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Perhaps less is more when it comes to funding a winning C-USA program

Spending money on your program will only get you so far in Conference USA

NCAA Football: Alabama-Birmingham at Marshall Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

From morbidly obese head coach salaries to grandiose training facilities and expanding stadiums, it seems everywhere you look around college football you see signs of a proliferating arms race. Donors and universities are spending more and more money each year in the hopes of building the next household name in college football.

Conference USA is no exception to the drastic increase in spending that we’re seeing across the country, with five C-USA programs increasing their athletics expenditures by 20% or more over the past five years.

But despite all this increase in spending, has anyone stopped to ask if increasing financial spending actually leads to an uptick in competitiveness? Are C-USA programs that are keeping up with the Joneses surpassing the achievement of their more frugal peers? Let’s take a look at the data to determine the truth.

First off, a few caveats. Most universities report expenditures across the entire athletics department, meaning it’s hard to ascertain just how much of a school’s budget is allocated to football vs women’s basketball.

Secondly, these numbers are each school’s operating budget and does not include capital expenses such as new stadiums, locker rooms, etc. Many times such capital expenses are funded outside of the athletic department’s finances anyways, further clouding the true relationship between investment into football programs and their subsequent success.

While a program’s operational budget doesn’t give us all the answers about how a program is funded, it does include critical expenditures such as medical treatment for players, “body bag” payments to host opponents, recruiting budgets, travel and game expenses, short term facility and equipment costs, coaching and administrative salaries (including buy outs!), and financial aid for students including both scholarships and cost of living stipends.

To determine whether or not a large budget translates to more wins or losses, I averaged out the reported expenditures for each C-USA program over the past years (minus Rice, the lone private institution in C-USA). From there I generated an average SP+ ranking for each program, again over the past five years.

Since the number of sponsored sports in C-USA varies drastically from 18 at Old Dominion and UAB to 12 at UNT, I divided each program’s total expenditures by their number of sponsored sports to normalize the data a bit.

I found that there is indeed a strong correlation (-0.51) between spending and on-field success, however I was quite shocked to see that the relationship is inverted! Meaning that for each dollar a C-USA program spends, it actually decreases their chances at becoming one of the top programs in the league.

Each dot on the chart represents a single C-USA program. The dot’s position on the Y axis tells us where the program ranks in average spending per sport over the past five years (being lower vertically means you spend more), while the dot’s position on the X axis tells us where the program ranks in average SP+ ranking over the past five years (more successful programs are on the left). The line of best fit marks the correlation between these two rankings.

If spending more money on your program led to better on-field results, then the line of best fit would move from the bottom left quadrant of the chart to the upper right quadrant, as programs that spend the most would have the highest average SP+ rankings. In reality, we see almost the exact opposite in Conference USA!

So how do we explain this inverse relationship between spending and success which seems to defy logic? Let’s take a look at the outliers. The top five programs in spending per sport are UNT, MTSU, ODU, FIU, and UTEP. Their SP+ ranking averages are 7th, 8th, 11th, 10th, and 14th in order. These programs are clearly not getting a good return on their investments!

Conversely, several programs are generating much more bang for their buck than their conference peers. UAB has been the top program in C-USA over the past five years, yet they rank 11th in average spending. FAU follows behind them in second place, yet they rank 10th in average spending. It’s clear that just throwing money at a program doesn’t translate into wins in Conference USA.

Perhaps these under-achieving programs are investing their money into the wrong areas? UAB and FAU both outpace the conference median in recruiting budget by a healthy amount. FAU spent 29% more on recruiting than the C-USA average in 2019, while UAB was over the median recruiting spend by 7%. Meanwhile, UNT, FIU, MTSU, and UTEP were all below the 2019 median in recruiting expenditures.

Additionally, the less successful programs may need to spend more to “catch up” to the programs that have more historical success such as Marshall, USM, and La Tech. The more established programs may have less need to spend heavily to attract player and coaching talent, market their program, procure top-notch equipment, etc.

Answering the “why” and “how” of Conference USA’s inverse relationship between spending and success is deserving of future deep dives, but for today just know that mo’ money mo’ problems appears to be the mantra of the conference.

Syndication: ElPaso
No program in Conference USA receives a worse return on their athletics investment than UTEP.
Mark Lambie / El Paso Times, El Paso Times via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Conference USA “Bang for your Buck” Power Rankings

Per sport spending minus SP+ average ranking over past five years, higher SP+ is tiebreaker

  1. UAB (+10)
  2. FAU (+8)
  3. USM (+7)
  4. Louisiana Tech (+7)
  5. Marshall (+5)
  6. WKU (+2)
  7. UTSA (0)
  8. Charlotte (-5)
  9. UNT (-6)
  10. MTSU (-6)
  11. FIU (-6)
  12. ODU (-8)
  13. UTEP (-9)