High-profile college football is hanging by a thread.
Last week UConn became the first top-tier football team to cancel its fall season, and over the weekend the Mid-Atlantic Conference became the first league to do the same. Now presidents and athletics directors at bigger conferences are meeting daily to assess their plans. The expectation is that some, specially the Big Ten and Pac-12, will likely cancel their fall football seasons in the coming days.
With billion of dollars at stake, Sportico went through the annual budget reports from nearly all the 112 public schools in college football’s top tier to get a sense of the scale of what’s spent (and made) during a regular fall season. The numbers don’t include the 18 private schools (such as Northwestern or Notre Dame), and are from the 2018 college football season, the most recent for which reports are available.
FOOTBALL TICKETS — $1.1 billion
Schools took in more than $1.1 billion in football ticket sales in 2018. This is heavily concentrated with the biggest programs. Ohio State ($50.6 million), Michigan ($46.3 million) and Texas A&M ($43.5 million) rank at the top while 36 schools, including the entire MAC, sold less than $2 million total. While some of this money may be held as payment toward next year’s seats, almost all schools are offering refunds for ticket holders.
DONATIONS — $1.6 billion
Schools reported more than $1.6 billion in donations across all sports in 2018. While these contributions aren’t broken out by sport, the majority are tied to football, and many are a requirement for access to pricey football tickets. Like the tickets themselves, these numbers skew heavily toward the richest schools. Texas A&M had $85.2 million in donations in 2018; Ball State reported just $501,000. One of the big questions for programs right now is whether they can convince donors to stick with them, or even give more money, during the pandemic.
MEDIA RIGHTS — $2.2 billion
Media rights are the other major revenue source for most programs. This also isn’t broken out by sport, but pricey football deals with networks like ESPN or FOX Sports make up the majority of this total as well. Big Ten schools each received around $50 million in media payments in 2018, while independent New Mexico State brought in less than $500,000. These payments will not disappear altogether if football is cancelled—most conferences are in long-term relationships with their TV partners, and negotiations will follow about how much can be made good in future years.
GUARANTEE GAMES — $118.7 million
Guarantee games are a critical part of the economics for smaller schools, which often take a seven-figure paycheck to play one-off road football games against the sport’s top teams. Kent State, for example, played at Illinois, Penn State and Ole Miss in 2018 and banked $3.65 million. (This $118.7 million total also includes the payouts that top programs receive to play in neutral-site kickoff games at the beginning of the year).
FOOTBALL PROGRAM SALES, PARKING, CONCESSIONS — $97.4 million
There are a number of smaller ancillary college football revenue streams as well. As an example, schools made more than $97 million in gameday sales like programs, soda, hot dogs and parking fees. This money is likely entirely contingent on having games with fans.
OPERATING EXPENSES — $2.45 Billion
Then there are the costs. Schools spent more than $2.45 billion to put on football in 2018. Those fees include coach salaries and student aid, plus other operational expenses like recruiting, travel, food and equipment. Some of these costs are fixed, and are due to be paid regardless of whether games happen. Others are variable, and will hinge on the decisions made by individual schools and conferences.
SALARIES — $860 million
School paid more than $860 million in salary, benefits and bonuses for football coaches, support staff and administrators. Most of this is a fixed cost, since coaches are contracted employees, but many schools have announced temporary pay cuts for their coaches. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, for example, has agreed to a 10% pay cut this year. So too has Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley.
TRAVEL — $135 million
Schools spent more than $135 million to get their football teams to and from games in 2018. These costs generally vary by school, and by conference, but it’s around $1.5 million for Power 5 schools and around $1 million for smaller programs. This is a mostly variable cost—if the games aren’t played, schools don’t need to pay for the airfare.