Across the country in the offices of university presidents, conference officials and television executives, conversations about reshaping the landscape of college sports are again taking place. The Big 12 schools have begun preliminary analysis. Those left on the outside of the Power Five looking in have stepped up their lobbying efforts. ESPN and FOX, the two purchasers of televised games, are steeling themselves for new negotiations. The endgame, for all parties, is the same: money.
UConn, as readers of this site well know, has been left out of every previous round of conference realignment for a host of reasons. The prevailing thought throughout Connecticut is that this time will be different. The university’s strengths match up favorably against most other known candidates, including television market, academics, and non-football success. Hell, even the football program has elevated its status above embarrassing. Yet, there’s one problem that UConn faces, and it’s a big one: money.
Money is the reason that UConn needs to get into a major conference. Maintaining athletic success doesn’t come cheap. In the 2014-15 academic year, UConn invested over $72 million in athletics, more than any other public non-P5 university and a handful of large conference members like Utah, Washington State and (obviously) Rutgers. UConn finished that year in the black, taking in about $90,000 in profit, again the highest total revenue of the non-P5 public schools.
However, there is another side of the athletic department’s financials in the form of subsidies. As USA Today detailed, subsidies include funding provided by the state, the UConn Foundation, allocation of university funds and fees tacked onto students’ tuition. Almost 40 percent of UConn’s budget comes from these subsidies – about $12 million per year directly from fees on students according to the Huffington Post.
As UConn works to regain the ticketing and television revenue that disappeared with their biggest conference opponents, they are depending on other sources to keep up the appearance of a big time program as they mire in a middling conference.
This situation is untenable, and UConn knows it. Without an influx of cash from a new conference, a new television deal and a new slate of exciting opponents to compete against, the university will have to dramatically reimagine how they participate in the business of college sports.
Complicating matters, the state’s budget situation has led to a decrease in total support for the university. The Hartford Courant reported that UConn is in store for a $46 million cut, quoting president Susan Herbst saying, “losing critical operating dollars has a direct negative impact on the quality of education we are able to offer students.”
As a result, UConn has already been forced into difficult financial decisions, one of which was to delay the previously-approved repair of Gampel Pavilion’s roof at a cost of approximately $10 million. Tuition is already slated to rise again in each of the next four years.
Additionally, plans to renovate or replace the XL Center in Hartford – a $250 million project – have stalled because of a lack of state financial resources. The UConn Health Center has seen its research ranking fall despite hefty investments over the past decade.
UConn is at somewhat of a crossroads. On one hand, injecting a gigantic infusion of funding into arena improvements and research funding would make the university that much more appealing for status-hungry conferences. On the other hand, spending that much money with no guaranteed revenue coming back would be quite the gamble, for the university and the state. Add to this equation that Rentschler Field’s capacity will need to be upgraded soon after entering a new conference, and there is no shortage of expenses and complications to consider.
At his introductory press conference, new athletic director David Benedict made a point to emphasize the importance of strengthening UConn’s fundraising efforts.
“Private giving, fan support and relationships with the corporate community are essential,” he said.
UConn has invested a lot of time and energy to ensure that this round of conference realignment works out in their favor. Now they have a decision to make: will they push all of their chips into the center of the table and make the necessary investments to seal their fate, or continue on the path of shuffling money around to keep up appearances and hope that this time, finally, luck is on their side?