Not only are the Buckeyes and Crimson Tide two of the most recognizable college sports brands in the country, they’re also among the wealthiest. Ohio State spent more on athletics than any other school in fiscal 2019 ($220.6 million), and Alabama was fourth ($185.3 million). By almost any financial measure—be it coaches’ pay, ticket sales, media rights or donations—Monday night’s College Football Playoff championship will feature two of the sport’s financial elites.
That said, their businesses aren’t identical. The two schools are in different conferences, offer a different number of sports and spend their money in different ways. Here’s a breakdown of their budgets and revenues, as they were structured before the pandemic:
Some notable differences:
Number of sports: Ohio State sponsors 36 varsity sports, one of the highest totals in college football’s top tier, while Alabama offers 21. As a general rule for major athletic departments, the football and men’s basketball teams generate money that helps fund other sports, which means a much larger bill for Ohio State. Non-football and basketball operating expenses at Ohio State were $47.3 million, more than 55% higher than they were at Alabama ($30.5 million).
Spending: More teams also means higher costs in other areas. Ohio State typically spends nearly twice as much as Alabama on team travel, and three times as much on athlete meals. One area where Alabama consistently spends more than Ohio State: recruiting. In 2019, the Buckeyes spent $2.9 million on recruiting for all sports, while the Crimson Tide spent $4 million.
Football ticket revenue: Both football teams play in large stadiums that seat over 100,000 fans, but Ohio State brings in significantly more money from football tickets than Alabama does. In 2019, the Buckeyes reported $50.6 million in football ticket revenue, while the Crimson Tide reported $36.1 million.
Conference payouts: The SEC and Big Ten are the two richest conferences in college sports, and as a result, they pay out more to their members than leagues like the Pac-12 or Big 12. In 2019, the SEC gave roughly $45 million to each school, while the Big Ten distribute around $55 million. Both those numbers will likely increase in the coming years as new media deals kick in, and existing deals start paying out more.
Basketball profit: The Ohio State men’s basketball team, which has made four Sweet Sixteens in the past decade, is a bigger commercial entity than Alabama’s, which has made none. The Buckeyes sold more tickets, earned more in media rights and collected more in NCAA distributions due to the league-wide success of the Big Ten in recent March Madness tournaments. Ohio States men’s basketball team averaged a $7.3 million profit annually from 2017-19; in that same span Alabama’s averaged $3.4 million.
Debt: Both schools are on the high end among colleges in athletic debt and annual debt service, costs typically accrued following big capital projects. Ohio State, for example, is partway through an “athletic district” development that will include new training facilities, weight rooms and new venues for its varsity volleyball, gymnastics, fencing and wrestling teams. The school’s athletics department has $250.7 million of debt as of 2019; Alabama’s has $218.8 million.
(The table “College Football Playoff Semifinals: By the Numbers” has been corrected to reflect accurate numbers for the schools’ athletic department budgets that include expenses not allocated by sport.)