On some level, college sports programs exist to train students how to be professional sportspeople (which includes things like becoming a professional middle school sports coach). No different, conceptually, than any other major. The fact that supply far outstrips demand just means lots of college sports students end up doing different jobs out of school, just like a creative writing major might end up working in an unrelated field.
But sports are weird and mysterious to me. They seem to integrate so strongly into people's identities that they're willing to overlook any number of rational issues with them. At times it becomes downright bizarre and cultish - Penn State football. I think sports are mildly interesting, but nowhere interesting enough to have the esteemed place of prominence that it has in the educational system.
When I was growing up, I studied in my school's music program, and I remember attending many school board meetings where we had to justify our existence to receive any funding at all. We squeaked by with a combination of reducing budget, bake sales, corporate donations and a teacher going unpaid for a semester. And there were other challenges, ancient equipment, incomplete scores and no money to buy more (outfitting a 100 piece orchestra with music to read off of is very expensive) and on and on. We got very good at fundraising.
Meanwhile the school sports teams got new uniforms for free every season (music kids had to either provide their own instruments or rent them from the school), equipment was mostly new, regular morning announcements let people know about sporting related events, the school newspaper was 40-50% dedicated to the sports teams and students were forced en masse to attend rallies for the sports team in the middle of the academic day. When I was there my 30 year old school got a new state of the art stadium that occupied several acres of school property. They claimed it was to support all of the students, but it was only ever used for sporting events.
Support to the music program? Not once in middle or high school was an upcoming music program event mentioned on the morning announcements, and only one time that I can recall did the school paper mention a music program -- it was to let everybody know that an exchange program hosted by the music program was underway and we were about to have a bunch of foreign students attending classes with us. Students were encouraged to make nice nice with the foreign kids and invite them to sporting events to make them feel welcome.
When my school's orchestra won a prestigious national competition it was never announced and the trophy we won wasn't allowed to mix with the sports trophies in the school's trophy case. So it sat in the music teacher's office, which was a converted janitorial room. Our yearbooks had 30 pages dedicated to action shots for the school's sports teams, the music program (4 orchestras, 3 bands and 2 choirs) had to jam onto one page. Our national win was cut in editing.
Like most high schools the cheerleaders and football players were minor celebrities able to get away with any number of school infractions including physical violence and property destruction against music program kids and their instruments.
I hated school sports teams.
One of the reasons I went to the college I went to was that it had no well known sports team and the President of the college refused to fund a stronger sports program citing research like the OPs that it was a waste of money for the schools. Our sports arena was more likely to be used for circus performances and concerts than basketball or hockey.
I agreed with his stance and secretly enjoyed watching the sports program kids learning how to raise equipment funds and fight for notice like the arts kids had to do.
And then he retired, his replacement poured money into the sports program and in a couple of years one of them made it into a national tournament. The sports program exploded, new teams were added, sports pavilions were added, practice fields were cut out of wooded parts of the campus.
I hated that once again, sports were finding this kind of irrational support.
And then...almost overnight my school went from being a virtually unknown to the largest one in the state with individual schools getting ranked in the top 10 in the country. Money and endowments started flooding in, new performing arts centers, science, tech and R&D buildings started construction. Entire new dormitory blocks sprang up. Two, all new, state of the art sports centers opened up and were opened to the local community. Why? The school president was able to spin the sports teams success into money raising (fund raising, donations, loans) opportunities to invest in every other aspect of the school.
So...I think I learned a powerful lesson. Sure sports look like a parasite on schools, sucking out way more then they appear to immediately return. But used as a tool, the new president was able to benefit the entire school in ways his predecessor could never have dreamed of. So yeah, I feel a sense of school pride, and while it's not about the sports teams, I have to recognize that it's because of the sports teams.
It's because the new guy was a competent professional and realized the point of a school is to educate. That's a lucky strike for your school and not a general rule. Most school administrators wouldn't have had that foresight, because they believe the buck stops with the sports - period.
The school my daughter just graduated from is a great example. She had stories similar to yours - she captained the science team to a state win for the first time in a decade and it wasn't even announced. Golf? Sure, that's important.
This year they spent a truly staggering amount of money, given they're a city of 20,000 in the rust belt with a persistent unemployment problem - on Astroturf for the football field.
To be fair, they have pretty decent facilities for science labs, etc. They have great support for drama. They're not a really bad school at all (we especially liked their AP program). But the preference for rock star treatment of athletes is truly weird to me, and I grew up in that same county.