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Timothy Braun Headshot

The Economy of Scale, or the Indianapolis Colts and Academia

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Professional football and academia go hand-in-hand. A university, although often seen as a pillar of educational fortitude, is, like professional football, a business mostly concerned with winning money and the reputation game. If a student learns something in college, that is nice, but a university is a franchise with a bottom line. Take Big Ten schools, who are so product-oriented they aren't even composed of 10 schools. There are 12. Among them Indiana University -- home of a legendary basketball program, the Kelley School of Business, a bicycle tournament, a sorority rush so competitive 60 Minutes did an article on it and a cute limestone library that is home to Jack Kerouac's original On The Road scroll. Indiana is a lovely franchise, just like the Indianapolis Colts.

Since the NFL Colts were whisked away in the middle of the night from Baltimore in 1983, Indianapolis has seen its fair share of ups-and-downs with its professional football team. Most don't remember the Gary Hogeboom days (yes, the guy from Survivor), but since owner Jim Irsay inherited the franchise in the late '90s from his father the Colts have been synonymous with success and were one of the winningest franchises in the league for more than a decade, lead by Peyton Manning and a fantastic passing attack. Things were going so well the city built a large brick stadium for the Colts to keep from moving again, a stadium that hosted a Super Bowl two years ago. Ironically, in that same year, Irsay saw his Colts come apart at the seams, his business eroding. Manning was injured, the rest of the team got old and was using obsolete strategies, and their salary cap was a mess. The Colts had the worst record in all of football. Irsay was at a crossroads with his business and systematically dismantled the team. He fired the administration, the coaches who had been there for too long, and one-by-one cut the players. Irsay restocked most of the team with low-cost journeymen and young draft picks. He even raised ticket prices for revenue.

Universities are at crossroads as well. Last summer Bain & Co. looked at hundreds of schools in the United States and learned many are using outdated strategies and aging, tenured players. One in three schools are selling a product that is on an unviable financial track, many in debt. Sororities and bike races are fun, but are pointless if the business school has a "For Sale" sign on the door. To save our franchises of higher learning, schools are taking a page from the Jim Irsay playbook. Universities are phasing out tenure and long-term contracts, and raising ticket prices... I mean, tuition. Forty years ago an estimated 20 percent of colleges used adjunct professors (affordable free agents, if you will), to fill holes in their departmental rosters. Now, we are seeing between 65 percent and 70 percent of classes taught by adjuncts at both major and small colleges. Schools are even limiting the number of classes professors can teach to avoid paying for their health insurance. It is as if we have a revolving door at the faculty lounge.

People take their sports team as personally as they take their education, as if it is part of our identity. Irsay takes education personally, too. He was the one who donated Kerouac's scroll to Indiana. Give credit where credit is due. Irsay, like a good student, has learned a lot about how to run his business, and although what he did to the Colts two years ago was unpopular at the time, it worked. The Colts went 11-5 this season, won their division and are headed back to the playoffs. Next year the Colts will have $39 million to spend on adjunct players, with only 41 contracts holding them back. I don't recognize half the guys on the Colts this year, but why bother? Most of them will be gone in a year. This is the economy of scale in the NFL. The bottom line is the Colts are winning. It's not personal. It's business. Just like college.