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The Financial Primacy Of College Football Over Basketball

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Last week, Bellerophon talked about the recent fall in both ticket sales and overall athletic revenue, as well as the general stagnation in revenue as compared to leading NCAA athletic programs. Using the recently updated USA Today college financial database and the accompanying article on athletic department revenue, his look at the Texas and Michigan program put into sharp focus the struggles of Morgan Center in raising revenue, generally as well as through ticket sales. While selling tickets is one problem that Morgan Center needs to solve, another significant thing that needs to be addressed is the recruitment and retention of athletic donors (or boosters).

There are sure to be improvements that Morgan Center can make in terms of selling the department, the successes and financial needs of the various teams to donors wealthy or not. But also, the fortunes of fellow major Division-1 schools have shown that success in football can lead to an enlarged donor base and significantly increased gifts to the athletic department. I don't say this to mean that another fluke 10-win season or beating Southern cal the next couple of years will suddenly open the financial floodgates, but that Football is the sport that drives everything else in a D-1A (FBS) athletic department- no matter how good the other sports are, and making an investment in Football will pay off in the long run far more than the sum of the investment, and more than applying those resources to any other sport on campus.

Revenue from ticket sales is one portion of athletic revenue where the football powers have an advantage, given that even given the fewer number of games (7-8 football home games, compared to 18-20 home games for a basketball power), the massive, always sold-out stadiums bring in far more money than even a sold-out Dean Dome or Allen Fieldhouse with triple the number of games. The limitation of the effect of this factor however is that even mediocre college football teams draw pretty well, particularly where there is a greater culture of athletic success at the university; for example, UNC and Kentucky may not be that great in football right now, but they still sell out their nearly all their games.

A Far more significant factor that distinguishes the major Football schools from the Basketball powers is the level of private contributions to the athletic department. Leaving out schools with a solid-to-strong Football profile and high donor revenue, but having a single uber-wealthy "sugar daddy" alumni to fund their needs - like Oregon and Oklahoma State, there are several schools that can fairly said to be Football powers - such as Alabama, LSU, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Texas for example, as well as some strong-to powerful Basketball schools such as Kansas, Kentucky, UNC and UConn.  While not limiting myself just to those few schools, there is a clear hierarchy in the level of donations among the various powers: the Football schools bring in significantly more in donations than do the Basketball leaders. (notes: While UCLA is pretty well-balanced in terms of athletic success including in football, I'm including the Bruins in the Basketball category due to our school's reputation in the sport, plus the opinion that our administration has not been taking Football as seriously as they could be. Also, I omitted Florida as they have had pretty strong recent success in both revenue sports which would throw off the fundraising distinctions between the major sports, while Southern Cal and Duke are not in this discussion because as private institutions, their financial data is not publically available in the same manner as for public universities).

Courtesy of USA Today, here is the donor revenue received by the following athletic departments with leading Football programs - the first set of numbers for the last reported fiscal year (2009-10), the second from the 2004-05 year:

Alabama: 2009-10: $33,739,056 -- 2004-05: $20,262,542

Florida State: 2009-10: $23,245,513 -- 2004-05: $16,414,490

LSU: 2009-10: $38,255,521 -- 2004-05: $11,189,385

Ohio State: 2009-10: $27,327,347 -- 2004-05: $19,829,555

Oklahoma: 2009-10: $26,601,241 -- 2004-05: $10,096,423

Texas: 2009-10: $37,110,292 -- 2004-05: $22,324,445

West Virginia: 2009-10: $15,729,528 -- 2004-05: $6,917,286

And here is the donor revenue for some of the leading basketball schools:

UCLA: 2009-10: $9,332,803 -- 2004-05: $6,745,798

Connecticut: 2009-10: $5,950,265 -- 2004-05: $6,212,138

Indiana: 2009-10: $18,475,498 -- 2004-05: $8,129,276

Kansas: 2009-10: $16,193,021 -- 2004-05: $18,500,207

Kentucky: 2009-10: $13,161,669 -- 2004-05: $8,060,667

Louisville: 2009-10: $16,781,073 -- 2004-05: $11,507,810

North Carolina: 2009-10: $14,634,189 -- 2004-05: $10,834,440

There's a lot of interesting things that come out from looking through those numbers, and through the USA Today database. While in the Big East, Louisville serves as a big outlier- which UConn proves to be the exception, the general reality is that the schools with major Football programs notably and significantly outperform those known for their Basketball programs. As well as the general variation between schools in the two groups, also notice the difference between Basketball Schools and Football schools in the same conference (aside from the Pac-10, I included at least one of each from each BCS conference).

An interesting takeway comes from the ACC. This is considered to be very much a Basketball conference, yet the largest level of contributions among public schools in the ACC went to Florida State, a school with (relatively) mediocre basketball but a strong football program over the past three decades. For that matter, Virginia Tech received more in athletic donations last year than did UNC, despite its own relative weakness in Basketball plus not having the same base of wealth to draw from as does UNC (or other flagship state universities). Likewise, the Big East is known for its Basketball prowess more than for Football; while I noted that Louisville looks to be the exception to the rule, the other Big East Basketball power (with a FBS-level Football program) UConn took far less in donor revenue last year than did the conference's strongest public Football school, West Virginia.

Another display of the significance of football can be seen through the ongoing Conference Re-Draft that the SBN blogs have been participating in. While the project is simply an idea of how the NCAA could look if geographical and current conference alignments were thrown out the window, the idea is to put together a collection of schools comprising the strongest athletic conferences. The people taking charge of the project know a heck of a lot about college sports, and from being able to keep up with the offline discussion surrounding it, they are taking selections, and weighing the advantages and disadvantages of all the D-1 schools very seriously. While there are different strategies in conference-building, and some variation in what the 'best' school or the best athletic program is, there is a consistent theme - the top programs as selected by the SBN editors have all been Football powers (or in the case of Notre Dame, a past Football power with its own significant Football TV contract). Success - or at least the perceived capability for success - in Basketball and in non-revenue athletics has served to distinguish among these top programs, see Texas and Florida as the top-2 selections.

Taking from the Re-Draft, another demonstration of the power of Football from the project can be seen in the difference between Duke and North Carolina. Duke and UNC are arguably the two most successful and highest profile programs in college basketball today, and both also have a pretty solid program of non-revenue sports. On the draft board, UNC came in 18th, right between Oregon and Stanford; despite Duke's dominance in the world of marketing and revenue through basketball, they didn't go until #36. With similar profiles in Basketball and non-revenue sports, and sharing the same media markets, there really is one factor that would explain the value of UNC to be so much higher than that of Duke. The Power of Football. Not to hurt the folks in Durham, but Duke football is a national joke. Aside from a couple of good years under Steve Spurrier in the '80's, the program has accomplished nothing, and has no real signs of life for the future. While UNC Football is facing some serious charges from the NCAA which could affect the program in the short-term, and have not had a great deal of success in the sport, they have long been thought of as a "sleeping giant" in the college football world that has the ability and resources to become a factor in the ACC and nationally.

There are several universities throughout the nation that are blessed to have sterling athletic reputations and tradition when it comes to one of the major sports. While being one of the leaders in a revenue sport serves as a boost in prestige, Football serves as a more significant boost to donor revenue.