Colleges spend big, lose big on women’s basketball

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The University of Connecticut’s run at a third consecutive women’s championship comes with the trappings of a world-class sports event, including a national television audience and rowdy fans in blue wigs and face paint.

The Huskies dominate on the court, and can sell out arenas. What they lose is money. The program spent $723,900 more than it earned in fiscal 2010.

Across the U.S., the most popular women’s college sport is in the red. Women’s basketball at the 53 public schools in the six largest conferences recorded operating losses last fiscal year of $109.7 million, while the men’s teams reported operating profits of $240 million, according to National Collegiate Athletic Association financial records.

The women's Final Four takes place starting this weekend in Indianapolis, with semifinal games Sunday and the championship Tuesday night.

Women’s basketball needs to figure out how to at least pay its own way, said Bernadette McGlade, an Atlantic 10 Conference commissioner and a former coach and player.

“There is intrinsic value in being able to carry your own weight,” McGlade said. “For the amount of resources going into intercollegiate women’s basketball, there’s going to be a time where there has to be a rational decision of, is it worth it?”

Bloomberg News used open-records laws to obtain financial reports of state schools in six conferences: Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and Southeastern. The 20 private schools in the conferences aren’t required to make such records public.

Each of the 53 teams lost money in the 2010 fiscal year, and the average operating deficit was $2.01 million on an average $804,577 of revenue, according to the reports. The University of Tennessee, ranked fourth in the Associated Press Top 25, lost $713,997, while No. 7 Texas A&M University had a $2.8 million shortfall. No. 12 Michigan State University was $2.01 million in the red.

Some schools paid coaching staffs many times what their teams earned, the data show. The Texas A&M staff received $1.36 million, or 114 percent of operating revenue of $1.19 million, and Michigan State paid out $833,931, or 87 percent of operating revenue of $954,779.

At Auburn University, salaries and benefits cost $1.14 million, or 1,783 percent of the Tigers’ operating revenue of $64,225, and the program posted a $3.16 million operating loss.

It’s unlikely any women’s college basketball team in the U.S., private or public, makes money, as football and men’s basketball are the two most likely programs to turn an operating profit, according to the NCAA.

Sports aren’t necessarily intended to be money-making, valued instead for teaching leadership, team building and other skills, said NCAA President Mark Emmert, former president of the University of Washington. Intercollegiate or club programs, whether in basketball, lacrosse, squash or tennis, can also be key to marketing to donors and students, Emmert said.

And with the first NCAA women’s championship tournament taking place in 1982, 43 years after the first for men, “we’re still growing women’s basketball,” said Chris Plonsky, the women’s athletic director at the University of Texas at Austin, where the Longhorns had an operating loss of $2.6 million.

Women’s basketball has the best shot at becoming the first female sport to help support others, including some played only by men, because it’s the biggest revenue producer with the biggest crowds and broadest media exposure, according to the NCAA.

Profits should be a goal, McGlade said. “It makes a difference whether you make money. It gives you a seat at the table where the decisions are made.”

That’s especially important when budgets are under pressure, she said. Last year, at least 43 states cut funding to public colleges and universities, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, threatening athletics programs.

The University of California, Berkeley dropped baseball, men’s and women’s gymnastics and women’s lacrosse and reduced rugby to a club sport in September, then reinstated rugby, women’s gymnastics and lacrosse in February after soliciting $12 million in donations to keep the programs alive.

Operating profits and losses measure expenses such as coaches’ salaries and recruiting against income from ticket sales, corporate sponsorships and other enterprises.

At Connecticut, the women’s basketball team pulled in $4.9 million last fiscal year and the coaching staff earned the second highest amount among the schools reviewed: $2.2 million. Head coach Geno Auriemma, in his 26th season at the school, will make about $1.8 million in 2013, the final year of his contract.

Under Auriemma, the Huskies (36-1) have collected seven national championship trophies and notched the longest winning streak for a basketball team of either gender in NCAA basketball history, with 90 consecutive victories.

“I’m not saying it is OK when you don’t make money in the women’s basketball program,” said Jeff Hathaway, the university’s athletic director. “It takes time.”

Connecticut plays the University of Notre Dame on Sunday in one semifinal round of the NCAA tournament, while Texas A&M and Stanford meet in the other. The championship is April 5 at Conseco Fieldhouse.

Last year, 3.5 million people watched on television as Connecticut beat Stanford 53-47 for the women’s NCAA title, while Duke University’s victory over Butler in the men’s match attracted an audience of 23.9 million, according to New York- based The Nielsen Company. The NCAA received $6.74 million in ticket sales from the women’s tournament, and spent $13.9 million to run the event.

At Connecticut, men’s basketball became a varsity sport in 1900; the school has had a women’s intercollegiate basketball team since 1974, two years after Congress passed Title IX. It prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender in educational programs that receive federal funding. Women must have equal opportunities and treatment in sports, which may mean chartered flights, trainers, video specialists and tutors.

Women’s teams aren’t self-supporting for a number of reasons, including high coaches’ salaries, low ticket prices and a society that places a premium on male athletic prowess, according to administrators and economists.

Besides Connecticut, the schools paying the most for staff were Tennessee, at $3.42 million; the University of Oklahoma, at $1.87 million; Rutgers University at $1.85 million and Texas $1.7 million, according to school records.

“It’s insane,” said Andrew Zimbalist, sports economist at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. “You show me a fortune 500 company that would be profitable if the CEO got 75 percent of the revenue.”

Ben Jay, senior associate athletic director for finance and operations at Ohio State University in Columbus, said the market drives coach salaries, and that paying for the best is worth it.

“You spend the money that you need to spend to have a successful program,” he said. “We compete in a national market, pay our coaches in a national market and that’s where Ohio State has chosen to be.”

The average men’s basketball game ticket at Ohio State costs $25 while for the women’s team it’s $9. At that price, Jay figures the women would have to boost average attendance to between 15,000 and 16,000 a game from 3,732 to get out of the red.

Connecticut charges $30 for men’s basketball tickets, and $22 for women’s; at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels charge an average $45 for men and $9 for women, according to the schools.

“I don’t foresee women’s basketball breaking even,” said Jay, who helps manage a $128 million budget for 36 sports and 1,048 athletes. “We’d love it to. We are marketing the brand and pushing the program and all the fan experience elements. But we don’t see women’s basketball subsidizing other sports.”

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