UConn was bad at football in 2018. The Huskies had one of the worst defenses in major college football history and finished 130th out of 130 FBS teams in S&P+. But a new report paints an even grimmer picture about the broader athletic department.
The university’s 2018 report to the NCAA on its financial situation is full of bad news. The athletic department brought in $40.4 million in revenue, but incurred a whopping $80.9 million in expenses. It needed more than $30 million in “additional institutional support” and more than $8.5 million in student fees. That’s all per the Hartford Courant.
One reason for rough financials? Nobody is really going to the games. The Hartford Courant also reported that only about 10,000 fans a game actually showed up to watch UConn football last year, a continuation of a troubling trend over the last five years of Husky football.
The math in these reports can be a little fuzzy, but the fundamentals here are hard to ignore. UConn’s athletic department doesn’t sell enough tickets or make enough from TV, conference distributions, licenses, and so forth to come close to sustaining its costs.
It’s tough to see how UConn’s finances get fixed in the near future. It’s also hard to see how the football team contends.
The Huskies’ AAC is approaching a new TV deal that should bring more money every year. But optimistically, that’s an increase of $4-6 million per year, and it might come with giving up any chance to join a power conference in the near future.
The football team is still playing home games 22 miles from campus. While the Huskies have literally nowhere to go but up, they’re years away from contention. Their ceiling might be low, too. UConn’s only major bowl appearance since 2000 was a fluky Fiesta Bowl appearance as a four-loss team after 2010, due to the Big East’s BCS auto-bid. That team lost by four touchdowns to Oklahoma and lost money making the trip.
The program’s never won double-digit games or finished in the AP Top 25. Heck, since 2000, UConn’s cracked the top 60 in S&P+ three times and never finished higher than 36th. Its average finish has been 85th, and it’s been 112th since the move to the AAC.
In the AAC, UConn’s recruiting has tanked so badly that Harvard has a better 2019 class. In a region with few three-stars, let alone blue-chips, how much better is UConn going to get? Is it worth this much debt if a good season means, oh, 7-5 and a trip to the Birmingham Bowl?
Even UConn recognizes it can’t continue like this.
The football team itself lost $8.7 million in 2018, thanks in part to a a $1.1 million decline in ticket revenue. Money is so tight that Randy Edsall paid out of his own pocket to give his offensive coordinator a raise. Men’s and women’s basketball, the school’s flagship programs, also lost millions apiece. The school told the Courant:
“The long-term goal is obviously to move athletics closer to financial self-sufficiency,” UConn spokesperson Stephanie Reitz said in an email, noting that as recently as 2013, the athletic department did not require a significant subsidy. “In recent years, declining conference and media licensing revenue, along with rising costs, have created the current deficit. It is not sustainable and the Division of Athletics is continually working to identify savings and drive up revenue in order to help close this gap.”
One thing that would help? Yeah, dropping to FCS in football.
It’s not something many fans want to hear, but FBS football is really expensive! If you’re not selling tickets, don’t have a credible way to success, and have money problems, FCS could make a lot of sense. Even for certain Power 5 programs, it’s at least worth considering.
UConn would have options as an FCS program. The NEC only has seven teams and would almost assuredly welcome UConn, who would have local opponents like Sacred Heart, Central Connecticut State, and Bryant, plus a winnable league with an FCS playoff auto-bid.
The CAA, the successor to UConn’s old league and now one of the best in FCS, already has 12 teams, but could perhaps be persuaded to take the Huskies back. That would pair UConn with other quality Northeastern programs like New Hampshire and Maine. Either option would be more geographically contained than the sprawling AAC, helping with travel costs.
Dropping down a level shaves costs in a variety of ways. At least four AAC schools pay their head coach at least $2 million a year, while a good FCS head coach might make $300,000, with assistants in the low six figures or lower.
The school wouldn’t be on the hook for as many football scholarships, (a max of 63 in FCS, rather than 85 in FBS), and could spend less on the bloated administrative bureaucracy you need to recruit in FBS (and which Edsall’s criticized). UConn’s football staff directory lists 26 different people, for example. Maine, which made the FCS semifinals last year, lists 12.
There would be some financial losses, too. As relatively small as the AAC’s TV deal and share of College Playoff Money are, they’re bigger than their FCS equivalents. In the AAC, UConn can make at least $1.2 million to get slaughtered by Clemson in a guarantee game. In FCS, the Huskies’ asking price would go down several hundred grand.
It wouldn’t close the deficit on its own. But if UConn returned to its old status as an FCS contender and sold more tickets, it could come a lot closer over time. Especially because ...
UConn’s other major sports would fit great in the Big East.
Of course, UConn isn’t really a football school. It’s a basketball school. The men’s team has struggled after winning the 2014 NCAA tournament. While certainly not the only factor, the AAC move has contributed to the program’s decline, robbing it of road games in traditional Northeastern recruiting territories. Plus, selling tickets for games against Tulane and East Carolina is a lot harder than selling tickets for games against Georgetown and Villanova.
If UConn ditched the AAC and parked basketball and other sports in the Big East, not only would it be in a superior conference for both men’s and women’s basketball, it’d be reunited with programs it used to play all the time in the Old Big East — the teams many UConn fans actually care about.
That’s an easier path to greatness, and a much easier path to ticket sales and money. And it’s not like the Big East wouldn’t be interested in having the Huskies. UConn’s other fast-growing sport, hockey, isn’t sponsored by the AAC and shouldn’t feel the effect of a move.
Going to FCS might sting. But UConn’s in a unique situation.
Few athletic departments in the six biggest FBS conferences get as much in university subsidies as UConn’s does. Few have harder roads to football success. FBS football costs might still go up in the future, and revenue might not keep up. The school has two other programs with big fanbases, successful histories, and a potential landing spot fans would like. Nobody likes to drop a level. But sometimes, it’s the right thing to do.