Which Teams Could Afford to Be in a College Football Super Division?

Amy DaughtersFeatured ColumnistJuly 29, 2014

Imagine you get the news that the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Pac-12 and the Southeastern Conference are breaking away from the NCAA to form a new top division of college football—what happens next?

After the shock and awe subsides, the nation will try and figure out which programs are in the new “super division” and which are left out in the cold. This will not be decided by tradition, prestige or on-field performance—no, instead membership will be limited to those programs with the deepest pockets.

Think about it this way: Why are the power-five conferences threatening to split with the NCAA if it does not agree to restructure? 

What they want is autonomy, or enough control to make their own decisions. Here’s what SEC commissioner Mike Slive had to say about it to Paul Myerberg from USA Today:

We seek to support the educational needs of our student-athletes through the provisions of scholarships linked to the cost of attendance rather than the historic model of tuition, room and board, fees and books.

Though this is only one reason, it’s a great starting point and highlights the problem with the FBS: Half of the division can financially afford to do things differently—or buy autonomy—while the other half cannot.

So at the very least, schools will have to be able to afford the cost of full attendance to be in the new division. According to Jon Solomon of CBS Sports, the average NCAA gap between an athletic scholarship and the actual cost of attending college is $3,500 per year.

This means that for a college football team with 120 players on its roster, it would cost $420,000 per year—on top of all of its other expenses—to fund this single rudimentary goal.

How many of the 128 FBS programs can afford it?

To answer this, we’ve utilized the U.S. Department of Education’s Equity in Athletics Data Analysis Cutting Tool to calculate which football programs have an excess of funds to work with.

It’s simple: Football revenue subtracted by football expenses shows its profit or losses.  

The figures provided in this analysis are for the 2012-13 fiscal year and, as a bonus, the data includes every FBS program except Navy and Air Force. This means that private institutions such as USC, Notre Dame and Vanderbilt (often left out of finance databases) are included.

According to these numbers, 74 of the 126 programs (or 59 percent) could afford the extra $420,000 required to fund the football portion of full attendance.

To illustrate, Virginia Tech reported $38.6 million in football revenue and $24.5 million in football expenses in 2012-13. This earned the Hokies an excess totaling $14 million. After paying the $420,000, the football program would still have $13.6 million remaining.

In this case, “afford” is a relative term because where Alabama football would have a cool $46 million in “profit” left after a set stipend to its athletes, Wake Forest would have only $700,000.

Add in that the $420,000 is only a starting point for additional costs—what about medical insurance, guaranteed four-year deals, a share of the merchandise licensing windfall, etc.—and you get the picture:  It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison.

Here’s a look at what FBS football programs—not entire athletic departments—would have left in the excess column if they paid the additional cost of full attendance.   


40 Million Plus

Only eight programs are in this group, and it’s no surprise that half of them hail from the SEC. The rest come from the Big 12, Big Ten and independent Notre Dame; the ACC has no representatives here. The excess for each is listed in millions of dollars. 

Texas (81.3), Michigan (57.9), Georgia (50.8), Florida (48.6), LSU (48), Alabama (46.6), Notre Dame (45.5) and Oklahoma (44.6).

This group represents less than 1 percent of the total FBS membership.  


25 to 40 Million

The second tier consists of four SEC members, five Big Ten members and two programs from the Pac-12—the ACC is, again, out of the picture. 

Auburn (38.3), Ohio State (37.7), Texas A&M (35.3), Nebraska (34), Iowa (33.7), Oregon (32.5), Washington (32.1), Arkansas (31.2), Penn State (29.6), Tennessee (27) and Michigan State (26.8).


15 to 25 Million

The ACC finally gets in the game in the third income bracket with three members. The balance of this group consists of two programs from the SEC, four from the Pac-12 and two from the Big 12. 

South Carolina (23.8), Clemson (20.8), USC (20.3), Florida State (19.2), Texas Tech (18.8), Oklahoma State (18.4), Wisconsin (18.4), Oregon State (16.3), Ole Miss (15.5), Arizona State (15.2), North Carolina (15.1) and UCLA (15).


10 to 15 Million

This group consists of two Big Ten members, four Pac-12 teams, two Big 12 programs, four ACC members and three SEC programs. 

Minnesota (14.7), Cal (14.1), Kansas State (14.1), Iowa State (14), Washington State (13.8), Virginia Tech (13.6), NC State (12.9), Utah (12.8), Illinois (12.2), Kentucky (11.8), Georgia Tech (11.2), Missouri (11), Colorado (10.3), Syracuse (10.1) and Mississippi State (10.1).


Five to 10 Million

This bracket is significant because it includes the first program that is not a member of a power-five conference other than Notre Dame. That team is Boise State from the Mountain West.  

West Virginia (9.7), Indiana (8), Northwestern (8), Arizona (7.8), Stanford (7.7), Kansas (6.1), Boise State (5.6) and Baylor (5.5).


One to Five Million

Not only does this group offer a few surprises—Miami (Fla.), North Texas and Troy—but it is also the level where financial solvency becomes a real question mark. In other words, can these programs really afford to be in a super division?

Miami Fla. (4.8), Maryland (4.8), Duke (4.4), Louisville (4.4), USF (3.8), BYU (3.7), Boston College (2.8), Army (2.7), UTEP (2.6), Purdue (2.1), Troy (1.9) and North Texas (1.2).


Less than One Million

Based on the numbers, these programs can barely afford to pay the full cost of attendance to its football athletes. The amount left over for each, after paying the stipend, is listed in hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

Vanderbilt (929), TCU (845), Wake Forest (669), Fresno State (566), Eastern Michigan (420), Wyoming (401), Marshall (256) and Florida Atlantic (141).


Notable Exceptions

Here are some surprising names from the list of 54 FBS programs that didn’t report enough income to pay the average full cost of attendance. Unless otherwise noted, the shortfall is listed for each in hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Pitt (208), Virginia (354), Cincinnati (420), Rutgers (420), Northern Illinois (420), Central Florida (784) and UConn (2.9 million).


The Bigger Picture

While we know that 74 FBS programs could afford super-division membership at a $420,000 minimum investment, let's take a look at how the number drops by increasing the annual funds necessary.

FBS Teams That Could Afford Super Division Membership
Bleacher Report Original Research

Raising the requirement to $5 million would mean that only 42 percent of the FBS could afford to join the new division; at $10 million the number would dip down to 36 percent.

The power-five conference that stands to lose the most is the ACC, which would lose 42 percent of its membership if schools needed $5 million annually to meet increased financial obligations. 

The most bullet-proof league is of course the SEC, which would lose only Vanderbilt based on the 2012-13 figures.

The non-power-five conference with the most solvent football members is Conference USA, with Marshall, FAU, UTEP and North Texas all reporting an excess in 2012-13.  

Regardless of the specific numbers, it’s clear that only half of the current FBS programs could afford to pay the cost of full attendance and still have money left over for other new expenditures associated with a split.

Perhaps the million dollar question isn’t if there will be a new division in college football, but which programs have enough money to enroll. 


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