The athletic arms race at the University of Southern California

Robert V Johnson, University of Pennsylvania


In recent years, athletic programs at higher education institutions across the nation have been driven to invest enormous sums of money to renovate old athletic facilities or build new ones to satisfy both athletic and institutional competitive needs. This phenomenon could be likened to an athletic arms race. Institutions that participate primarily in Division I athletics have been especially under pressure to increase their levels of spending to build the biggest and best football and basketball stadiums. Much of the discussion on the topic centers on the question of institutional strategies and priorities and how they interact with athletic desires. This study examines intercollegiate athletics at one of those institutions—the University of Southern California (USC). Athletics are an integral part of USC's identity. An institution with limited land resources, a low-risk budget system, and the goal of ascending to the top of research universities in the nation, USC also possesses an athletic program that has had to make strategic decisions to survive. This research is focused on the reasons USC did not participate in the athletic arms race in a significant manner until recently, and why it then decided to substantially increase its commitment to athletics by building a large new athletics facility. Institutions routinely participate in an arms race for academic buildings, dormitories, research space, and retail amenities. The reasons for participating in such an arms race are not dissimilar to those relating to the athletics arms race. In the student market, institutions compete to attract the best students, faculty, and staff by creating a college town environment through strategic investments made to enhance the physical assets in and around the university. Interviews with key university personnel and reviews of institutional documents reveal that major decisions regarding intercollegiate athletics are powerfully influenced by much more than the quest for highly ranked teams. The decision to build a large and very expensive new athletics facility at USC highlights the complexities of combining high academic rankings with athletic achievement.

Subject Area

School administration|Higher education

Recommended Citation

Johnson, Robert V, "The athletic arms race at the University of Southern California" (2004). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3124692.