As the College Sports Model Teeters, Michigan Tries to Keep a Balance

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Growing up in Hawaii, Roman Wilson didn’t realize how much money was in college football until his senior year in high school when he took a weeklong recruiting visit to the mainland. His first stops were Cal-Berkeley and U.C.L.A. “Very nice facilities,” he thought.

Then he visited Michigan.

“Just the building alone that we get to be in every day is millions upon millions of dollars,” said Mr. Wilson, a wide receiver. “One of the biggest weight rooms I’ve ever seen. The training room is outstanding. Even flying planes to games — that costs a lot of money, too.”

At Michigan, the money comes flooding in from a variety of sources: ticket sales from college football’s biggest stadium that can pack in more than 100,000 fans for every home game; payouts from the richest conference television deal; seat licenses; sponsorships; and donations from some of the more than half-million Michigan graduates who live around the world.

It adds up to what the school expects to be $214 million in athletic department revenue for this academic year, making it one of the wealthiest programs in the country. And that doesn’t include millions more that are raised by booster-run collectives that funnel money to athletes in exchange for their endorsement rights.

Washington, which plays Michigan on Monday night in the College Football Playoff title game, brought in $145 million last year, which was 25th among public universities, according to a USA Today database. Michigan was fourth.

The game, which will be played in Houston, comes at a time of dramatic upheaval for the uniquely American model of college athletics.

The tension between the business of college sports and the holistic mission of higher education, which doesn’t exist anywhere else, has never been greater. This is evident in the creation of coast-to-coast conferences, lawsuits seeking employment status for athletes or laying out antitrust charges, and hints that television riches may prompt football to break away from the N.C.A.A., the governing body for college athletics.

Increasingly, college football’s powerhouses resemble N.F.L. teams with a class schedule and homecoming.

So much so that a broad swath of stakeholders entertained what not long ago might have been dismissed as a whimsical question, but that signifies a fundamental shift in college sports: How much would Michigan football be worth if it could be bought on the open market, like the recently purchased Washington Commanders of the N.F.L. or Dallas Mavericks of the N.B.A.?

“I’d say at least a billion,” said Gerry Cardinale, the founder of the private equity firm RedBird Capital, which owns the soccer club A.C. Milan and a stake the Fenway Sports Group. “Four to five times revenue. $1.5 billion would make sense.”

Cardinale, in doing his back-of-the-napkin math, acknowledged that uncoupling a college football program from its university would be complicated. But the exercise underscored to him that college football is a rare commodity in sports: an undervalued asset.

Television contracts would be even richer if the conferences shopped their rights together, rather than competed against one other with the networks.

When Florida State initiated talks with private equity firms last summer while it was exploring ways to raise the $130 million exit fee from the Atlantic Coast Conference, it showed how hungry some schools are for capital.

Of course, the money chase underscores the underlying inequity of college football and basketball — that the windfall funds opulent facilities, ballooning staffs and coaches’ salaries that exceed $10 million, but is not shared directly with the athletes who generate it.

“One of the underpinnings of college athletics that makes it valuable, ironically, is amateurism,” Mr. Cardinale said. “It’s the only professionalized amateur sport.”

Jack Swarbrick, the Notre Dame athletic director, described a widening spectrum between schools that cling to a student-athlete ideal — helping players do their best on the field and in the classroom — and ones that essentially license their marks out to a third-party business masquerading as an athletics department.

“It inevitably can’t hold together in its current scope; it just can’t,” said Mr. Swarbrick, who will retire later this year. “I don’t know where that winds up, but it’s a dynamic tension that can’t be quashed.”

There are few places where that tension is as heightened as at Michigan.

In the South, which has ruled college football over the last decade, the sport may well be the tail that wags the dog on campuses. Alabama, for example, has used its football dominance under Coach Nick Saban to transform the school. A string of national championships lured more out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition, which has financed an upgraded faculty, which has raised the school’s academic profile, which draws better students.

Michigan has long been considered among the best public universities in the country, along with the University of California’s flagships in Berkeley and Los Angeles.

The university’s ascent, nearly a century ago, came alongside the state’s rise as an industrial engine for the United States after World War I, when it began attracting research talent away from East Coast institutions, including a young scientist who was introduced to studying virology in Ann Arbor — Jonas Salk.

Many of the athletics department’s biggest donors contribute far more elsewhere around campus. The Miami Dolphins owner Stephen M. Ross donated $100 million to the business school that is now named after him. The former Mets owner Fred Wilpon, whom the Michigan baseball and softball complex is named after, has donated $61 million to fund a scholarship program for first-generation college students. (Mr. Ross and Mr. Wilpon declined interview requests.)

The university “has a place in the imagination of Midwesterners,” said Jordan Acker, a member of Michigan’s Board of Regents. “It’s placed physically in the heart of the industrial Midwest, 30 minutes from the Rouge factory, and yet is worldwide in its reach. What we tell ourselves and we believe is that this university we’ve built and nurtured is both unique and important. The idea of the elite public university is unique to America.”

Or as Ken Davidoff, a Michigan graduate and a former sports columnist for the New York Post put it: “We’re generally an arrogant breed. We have far better academics than Iowa State and have far better athletics than Yale.”

This high-mindedness has not insulated Michigan from the standard fare athletic scandal. The Fab Five basketball teams, cultural touchstones of the 1990s, were found to have been paid by a booster. A generation later, an Ann Arbor News investigation found athletes had received good grades for doing minimal work.

In 2020, scores of Michigan athletes came forward to say they were sexually assaulted by a doctor during physical examinations, echoing similar cases at Michigan State and Ohio State.

The most sensational story of this college football season was the uncovering of an elaborate, illegal, sign-stealing scheme orchestrated by a football aide named Connor Stalions. That led to a suspension of the head coach, Jim Harbaugh, for the final three games of the regular season. This bookended the three-game suspension Mr. Harbaugh was hit with at the start of the season for lying to N.C.A.A. investigators in a separate matter.

Not that any of this has tempered the enthusiasm around football.

In fact, Michigan and its fans have leaned into the role of victim as easily as any other righteous team and fan base. In a sign of the times, a collective that supports Wolverines athletes is peddling “Michigan vs. Everybody” merchandise, T-shirts starting at $45.

“I don’t see it creating shame for the university,” said Andrei Markovits, a professor of comparative politics and German studies at Michigan who has written books on global sports culture. “All of this is excused if you win.”

It also helps that Mr. Harbaugh is a former star quarterback at Michigan. The athletic director, Warde Manuel, is one of Mr. Harbaugh’s teammates. And the men’s basketball coach, the other high-profile athletic department position, is Juwan Howard, a cornerstone of the Fab Five basketball teams.

Colloquially, they are referred to as Michigan Men. (There is not believed to be an archetype yet for Michigan Woman.)

“The Michigan Man is an elite person,” Mr. Markovits said. “It’s the way you pronounce something, the way you behave. You’re not just crudely into sports. Nevermind that Harbaugh doesn’t care about the French Department, it bleeds into what makes Michigan special.”

Those many Michigan men and women may be even more entwined with football as the college sports world wrestles with an uncertain future. Michigan may not have the existential angst of many schools about being left behind during an era that has the earmarks of consolidation, but there are questions about what revenue sharing will look like, how to fund Olympic sports and how to keep up with the Joneses.

“Are we moving to a place where athletic departments are run by the donors?” asked Bob Boland, a sports law professor at Seton Hall. “University presidents might tell you they already are. We’re in an interesting place here as the enterprise is spilling over its institutional walls.”

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