Intercollegiate athletics is a pricey enterprise. Criticisms are often hurled at expensive athletic programs that some say detract from academia. Others complain when athletic costs are passed on to students through tuition hikes. But can anyone truly imagine schools like the University of Michigan, Notre Dame and Louisiana State University without their sports programs? Individual donors can’t either.

Here at IP we have reviewed major athletic program gifts from individual donors over the past few years and are analyzing new gifts nearly every week. This guide explores who's making the gifts, what schools are getting the money, and whether there are any strings attached to the donations.

Who’s Giving?

There are two major classes of donors to athletic programs: alumni and steadfast sports fans. The biggest gifts come from people who are both. Football and basketball programs win the fundraising race, but a handful of high-end donors pay attention to other sports like soccer and golf. And among donors making the largest contributions, athletics resembles other causes in higher education in that it attracts earmarked gifts rather than general fund contributions.

Often such earmarked gifts pay for new athletics facilities. A good example is a February 2017 announcement from the University of Missouri's Intercollegiate Athletics department of a new $2 million gift of a new end-zone facility at its Memorial Stadium/Faurot Field that’s scheduled to open ahead of the 2019 football season. The gift was the ninth seven-figure gift to be earmarked for the new facility in an eight-month period, bringing the total raised to more than $46 million.

In giving to athletics, some big donors use the buddy system. Take T. Denny Sanford and Dana Dykhouse, who in 2013 gave South Dakota State University a combined $12.5 million for SDSU's new football stadium.

A new sports stadium comes with a hefty price tag, and size matters. For example, even though the Michigan Wolverines have the tendency to break the hearts of fans, present company included, there’s a reason why the Big House rakes in tons of dough per game — it’s the biggest stadium in all college football. Sanford and Dykhouse want SDSU to take its place among the biggest and best in higher education athletics.

Dykhouse, an SDSU alumnus and former football player (and an all-conference defensive tackle back in his day), asked Sanford, another alumnus, to help pay for a new stadium. Stating that he just couldn’t say no to his good friend, Sanford joined the cause in spades, writing a $10 million check to Dykhouse’s $2.5 million. Both men have been long-time donors to SDSU, where buildings already bear each of their names, including the Sanford Health Center and the Dykhouse Student-Athlete Center. The new stadium will be christened the Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium. We wonder if there was a coin toss for the the naming rights, given the hefty difference between the two gifts. 

An interesting gift came from Peter and Susan Cooper, who in 2015 gave $50 million to Georgetown University for an innovative new leadership program for the university’s student-athletes, on top of paying for the completion of a new sports field. The so-called Cooper Athletics Leadership Program (CALP) will be the home of a "unique transdisciplinary, academically-grounded approach to the student practice of leadership dynamics in an intercollegiate athletics environment.” Cooper originally hails from New Zealand, and the couple lives in Newport Beach, CA. Their tie to Georgetown? All five of the couple's children are former students, and some were Georgetown athletes. 

Also in 2015, real-estate developers John Sobrato and his wife Susan pledged $15 million to the University of San Francisco to renovate and expand its War Memorial Gymnasium and convert it to a center for athletics and other programs.

New York businessman John Luth and his wife Joanne recently donated $32.5 million to College of Holy Cross. The couple met at the college but didn't marry until four decades later. The funds will support the renovation and expansion of the campus field house and other aging athletics facilities.

At the University of Minnesota, John and Nancy Lindahl pledged $17 million in 2015 for the university’s new athletics campus, with $12 million supporting basketball and football programs.

Indiana University alumna Cindy Simon Skjodt has donated $40 million to the school to finance a modernization of basketball arena Assembly Hall. The facility will be renamed Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in honor of her father, the late property developer and Indiana Pacers owner Mel Simon.

Gerald Hollingsworth, a surgeon and businessman who graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1953, recently gave $25 million to his alma mater's athletics department, with $15 million establishing the Gerald M. Hollingsworth, M.D., Athletic Scholarship Endowment. The remainder will support a fundraising campaign and the athletics stadium.

Stephen Ross continued his giving spree at the University of Michigan with a recent $200 million gift, a cool $100 million of which will go to improving the university's Stephen M. Ross Athletic Campus. Ross, a real estate mogul and graduate of Michigan's business school, is intimately involved with university fundraising and athletics. He is currently chairing the university's capital campaign and is a regular attendee at UM football games. Ross also owns the Miami Dolphins, so football is close to his heart (and wallet). In addition to enhancing facilities, the gift will provide academic opportunities for campus athletes.

Nearly all individual athletics gifts are from alumni. Most of these supporters are men or couples led by the husband’s interest in sports. For example, Morris and Ruth Williams’ entire family graduated from Duke, where Morris sat on the Athletics Advisory and Leadership Board. The couple gave $5 million to the Blue Devils’ Track and Field program.

There are exceptions to male dominance in athletics gifts: Mark and Mary Stevens recently gave $7.7 mllion to Santa Clara University to build a new soccer training center and upgrade its  soccer stadium. As a Santa Clara student, Mary Stevens played soccer.

It’s a rare occasion when an individual big-time donor is simply a fan of the school’s team and not an alumnus, but it does happen. Mike and Mickala Sisk contributed $16 million to Phase 1 of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Campaign for Comprehensive Excellence. During the phase, the school plans to build a new athletics plaza, a volleyball practice facility, a broadcast studio and to complete renovations to the men and women’s basketball locker rooms.

Who's Getting?

Football programs are the runaway favorite for individuals supporting intercollegiate athletics, with baseball and other sports programs lagging behind. As a rule, donors don't base their gifts on whether the teams they support make it to the post season or even had a good season. It’s all about the love of the game in this giving space.

Major Universities

Universities receive the lion’s share of athletics gifts from individuals and families. Of the donations we analyzed in a recent year, more than $200 million was given or pledged to collegiate athletic programs.


Among the individual gifts we analyzed, only a handful of colleges were recipients. College of Holy Cross received $32.5 million from John Luth and Joanne Chouinard-Luth. Connecticut College received $20 million from Robert and Karen Hale, with $5 million going to athletics facilities. William and Mary received a $23.9 million check from Walter Zable; that gift was earmarked for renovations to the college’s athletic complex and athletes’ scholarships. Hendrix College received a $1 million check to help complete its athletic complex from Roy and Christine Sturgis.

What are the Gifts for?

Sport facilities, whether the need is new construction or renovation, attract the most support from the individuals and families who support athletics. New football stadiums are a popular athletics endeavor among these supporters. A few donors don’t favor one sport and give to the athletics program as a whole: One example is Stephen Ross's gift to Michigan's athletic campus to support capital needs and academic programs for athletes. More unconventional athletics gifts include Peter and Susan Cooper's $50 million gift to an athletic leadership program bearing their name at Georgetown University.

How the Gifts Happen

Some collegiate sports programs lose money, with declining tuition and state budget cuts in recent years causing many universities to question whether they can sustain athletics spending at the same level they once did. But cutting an athletic program to help tighten the budget is generally unheard of. Most athletics seem to be aware of this fact, and solicitations for big donations almost always come from a college or university athletic director. If it’s a big request for a specific program, coaches may also be asked to join a donor’s "full court press." With donations most frequently requested for athletic programs only, college deans aren’t typically involved in building relations with donors. However, there are some exceptions, with hybrid gifts such as Stephen Ross's gift to the University of Michigan of $200 million, half of which went for athletics with the other half earmarked for the business school named in his honor. In such cases, the dean of the school is pulled into the fundraising process.

What Strings Are Attached?

When a big gift comes in, especially if it’s for a new athletics complex or residence hall, the facility is generally christened with the donor’s name. Football stadiums, though, are a different story. With the exception of the Dana J. Deckhouse Stadium, we've found that no matter what size the donation is, changing the name of the stadium is not generally approved by the board. Stephen Ross may have made a $100 million donation to University of Michigan athletics, but Michigan Stadium is still Michigan Stadium, or as it’s better known, the Big House.

Insights & Tips

Among the donations to athletics that we analyzed, football attracted the biggest donations, followed by men’s basketball. Donors give where their passions lie. Football fans give to football programs. Baseball fans give to baseball programs. Almost always, the gifts come from alumni, many of whom have a personal connection to the program they support. For example, Dana Dykhouse played football for South Dakota long before he gave millions to the stadium named for him. You get the picture.

There is no pattern of athletics donors amassing their wealth in a specific industry. Athletics donors come from many different professions, from timber to real estate to finance to health care.

Professional athletes are also donors to collegiate athletics, and should be watched carefully as the salaries of top athletes soar. Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors (whose NBA salary was more than $15 million in 2016), recently gave $3.1 million to Michigan State University, his alma mater, to endow the men’s basketball program and help pay for a strength and conditioning center. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, meanwhile, and his wife Brittany, donated $1 million to the football program at Purdue University, his alma mater, where he was an All-American quarterback. Brees also made an earlier $2 million gift Purdue. 

The alumni making big athletics donations that we examined graduated from their respective schools in or around 1965. Very few fresh grads are giving much money to their alma mater’s athletics programs, with some institutions reporting flagging interest in sports, particularly football, among millenials.