Moneyball: The cost of Division I football at UB
The costs and benefits of college's most expensive sport
When UB Athletic Director Danny White assumed his position in May 2012, it took him 15 months, or 478 days, to send his first #NYBI tweet – meaning the New York Bulls Initiative. His plan is to make Buffalo, a program with middling success in a Mid-Major conference, “America’s Next Big-Time Athletics Brand.”
Judging by attendance numbers and million-dollar television contracts, football seems to be the best way to get a college athletics brand to the public’s eye. The football team brings the most revenue of all of UB’s 20 varsity sports – but it also costs the most.
UB isn’t making a profit off its football team, and that’s not abnormal for Mid-Major conferences.
So is it worth it for universities? The answer isn’t clear. Most recently, the University of Alabama at Birmingham cut its D-I football program. UB has no intentions of doing the same.
Buffalo spent $6,699,385 on its football program in 2013 – the most on any of its 20 varsity sports and seventh most of the 12 full-time schools in the Mid-American Conference (MAC), according to the U.S. Department of Education. Buffalo broke an even profit margin for football – but largely because of university support.
The Spectrum obtained information for this story via Freedom of Information requests and data compiled from the Knight Foundation database. These numbers are the most recent available and reflect the 2013-14 fiscal year.
Sixty-two percent, or $4,188,874, of the football program’s revenue in 2013 came from student fees and direct institutional support. Institutional support includes direct university funding, indirect facilities and administrative support and direct state or other government support. As an athletic department, UB received more than $13 million in direct institutional support, $8 million in student fees, $2 million in indirect facilities and administrative support and no money from state or government support.
The MAC, Buffalo’s conference for all varsity sports except women’s rowing, is considered a Mid-Major conference outside of the Power Five conferences that include the wealthiest and biggest conferences: Southeastern Conference (SEC), Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Big 12, Pacific-12 and the Big Ten. UB Athletics operated with a $31,134,149 budget in 2013-14 – the largest in the MAC, but significantly less than Power Five conference schools.
It’s common for MAC football teams to break even – all but three of the 12 in the 2013-14 fiscal year did, according to the U.S Department of Education – but do so mostly because of university support.
“The reality is that if you are not in a Power Five conference, it is very difficult to be completely,” White paused. “Nobody is completely self-sufficient that doesn’t enjoy conference membership at the highest level because the TV revenue they get in the Power Five conferences is substantially higher.”
Conferences in the Power Five have their own television networks and contracts with ESPN of over a billion dollars, so their universities have to put less money into them. Although UB paid $42,482 in institutional support per student-athlete for all teams in 2013 – the average for a MAC school was $39,856 – according to the Knight Foundation database for Division I spending, some universities in the Power Five, like the SEC and the Big 12, only needed to pay around $5,000 in university funding per student-athlete. The Big Ten schools only averaged $985.
“[You] have to recognize not everybody is Alabama and Texas with 100-plus-million-dollar budgets,” said Buffalo Deputy Director of Athletics Allen Greene.
Some schools are beginning to question if the cost of Division I football outside the Power Five conferences is worth the expense. The University of Alabama at Birmingham was a member of Conference USA, which is not in the Power Five, in its final season before the university cut its football program for financial reasons.
“I love football, but the reality is that most of the expense growth has come from expanding football programs,” said Dr. Welch Suggs, an associate professor of journalism at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at University of Georgia in an email. “I wonder if the sport as played at the FBS level is sustainable for schools outside the top tier of the Power Five conferences.”
White called any decision to cancel or reduce a football program a “shortsighted mistake.” He said it’s not something UB is considering and he believes football can help build up the national exposure of universities. President Satish Tripathi said in an email that UB Athletics is rightly funded and “doing a terrific job in terms of increasing sponsorship, philanthropic giving and ticket sales to generate more revenue for our athletics program.”
Both Tripathi and Greene said the university doesn’t have any input in how the athletics department spends the money given from the school, and Greene and White said UB Athletics wants to reduce the amount of money the university gives the athletics programs.
The goal for athletics is to make money on its own.
“We want to be as self sustaining as possible,” Greene said. “You need to have a winning product in order to do that. But it’s not our intent, nor do I think it’s wise to go back to the university and say, ‘We need more money, please.’ We need to show we can generate some revenue on our own and having championship-caliber teams makes that conversation a lot easier to be able to sell more season tickets.”
But teams like Buffalo face an uphill battle without the billion-dollar television contracts that teams in the Power Five receive. And some think the gap is only widening, which could leave schools outside the Power Five like UB to questioning retaining Division I football.
Impact of television and mass media
While the Power Five conferences have TV contracts with ESPN worth a billion dollars that can pay each school $20 million, the MAC’s newest deal with ESPN is reportedly worth around $100 million.
Forbes reported the SEC and ESPN reached a 15-year, $2.25 billion deal and CBS Sports reported each SEC school would receive an average payout of $20.9 million per season.
The MAC’s 13-year TV deal with ESPN, signed in August 2014, pays every MAC school just $670,000 per season, as reported by ESPN’s Brett McMurphy. And the MAC’s previous deal with ESPN paid each university just around $120,000.
And college football is the main reason for these gigantic contracts, budgets and opportunities for other sports to gain national exposure.
Buffalo has increased its presence on ESPN3 – broadcast online to homes around the world. In September, the MAC chose Buffalo, along with Central Michigan and Northern Illinois, to play at least 35 schools on the ESPN family of networks last season. Every home wrestling match, along with men’s and women’s basketball games, aired on an ESPN network. Every Buffalo football game aired on an ESPN channel, except the game against Army, which was picked up by CBS Sports.
White said television contracts within college football have “certainly changed the game,” but he doesn’t think its caused greater separation between the Mid-Majors and Power Five schools.
“I think there was already a gap and that gap still exists,” White said. “At the end of the day, there are only so many things within the rules that those institutions are allowed to pay for and by in large, most times, when a student-athlete has the opportunity to go to a Power Five school or a Mid-American Conference school, we are very rarely winning that recruiting battle anyway. So I don’t think it has created any larger of a gap.”
These Power Five conferences continue to make decisions to separate themselves from the rest of the NCAA. In January, these schools voted and passed to have the ability to pay for student-athletes total cost of attendance – rather than just the value of the scholarship.
Even with new rule changes that favor the Power Five schools, White said the presence of an FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) football program helps the athletic department as a whole. There are currently 10FBS football conferences, compared to 13 FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) conferences. White said “having access to some of that revenue is a difference maker as we move forward and try to build our program.”
John Affleck, the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society at Penn State, who worked for the Associated Press for 22 years, called television the “driver” for universities and said the “incredible boom” of television money has led to the separation of the Power Five schools and Mid-Majors like Buffalo. He credited football as the main reason for this boom but thinks every school has to make its own decision when it comes to college football.
“I don’t think it should be axiomatic for schools to have football,” Affleck said. “A lot of schools have bet on football as the way to overall raise the profile of the school and some people win, but not everybody wins in that equation.”
Shawn Heilbron, current SUNY Stony Brook athletic director and former senior associate athletic director for development at Oregon State, has worked within the Pac-12, a Power Five conference, and now Stony Brook, an FCS school. He’s seen firsthand the impact of television contracts on large universities.
“The TV contracts we have seen with the Power Five conferences have been a tremendous game-changer,” Heilbron said. “With the money that is now available to those institutions, it allows them to reinvest in other aspects in their department and make them stronger.”
Greene said since White’s arrival at Buffalo in 2012, football has been one of the highlighted sports in the athletic department.
“There have been strategic investments since Danny’s arrival in football to get the biggest bang for our buck in terms of relevancy and in terms of the ability to win,” Greene said.
White recently announced the “West Club,” which will contain 400 premium seats and an indoor lounge at UB Stadium next season and one of UB Athletics’ largest capital projects at the moment is to build a field house, which will largely help the football team, along with UB’s other outdoor sports, train during poor weather. Nine of 12 MAC schools have a field house. The project would be largely funded by donor dollars, but Greene said Buffalo will use some of its $143,831 profit from the 2013-14 fiscal year toward capital projects.
Buffalo was one of only four MAC schools that operated without any athletic facilities related debt. The average MAC school had $1.8 million in debt in 2013, according to the Knight Commission spending database, and the average FBS schools had $3.1 million. Ball State, Northern Illinois and Kent State are the other three MAC schools without facilities debt.
White called football the most “visible sport in the country.”
According to White, Buffalo’s 2013 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl game had 2.06 million viewers and its September 2014 home game against Baylor this past fall drew 1.29 million viewers. White said the men’s basketball team’s NCAA Tournament matchup in March drew 1.3 million viewers. It’s one of the reasons White said a successful FBS football program is key to building UB Athletics.
“The NCAA Tournament in men’s basketball, as great as it was, that was the equivalent to a regular season game in terms of viewers for football,” White said.
Greene said he “would like to think” that Buffalo would never feel the need to drop its football program or return to FCS. He did say each campus is different in terms of its investments in particular sports, and that if UB were ever in a position in which it had to drop its football program, Greene wouldn’t be the person in charge of making that decision.
An FCS approach
The UB football program dates back to 1894, with multiple periods of time in which it was canceled and reinstated. From 1977 to 1992, UB had a Division III football team. In 1993, Buffalo moved up to FCS.
Buffalo went 21-45, highlighted by an 8-3 1996 season, in six seasons in the FCS before moving to the MAC in 1999. Buffalo got off to a slow start in the FBS, dropping 79 of its first 92 games in seven seasons before winning five games in 2007 and its lone MAC Championship in 2008. Buffalo has gone 27-45 since 2008, including a trip to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in 2013.
Stony Brook, current member of the Colonial Athletic Association in the FCS, is investing in its football program but isn’t getting ahead of itself in terms of making the jump to FBS.
But before Stony Brook can make the jump to FBS, Heilbron said it’s important for programs to establish themselves within their level of competition.
“Everything that we want to do here is compete at the highest level,” Heilbron said. “The highest level in football is the FBS right now, but I think we have to prove that we can be a national power at the FCS before we have that conversation about the FBS because I don’t want to ever want to make that move simply just to make it.”
White said the MAC is the right conference for Buffalo at the moment.
“[The MAC] gives us every opportunity to show that we can be a consistent competitor in college football,” White said. “We need to show that because we haven’t since we joined the FBS level 16 years ago.”
Buffalo has had just two winning seasons and two bowl game appearances since joining Division I and the MAC in 1999.
Heilbron said Stony Brook conducted a study in 2012 looking into the costs of an FBS football team. Heilbron said some of the largest financial burdens for making the changes include increasing stadium size, facilities and raising the number of football scholarships from 63 to 85.
“I do think there’s tremendous merit in [moving to FBS],” Heilbron said. “But the downside of going to FBS is that if you are not prepared and not willing to invest the resources into it – because to just be an FBS and win two or three games a year and have empty seats, that would not be worth it.”
Heilbron said Stony Brook’s football budget is between $1-1.5 million, compared to Buffalo’s nearly $6.7 million. According to the Knights Commission spending database, Buffalo spent $59,355 per football player compared to Stony Brook’s $47,311 in 2013. For institutional support, however, Buffalo averaged $42,482 per student-athlete compared to Stony Brook’s $49,459.
Heilbron said when the Pac-12 renegotiated and received a new TV contract, it opened up “new streams of revenue that were very, very important to us” at Oregon State. At Stony Brook, Heilbron said the athletics department must rely more on fundraising, state money and institutional support.
“I do know the cost associated with being at the FBS are significant and the schools need to be willing to make that investment because it’s not worth it, to me, if you are just there to be there,” Heilbron said about a school’s decision to move to FBS. “But I do think every school has to do what’s in its best interest.”
UB football budget breakdown
The 2013 football season – in which the Bulls went 8-5, played in a bowl game and had the second-most successful season since becoming a Division I team – had a total operating expense of $6,699,385. This includes everything from coaches’ salaries, equipment, travel, recruiting, promotions, game-day expenses and other expenses.
Buffalo ranked No. 7 in the MAC for football expenses in the 2013-14 fiscal year. Northern Illinois led the conferences with more than $8.3 million on its football team. The Huskies went 12-2, including 8-0 in the MAC before losing in the conference title game and dropping their bowl game to Utah State.
There were 104 players on the Buffalo roster in 2013, including 97 student-athletes receiving athletic aid. Much more goes into a football program than just the players – like coaches, marketing staff, vendors, spirit groups, maintenance – but the average player/expense ratio was $64,417.16. Men’s basketball ($124,739) and women’s basketball ($88,498.21) were the only sports with higher ratios.
UB football finished with revenue of $6,699,385 – breaking even – largely due to university and student funding.
“Football’s just such a different beast because there is a lot more that comes into play for having a successful football program,” Greene said.
The football team received more than $1.3 million worth of revenue from the Athletic fee UB students pay every year – more than any other sport and the entire recreation department. The fee covers the cost of activities like attending games, recreation activities and intramural services. The fee for the 2013-14 school year generated $8,788,000 for the Athletics Department. Ninety-three percent ($8,168,727) of this money went toward intercollegiate sports.
White said it’s very important for the football program to not only prove it can break even but also turn a profit. White said he’s been happy with increasing revenues in basketball and football and he said these sports are getting “closer and closer” to turning profits.
“We are never going to be satisfied, in terms of my team at the administrative side, until we are at least breaking even and then building off that and profiting off those sports to help fund the other Division I sports that we have,” White said.
Affleck said the value of having a football team is more than just the product on the field for game days.
“One thing to know is that it’s not just an equation that’s about football,” Affleck said. “It’s about the university as a whole and the university’s image and fundraising outside the university.”
The majority of the football team’s expenses came from athletic student aid. Ninety-seven football players, even some who finished four years of eligibility or could no longer compete due to injury, received some portion of aid. In total, the Athletics Department awarded $2,760,455 – an average of $28,458 – to football players.
The football team accounts for nearly 20 percent of the student-athletes on campus, but the Athletics Department gave 36 percent of its $7,635,181 of total of aid to football players in the 2013-14 fiscal year.
Coaching salaries were the second-largest expense for the football program. Former head coach Jeff Quinn earned $338,000 in 2013, but including his benefits and bonuses – such as cars, media obligations and bonuses for wins and attendance – Quinn cost the football program $398,317. His 13 assistant coaches earned $1,003,679 from the university and $4,707 from third party benefits. Former offensive coordinator Alex Wood and defensive coordinator Lou Tepper led all assistants with $130,000 in 2013. Three other coaches each earned more than $83,000.
The football team spent more than $900,000 in travel. The Bulls traveled to Ohio State and Baylor for non-conference games in 2013 and had four conference road games. They also played their bowl game in Boise, Idaho.
Buffalo spent $429,450 on “guarantees” – the amount paid to visiting schools to play at UB – $416,129 on equipment, supplies and uniforms, $351,568 on game expenses and $164,403 on recruiting to round out six-figure costs. The football program allotted for 31 percent of total university recruiting expenses, 28 percent of travel, 47 percent of equipment, supplies and uniform expenses and 44 percent of game expenses – all ranking No. 1 compared to the rest of the sports in the department.
“I think the unique challenge for football and basketball is the public’s appetite for those sports causes more visibility so because of that, different decisions are made for our football and basketball [teams],” Greene said.
Although football is the most expensive sport, it also generates the most revenue compared to UB’s other teams. The football team resulted in more than 70 percent of the total ticket sales ($902,461) at UB. In 2013, Buffalo reportedly made nearly $1 million for playing Ohio State Week One. The Bulls generated $1,150,000 in guarantees, resulting in a $660,568 profit from the guarantee expenses.
The football team led all sports in contributions ($63,510), program sales ($35,656) and royalties ($259,321).
College football generates tens of millions of dollars at larger schools around the country, but at Buffalo and other MAC schools, programs want to breakeven. Although a college football program is often viewed as the “staple” of an athletics department and sometimes even a university, it’s an expensive one.
“I think it’s an equation people have to think about carefully and that doesn’t necessarily end with football being at every school,” Affleck said.
Owen O'Brien is an investigative sports reporter and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org