Conference realignment, SoCon style: the football/hoops conundrum

Previously:

It is definitely nitty-gritty time now for the SoCon

A look at the varsity sports portfolios of SoCon candidate schools

After Georgia Southern and Appalachian State announced they would be leaving the Southern Conference for the Sun Belt last week, SoCon commissioner John Iamarino held a media teleconference. All in all, he did a good job, sounding reasonably confident about his league’s future. Among other things, he had this to say:

If we assume we’re adding three schools to replace the three we are losing, you don’t get that opportunity often. We could strategically look at what can help us where we need help, and I’ve said I’d like us to get better in basketball.

But we also have to look at football. We are losing two outstanding programs, and football matters in this league and in this part of the country.

This came on the heels of an interview in the Chattanooga Times Free Press in which Iamarino stated:

No matter how much success we’ve had in football, and we’ve had a lot of it, FCS football doesn’t pay off on a national level the way winning games in the NCAA tournament does for you.

Unfortunately, it’s becoming more and more evident that the one common component of the mid-majors who’ve had some of the greatest success in basketball — Gonzaga, Butler, Davidson — is that they don’t play scholarship football. It’s difficult to find a FCS program that’s also successful in basketball.

He isn’t wrong. Part of the reason for that is schools that spend the most money on their men’s basketball programs tend to be the most successful, and schools that field scholarship football teams at the FCS level generally don’t have the resources to commit to both sports (in some cases, they have the resources but not the focus).

Only one school with a full-scholarship FCS program is ranked in the Top 60 in men’s basketball expenditures. Villanova is 31st.

Note: all references to expenses are per the 2011-12 school year, as reported to the U.S. Department of Education.

It is not an accident that four of the eight schools that advanced to the NCAA regional finals in men’s basketball this season also rank in the top 8 in terms of money spent on hoops. Duke ranked first, with almost $16 million in expenses, followed by Louisville. Syracuse was fourth, and Marquette eighth. Kentucky was third; the Wildcats missed the NCAAs this season, but won the national title the previous year.

Another regional finalist, Florida, wasn’t far out of the top 8 (thirteenth). The exception, in a sense, was Wichita State (68th), but basketball is clearly a focal point for the school, as it does not field a football team.

A majority of SoCon schools don’t put that type of emphasis on men’s basketball. Southern Conference institutions averaged about $1.44 million in men’s hoops expenditures (that includes the three departing schools), while spending a total on average of $14,117,677. That means only 10.2% of expenses went towards men’s basketball.

Iamarino mentioned Gonzaga, Butler, and Davidson. Men’s basketball accounted for 28.6% of Gonzaga’s expenses and 26.6% of Butler’s. For Davidson, that number was a more modest 16.3% — but that percentage is the highest in the SoCon.

Davidson may not spend the most money on hoops in the league (in 2011-12 Samford did), but clearly it puts more emphasis on the sport than any other school in the league. In smaller leagues, that may matter almost as much as the actual gross expenses. It certainly goes a long way to explaining Davidson’s success in basketball within the conference itself.

In contrast, men’s basketball expenses for South Carolina ranked 20th nationally ($7.3 million), but only made up 8.39% of its total expenses. The Gamecocks are still searching for their first NCAA tournament victory since 1973.

Before the Southern Conference adds schools, the powers that be are probably going to have to decide whether to begin a transition to a hoops-first league, or continue as a conference that historically values football over basketball. While Davidson is clearly a “basketball school”, as is UNC-Greensboro (since it has no football program), most of the current membership savors fall Saturdays above all else. This is certainly true for The Citadel and Furman, the two schools with the longest continuous membership in the league.

The conference’s dilemma may perhaps be best demonstrated by comparing Furman and Davidson. They are fairly similar private schools, though Furman is larger and has a much bigger budget for varsity athletics.  Furman offers (or will offer) 20 varsity sports. Davidson offers 21 varsity sports. Furman plays scholarship football and treasures it; Davidson fields a team, but doesn’t offer schollies in the sport.

— Furman total athletic expenses: $20,531,292. Davidson total athletic expenses: $10,603,460.
— Furman men’s basketball expenses: $1,679,288. Davidson men’s basketball expenses: $1,727,330.

Davidson spends more money on men’s basketball despite Furman spending twice as much money on its total sports portfolio.

The major difference is football, of course. Furman’s athletic expenses in football for 2011-12 were $5,414,705. Davidson spent only $790,295 on football.

Football may be part of the reason why 45% of Furman’s expenses are for athletic aid (scholarships), while Davidson, with comparable tuition costs, spent 28% of its total expenses on athletic aid.

I put together a spreadsheet that lists various athletic expenses for a cross-section of Division I schools. Most of these schools are not candidates to join the Southern Conference, but I wanted to show (and also get an idea myself) of how schools in general spend money, at least at the non-BCS level.

There are 75 schools listed on the spreadsheet. All are in non-BCS leagues and most of them are east of the Mississippi. I included every SoCon school, and a majority of schools from the Big South, Atlantic Sun, CAA, Patriot League, and Atlantic 10. I also noted the current league affiliation for each school (through the 2012-13 school year).

The spreadsheet can be accessed at the following link:

2012 expenses, varsity athletics — selected schools

A few (okay, more than a few) caveats: I’m not an accountant, but I do know that some of these numbers could be a little…tricky. Different schools may have different ways of counting expenses, etc. Exact comparisons can be dicey, especially when you take a look at the numbers of, say, the Ivy League institutions.

Also, I try to avoid referring to budgets rather than expenses, because there is a difference.

I compiled five expense categories: total expenses, football expenses, men’s basketball expenses, athletic aid, and coaching salaries. It wasn’t hard to do, just a touch monotonous.

Observations about various schools that are in the SoCon, that are candidates for the SoCon, and a few that aren’t:

– Richmond spent $5.56 million on football, more than any Southern Conference school, and more than any FCS school on the list except James Madison ($6.6 million), Delaware ($5.6 million), and Liberty ($8.3 million). Old Dominion also spent more than Richmond, but ODU is transitioning to FBS. Richmond also spent $3.9 million on basketball.

– William & Mary spent $4.5 million on football, fitting comfortably in the middle of a group that includes Furman, Samford, Elon, and The Citadel.

– Athletic aid is a significant part of expenses for all schools, but especially private schools. Of those schools I surveyed, fifteen of the sixteen that had the largest percentage of athletic expenses allocated to athletic aid were private. The one exception: The Citadel.

Of The Citadel’s total expenses, 40.4% were for athletic aid. It is possible that is the highest percentage for a public school in all of Division I.

– Schools that had 20% or more of their expenses go for coaches’ salaries included Davidson, Georgia Southern, Western Carolina, VMI, and North Florida. Among the schools below 12% in that category: Furman, Wofford, Presbyterian, James Madison, and Tennessee Tech.

– Not referenced in the spreadsheet but of interest: UNC-Wilmington has formed a committee to review its varsity sports programs, after its chancellor said the department had been neglected for a decade.

– Unless you consider Belmont and JMU serious candidates, UNCW is the only school regularly or even semi-regularly mentioned as a possible addition to the Southern Conference that spent as much money or more on men’s basketball as did Samford, Davidson, or Furman — despite the fact that several candidate schools (Mercer, Kennesaw State, and East Tennessee State, just to name three) didn’t have football programs in 2011-12.

Of course, Florida Gulf Coast’s spending on men’s hoops would have put it in the bottom half of the SoCon, and that school seems to have done all right. It should also be pointed out that Mercer had a fine team this past season and finished ahead of FGCU in the Atlantic Sun standings. I think the real conclusion to draw is that the Mercers and the ETSUs of the world are going to have to seriously ramp up their fundraising as they add football, especially if they move to a new conference, and that additional money will be spent on other sports besides football.

– When it comes to total expenses, James Madison and Liberty probably wouldn’t have many issues in moving to FBS, as both schools compare favorably to most Sun Belt and MAC schools. Appalachian State is a little behind them, but not totally out of line (though I wonder about travel expenditures). Georgia Southern has a lot of work to do. A lot.

I wrote about GSU when if first considered making the FBS jump, back in 2009 (when it released its initial “Football Reclassification Analysis“). I thought it would be a mistake then, and I’m still a bit dubious today, even with (or perhaps because of) the changing landscape of college athletics.

– Davidson has been mentioned as a candidate for the Atlantic 10. One problem the school would have is that its current men’s hoops budget would be the lowest among all A-10 schools, and there would be a major increase in travel expenses (not unlike last year’s proposed move to the CAA that Davidson declined to make). One A-10 member, Rhode Island, spent $4.6 million on men’s basketball in 2011-12, almost $3 million more than Davidson. Of course, the Rams have a cumulative record over the last two seasons of 15-45.

There were a few expense-related items not contained in the spreadsheet I wanted to briefly mention, for no particular reason other than I thought they were interesting, if not surprising.

– When Duke lost to Lehigh in the 2012 NCAA tournament, it was a case of a men’s basketball team with $15.9 million in expenses losing to a team with $1.4 million in expenses. That may be some kind of record.

– While Texas has the largest varsity athletics budget ($129 million, including over $20 million in coaching salaries alone), it appears that Alabama spent the most on football in 2011-12: $36.9 million. Right behind Alabama in football expenses was Ohio State, with $34 million. Alabama has won three of the last four BCS titles; Ohio State was undefeated last season. I guess they got their money’s worth.

– SEC schools as a group spent $262 million on football in 2011-12. That did not include the expenses for Texas A&M or Missouri.

– Kentucky ranked fifteenth nationally in total athletic expenses. That was only the eighth-highest total for an SEC school.

There is another aspect to the football/basketball emphasis question that has to be considered. It was most recently mentioned by John Iamarino after the Barry Alvarez “we’re not playing FCS schools anymore” brouhaha in February. While being interviewed about that, Iamarino said:

The only reason to have 63 scholarships is to be eligible to play FBS teams and count toward their bowl eligibility. If those games go away, the entire subdivision would have to look at if 63 is the right number. Could we save expenses by reducing the number of scholarships? It would seem to me that’s one thing that would have to be looked at.

This may be the elephant in the room.

First, I believe Iamarino was mistaken when he said that “the only reason” to have 63 scholarships is to count to bowl eligibility for FBS opponents, but that’s not really the issue here. Saving money is the issue.

If the Southern Conference wants to become a hoops-centric league while maintaining viable scholarship football, it may be that the league will push for the division as a whole to lower scholarship limits. My guess is that the new limit would be around 50, a significant reduction but still distinguishable from the Division II maximum of 36.

The money saved from reducing scholarships and related expenses could be used to improve men’s and women’s basketball, or perhaps it could be spread around to enhance athletic programs across the board. However, I suspect the league wouldn’t make the move unless the entire division did the same. I am more than a little unsure about that, though.

There are two main problems with reducing scholarships. One is the risk of devaluing the product. At a certain point, customers (and donors) will conclude that the quality of what is being offered is not worth their time or their money.

The more immediate concern is the reduction in opportunities for potential students. One would hope that the scholarships not used in football would at least be used to fund scholarships in other varsity sports, but there is no guarantee that would happen.

I don’t know if this subject will come up when league officials and school administrators meet on April 10, but I would be mildly surprised if it doesn’t. It could be a factor in how the league approaches adding new schools, even if the potential reduction wouldn’t come to fruition for several years down the road.

In a few weeks’ time, league observers should have a very good idea of the SoCon’s strategy moving forward, both in terms of membership additions and any philosophical change in its outlook on football and basketball.

Or maybe we won’t have any idea at all…

2 Responses

  1. The SOCON is not a basketball conference. It is a FCS conference with a tradition in football. The ADs/ presidents need to ensure that the commissioner understands this and not allow a ( BB ) shift in emphasis. I hope something substantive emerges from the April meeting ; however, I have not been impressed with the commissioner so far. Perhaps ,the ADs/presidents will be able to push for some action. It is important for the conference to act.

  2. Joe I sincerely agree, it scares me to have an AD from the Northeast. My family and I don’t make a weekend out of a basketball game, apologies to Chuck D.

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