Last Wednesday, the University of Georgia, which took more than three months to release its expense and revenue report for FY 2021 despite repeated inquiries from Sportico, reported a net profit of $46 million, more than doubling the next most profitable athletic department in the nation.
In an email, the university commented that the report “distinctly defines revenues to include non operating funds related to capital projects and interest income from investments… therefore, the balance shown does not reflect the full financial picture.” Still, with the average Power Five public school reporting a $7 million deficit for 2020-21, the Bulldogs’ finances were an outlier, a fact no doubt influenced by the conference to which they belong, the SEC.
The two wealthiest conferences in college athletics took very different approaches to the 2020 football season. While the SEC completed a full schedule of games, the Big Ten postponed its season before going forward with a shortened slate in front of empty stadiums. That led to different financial results, according to annual budget reports obtained by Sportico through public records requests and displayed in our Intercollegiate Finances Database.
A gap in ticket sales between the two conferences is the most obvious effect of the differing policies. Many SEC stadiums operated at 25% capacity, and some even lower. Consequently, schools’ typical ticket sales revenues were slashed by about that same percentage, but SEC programs still averaged $5.6 million in football ticketing revenue for the season. Conversely, Big Ten teams allowed no fans across the board and a few schools actually reported negative ticket sales revenue, as their financial bookkeeping may count refunded tickets as such.
Big Ten schools not only missed out on football ticket revenue entirely, but they also received less from their conference media distributions because they played fewer games. Wisconsin received $16 million less from football media rights compared to 2019-20, and almost every school had its payouts reduced by more than $4 million. In the SEC, media rights revenue was virtually unchanged by the pandemic, with payouts increasing slightly based on the nature of the conference’s ongoing TV deal.
In fact, if you remove media rights from the equation, the average public school in the SEC actually saw its football revenue decrease year-over-year by a bit more than that of the Big Ten. Add in media rights, and the Big Ten public school’s football revenue decreased by $35.7 million, versus a smaller $29.1 million drop in the SEC.
The conferences differed significantly in handling distributions to schools. On top of fulfilling its football media deals for the 2020 season, the SEC also announced in May 2021 that it would distribute an additional $23 million to each member as an advance on future television money. As a result, five SEC athletic departments, led by Ole Miss and Arkansas, reported an increase in revenue on their books for 2020-21, something done by only three other Power Five public schools, none from the Big Ten.
The only area in which the SEC was hit harder was donations, where its schools have consistently reported higher numbers, on average, than Big Ten programs in recent years. With the caveat that accounting in the donations category varies from school to school and is often tied directly to ticket sales, the average SEC athletic department received $10.8 million less in contributions in 2020-21 than in 2019-20. The dropoff in the Big Ten was less significant, at only $4.1 million per school.
Although the SEC fared better financially because of its steadfast commitment to playing football, the balance sheets of schools in both conferences were decimated by COVID-19. The average Big Ten program operated at a $25.4 million loss in 2020-21, and that figure would have been in the range of $13 million for SEC athletic departments if not for the conference’s aforementioned advance distribution.
The pandemic, though, hasn’t changed the fact that these two conferences tower over the rest in terms of financial resources, particularly in football. In 2019-20, 14 of the 20 biggest spenders on football in the country belonged to the Big Ten or the SEC. In 2020-21, a year and a pandemic later, 15 of the top 20 came from those two conferences.