Campus leaders at the University of Nebraska at Omaha say they made the move to NCAA Division I in athletics because the school was financially failing at Division II.
So how has the change worked out financially so far? The World-Herald requested detailed budget data covering UNO’s last years at Division II and first three of its four-year transition to Division I. An analysis of those numbers and other data sources shows that while athletic finances appear more stable than in the past, Division I has brought its own financial challenges.
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In the 2013-14 school year, the most recent year for which audited figures are available, the athletic department was actually more dependent on university dollars than it was at Division II.
In the 2009-10 school year, the last before the Division I move was announced, 63 percent of department funds came from the university in the form of student fees and university tuition and tax dollars. By 2013-14, that had increased to 67 percent, with the actual subsidy dollars increasing from $7.8 million to $9.2 million.
Nearly all NCAA schools subsidize athletics with institutional support. Of some 230 public institutions in Division I in 2013-14, all but seven subsidized athletics to some degree — the University of Nebraska-Lincoln being one of the exceptions. The average Division I subsidy was $11 million.
Despite the increase, UNO’s subsidies were still almost $1 million lower than the average for the 45 other Division I public institutions that don’t play football. Among those schools, UNO’s 67 percent subsidy was the seventh-lowest, well below the 76 percent average.
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The school is generating some additional revenues, particularly in men’s basketball.
UNO is collecting almost $350,000 a year by having its men’s basketball team play “guarantee games,” serving as an opponent for big-name programs like Marquette, Iowa and UNLV. In addition, the school increased its men’s basketball ticket revenue from under $10,000 to more than $140,000. Average attendance nearly tripled, from 507 per game to 1,374.
Such generated dollars cover just over half the team’s $1 million budget. Beginning this year, UNO also projects to receive about $100,000 of proceeds from the Summit League and NCAA basketball tournaments.
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Increased costs related to the move to Division I have produced an ongoing athletic department deficit of about $1.1 million.
During 2011, the year UNO announced plans to go to Division I, the department ran a net deficit of nearly $1.8 million, primarily related to a $1.4 million fee it had to pay the NCAA to begin its transition. It also paid nearly $1 million to honor the scholarships of wrestlers and football players and in severance payments to coaches.
The deficit was covered internally that year by other university funds and still has not been fully repaid. It’s currently on the books at $1.1 million. UNO’s athletic director, Trev Alberts, said future funding has been identified to ultimately cover the deficit, though he would not specify what it is.
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UNO would almost surely have required a much bigger budget and even more subsidy dollars to compete in the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly known as I-AA.
UNO was spending $1.4 million on football when it cut the sport. The average FCS school today spends $3.3 million on football, and also must spend more on women’s sports to meet gender equity rules. FCS schools average $11 million in annual subsidies, nearly $2 million more than UNO.
Scheduling games against big-name opponents wouldn’t provide enough dollars to fund football. FCS teams typically receive less than $500,000 for such guarantee games. And the Big Ten recently barred its teams from scheduling such games in the future.
It’s unrealistic to think UNO would have been able to generate ticket sales to make up the difference. Long struggling in the shadow of the Cornhuskers, the Maverick football team averaged 3,800 fans a game during its final season, generating a total of just over $100,000 in ticket revenue.