Ever since its inception in 2014, the College Football Playoff has been contested exclusively by the richest and most popular football teams in the country. This year, for the first time in eight seasons, an outsider is on the grounds.
Undefeated Cincinnati’s mere inclusion in this Friday’s semifinals, alongside a trio of blue-bloods, is already historic, despite what happens against Alabama. The Bearcats are the first team from outside the NCAA’s five richest conferences to make the playoff, and the just the second team (joining 2014 runner-up Oregon) without a national title on its résumé.
By nearly every financial metric, the Bearcats are dwarfed by their three fellow semifinalists—Alabama, Georgia and Michigan. Michigan’s athletic budget in 2019-20 was $180.8 million, second highest among all public schools, while Alabama ($173.1 million) ranked No. 4 and Georgia ($138.8 million) came in at No. 17. Cincinnati spent $74 million, roughly half Georgia’s total and 54th among FBS public schools, according to Sportico’s college sports finances database.
The football-specific numbers are even more stark. Georgia reported an $85.9 million profit from its football team for the 2019 season, while Michigan reported $81 million and Alabama $51.6 million. Cincinnati reported a $5 million loss. Alabama, Georgia and Michigan also rank in the Top 12 in football spending among public schools. Cincinnati is 61st.
“I know our student athletes are really excited about playing Alabama because they’re Alabama, and for the last few years they’ve watched them compete for national championships,” Cincinnati athletic director John Cunningham said in a Sporticast podcast interview earlier this week. “I think [head football coach Luke] Fickell said it right: If you’re going to go play in the playoff, why not start with [the] behemoth? Just take on Alabama and see what you can do.”
Diving deeper into the numbers, Michigan ($50 million), Alabama ($36.9 million) and Georgia ($36.3 million) are all among the Top 10 in football ticket revenue, with Cincinnati ranked 57th at $4.1 million. Each of those blue blood programs also spend at least three times Cincinnati’s total in football recruiting, and have annual conference media payouts that are at least six times what Cincinnati gets from the AAC.
When Group of Five programs find sustained football success, they often struggle to retain their coach. Fickell, a former Ohio State assistant, is a constant presence on the coaching carousel rumor mill, but he’s stayed with the Bearcats despite interest from wealthier NCAA programs and at least one NFL team. Fickell and his staff were paid $6.3 million for the 2019 season, ranked No. 55 among public FBS schools. Alabama was first at $18.6 million, with Michigan and Georgia both in the Top 10 at $15 million.
Cincinnati’s football ascendency didn’t come out of nowhere—the Bearcats were undefeated last season before losing a close game to No. 9 Georgia in the Peach Bowl—and the athletic department’s spending will likely increase in the next few years. Cincinnati is one of four schools joining the Big 12 by 2024, part of the conference’s reshuffling following the pending departures of Texas and Oklahoma.
The six public schools staying in the Big 12 spent an average of $90.6 million on their athletic departments in 2019-20, and $25.8 million on their football teams. Cincinnati is significantly lower than all of those schools, at $74 million and $15.4 million, respectively.
For now, however, the focus is on the school’s historic semifinals berth. The fourth-ranked Bearcats face No. 1 Alabama at 3:30 p.m. on Friday. No. 2 Michigan faces No. 3 Georgia at 7:30 p.m.