Major financial questions loom over the creation of a basketball-first conference in the 21st century. Will the new league be a financial boom or bust for it's members?
Villanova has decided to join the Big East's other six non-FBS members in separating from the football side of the conference to create a new league for their athletic programs. The move was one that came together quickly after Rutgers and Louisville notified the conference that they would be withdrawing from the league.
One of the big questions that hangs over the Catholic 7's league -- which may still be called "the Big East" -- is what the revenue will look like for the schools involved. While there have been a few optimistic projections thrown around, many looking at the scenario are slightly more pessimistic about the revenue potential of the proposed product.
With talk of elite basketball being at the core of this conference concept, it's worth it to wonder if the schools involved will be able to play at that level going forward.
The major issue is that elite college basketball programs spend money, and a lot of it. Duke's program has been one of the nation's most successful for a few decades now, and the Blue Devils spend close to $14 million annually (not including one-time facilities investments) on their basketball program, In their most recent NCAA Championship season, they spent $424,000 per win.
Other top-spending programs are Georgetown, Marquette, Michigan State and Louisville, who all clock in between $9- and $10-million per season. Of the 12 biggest spending programs in college basketball, 11 have made at least one appearance in the Final Four since 2003 (only Virginia has failed to see that return on their investment).
Under the old Big East television contracts, the 'Catholic 7' schools that are breaking away have been receiving approximately $1.5 million per season as well as revenue generated by the large number of NCAA Tournament "units" that the conference has accumulated.
Last year, one NCAA unit was worth $242,202 and the Big East held 21 of them. The total conference take from the NCAA Tournament was $5.1 million last season. The C7 will reportedly be allowed to keep the units they have already earned over the previous six years (the period during which units are valid), but those units are a minority of the Big East total -- reportedly just $1.2 million (which works out to $173,000 each) from last season's tournament.
In total, the C7 schools have had a conference revenue distribution of between $2.8 million and $3.8 million according to ESPN's Kristi Dosh, of which a big chunk was NCAA tournament-related.
Even if the C7 is able to retain the rights to their own tournament units, they will lose the benefit of units that were earned by the other Big East football schools like UConn and Cincinnati, as well as the benefit of units earned by departing members Notre Dame, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Louisville, most which had deep tournament runs while still in the Big East and whose units remained with the Big East after withdrawal.
Only three of the C7 schools turned a profit on their basketball programs based on data submitted to the Department of Education. Those three were Marquette, Providence and Villanova, and only one reported a profit larger than the estimated revenue distribution from the Big East. The revenue numbers reported above are allowed to include direct institutional subsidies from the university budget to the program, which is why most programs show a $0 profit -- which would most-likely be a loss if the institutional money didn't cover the difference.
Impressively, five of the candidate schools that have been mentioned to join the C7 in their new league have reported profits with significantly less revenue. For the non-football Atlantic 10 schools, Butler, Dayton, Xavier, St. Louis and Richmond, TV revenue will be at $312,500 this season; all of them earned hundreds of thousands less than that for the season the Department of Education data was reported. For Butler, VCU, Gonzaga and Creighton, the television revenue is not likely significant at all for the year reported.
Xavier and Dayton both registered particularly large profits from their programs and apparently have a healthy stream of local revenue coming in. The Flyers and Musketeers earned more revenue than all of the "Catholic 7" schools except for Marquette, but managed to turn a bigger profit than the Golden Eagles by spending dramatically less.
If one accepts that college basketball success is tied to the ability to spend money on a program -- which appears to be the case as the "have's" tend to outperform the "have-nots" -- then the men's basketball programs at these seven schools will have to find a way to support, and potentially grow their budgets going forward.
Television revenue could be less than $1 million per year, but optimistic estimates place it at least slightly over $1 million, while the NCAA tournament revenues are expected to decrease in the short term. Plenty of money can be earned from NCAA success, however, and perhaps more from that (when college basketball viewership is at it's peak) than from regular season television contracts.
Long term success is likely tied to the conference's ability to put teams into the NCAA tournament and for those teams to make deep runs -- and to do so will require them to continue funding their programs at elite levels. In addition to maintaining current budgets despite decreasing revenue, they may need to increase their budgets (in some cases) or make additional investments in constructing, upgrading, or maintaining facilities.
For the prospective partner schools, profitability is nice, but all will need to adjust their budgets to compete at an elite level. While Xavier has been the cream of the Atlantic 10 in recent years, for example, they have only occasionally threatened a Final Four run and have not yet crossed that threshold. Their $4.7 million budget is seven-figures lower than the smallest C7 basketball budget and would need to be augmented -- which shouldn't be an issue given their revenue capability.
For most of the C7, however, maintaining current spending or increasing those budgets could cause some strain, especially in the short term, as the new league attempts to build up NCAA Tournament units and looks to increase it's television marketability. With the notable exception of Marquette, these universities have been relying on conference revenue distributions to fund their elite basketball programs and the elite budgets that go along with them.
Villanova and five of the other six defecting non-FBS schools, as well as many of their expansion candidates (Saint Louis, Creighton, Butler, VCU and Richmond, specifically), will need to find ways to generate revenue like Xavier does. In the case of the C7, however, they will all have to do so without the benefit of a large, state-of-the-art, on-campus arena.
* Editor's Note: The University of Dayton was erroneously left out of the chart above. They earned a profit of $6.81 million on a budget of $3.98 million and revenue of $10.78 million.