National sports media outlets often provide valuable investigative reporting, but they can also drive inane storylines that overstate a perceived crisis and often don't tell the whole story.
The "IS THE GROUP OF FIVE FINANCIALLY VIABLE IN THE LONG TERM?!" sensationalist talking point that's been pushed in the wake of UAB killing football is an example of a recent and particularly pernicious inanity. The New York Times, political numbers guru Nate Silver, and USA Today are guilty of peddling this storyline and eliciting mass eye rolls from pro-G5 skeptics.
USA Today just released their updated athletic department finances database for Fiscal Year 2014, so let's see if the numbers actually match this narrative, or our colleagues in the media are just concern trolling.
We looked at figures that convey each school's ability to survive the apocalyptic scenarios hypothesized by our media colleagues where state funds dry up and students revolt against paying athletic fees on their tuition statements. Put more specifically, how much of their expenses are covered by non-subsidized revenues?
American Athletic Conference
UCONN has a bunch of basketball money to play with alongside their football revenues, so they're in the best financial position in the conference. Houston's revenues and non-subsidy rates were surprisingly low, although those numbers may stand to change for the better with Tom Herman sweeping into the bayou.
Although their revenue numbers pale in comparison to the P5 Promised Land, the AAC is still in pretty good shape. The AAC in most cases could likely survive a worst case scenario of state funding drying up, although their long term competitiveness would definitely be damaged.
Note: SMU, Temple, Tulsa, and Tulane are private schools and did not provide data.
*Western Kentucky was a member of the Sun Belt in FY 2014
Jump from the AAC to C-USA and the financial picture looks less robust. Old Dominion is the only school to crest $40 million in revenues, and a staggering $26.7 million of that was from student fees. Southern Miss looks like the school best poised to wean itself off of subsidized funds with a healthy amount of self-generated revenues and by keeping expenses down.
Oh, and don't think we forgot about you, UAB. Although Blazer athletics--pre-Bill Clark, mind you--was only able to cover 36.4% of its expenses without outside help, FAU and total revenue leader ODU had an even lower ratio of unsubsidized revenues to expenses. MTSU and UNT also had similar ratios, and few have questioned their right to play FBS football.
Note: Rice is a private school and did not provide data.
Sun Belt Conference
The Sun Belt's numbers are perhaps the most interesting because they show a huge disparity in member schools' ability to cover their expenses with self-generated revenues. Curiously enough, the two Louisiana schools that are likely in the most danger of having state funding sources cut off were the most successful in covering their own costs sans subsidies. What they've most likely done is cut expenses, which isn't a death sentence in talent rich and football mad Louisiana.
On the other side of the spectrum, all of the recent move-ups from FCS besides Appalachian State fund less than 30% of expenses with self-generated money. Yet upstarts Texas State and Georgia State, report the 1st and 3rd highest revenues in the conference, respectively, because of heavy subsidies. Student fees make up the lion's share of their revenues, which shows the desire of each student body to fund an FBS football program.
Debunking the narrative
There's a pretty clear trend here: AAC schools would be best suited to survive a sudden drying up of state funds and student fees. Then there's the Sun Belt, which is often highly dependent on state funding, and C-USA is somewhere in the middle. So some of those schools should be concerned about their ability to keep up with the big boys as the P5 further consolidates wealth and state funds slowly decrease.
Of course, a healthy concern about the future doesn't fit the apocalyptic narrative of the USA Today article linked above. It displays a sensationalist headline, a completely unique budget crunch at ODU that's not experienced at most of their G5 counterparts and a quote from a president from a P5 school that all suggest the G5 could face some sort of endgame scenario that strips them of all efforts to be competitive. Most national media articles have followed USA Today's formula in addressing this subject, and there are multiple reasons why that frantic tone is both lazy and overblown.
Even in the wake of crushing student loan debt and tuition figures, there's hardly a widespread political movement to end or cut back student fees on FBS campuses. Recent move-ups like UTSA, Texas State, South Alabama, and especially Old Dominion instead suggest that majorities of students want big time FBS football more than ever, or that they're not willing to revolt in mass numbers over the fees that come with it at the very least.
State legislatures do slash higher education and athletics funding quite often since they're easy entities to target politically. But even the most fiscally obsessed politicians usually** know that football Saturdays bring economic benefits to local communities by filling up hotels, restaurants, and sales tax coffers.
Almost every G5 athletic department also knows this reality: Football revenues usually help pay the bills for the other sports. And financial lightweight UL-Monroe has shown that even when the state mostly cuts you off, you can survive by keeping your expenses down and taking on (and even beating!) the big boys.
Instead of heeding the latest media stampede to label the G5 as financially insolvent, university administrators should take a look at the crimped financial portraits of non-football schools. Model examples include UT-Arlington (14% non-subsidized revenues), UMKC (16%), Texas A&M - Corpus Christi (18%), IUPUI (12%), Texas-Pan American (17%), and New Jersey Tech (9%).
If you're going to cut football out of some misguided fiscal responsibility crusade, you'd better have a damn good basketball program to pick up the slack.
**this statement not valid in Alabama