15 in food coupons that barely covered a hotdog, popcorn and a soft drink. The seats were on the second level near center court but it would not have mattered. The jumbo video screens hanging from the ceiling and the flashing scoreboards all around the arena keep everyone in attendance up to date on what are going on. One used to have to pay attention to the action at a game, not any longer the replays are shown over and over. If you don’t like your seat, there are areas where food and beverages are served while you watch the game. Feel a little tense – there was even an area where you could keep up with the game while receiving a hand or facial massage.

    I have always considered the Dot Races and dancing chickens at Ranger games to be distractions from the contest being played, but the peripheral acts seem to take center stage with Mark Cuban and the Mavericks. They are continuous throughout the night, each one with a corporate sponsor giving the appearance of a three-ring circus.

    One has to wonder how much longer before a similar scenario will occur at the collegiate level. The media coverage surrounding the recent National Collegiate Athletic Association’s basketball tournament focused almost as much on the costs to the university programs as it did on upstart contestants Northern Iowa and Butler. According to a USA Today report, more college athletic programs are drawing a greater percentage of their revenues from student fees and their schools’ general funds in 2009 than in previous years. Since 2005, median athletic expenses at the 99 Football Bowl Subdivision public schools examined by the newspaper increased by about $10.6 million. Counting only revenue generated by the athletic departments – including money from ticket sales, donations, radio/TV and marketing rights payments – the number of schools able to cover their athletic expenditures fell to 14.  

    About $1.8 billion in student fees and university funds went to cover gaps in athletic operating costs last year USA Today found. Scholarships had been the top expense for Division I Institutions in 2005, but today that has shifted to coaches’ compensation. The total last year not counting severance payments accounted for more than $1 billion. An NCAA report in 2007 showed one men’s basketball coach was making at least $2 million per year. Another version of the study done in 2009 showed there were nine who made more the $4 million.

    College basketball has always been my preference as a fan. But I have to wonder as student groups, parents and other critics assail the rising cost of a college education how long it will be before the annual tournament in March resembles the commercial circus I was a part of last week in Dallas.

Robert Brincefield is vice president and publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at bob.brincefield@brownwoodbulletin.com.