Huskers in rare financial company

On Wednesday, USA Today released its annual database of revenues and expenses for the 228 public school athletic departments in NCAA Division I athletics. Of that group, only 23 athletic departments were in the black, taking in more money than they spent in 2012.

Nebraska was one of those schools. In 2012, the athletic department took in $81.63 million in revenue and spent $77.03 million on athletics. Nebraska’s $4.6 million surplus ranked 13th nationally in 2012 and third in the Big Ten behind Michigan ($24.67M) and Ohio State ($17.62M).

But there’s another layer to the money behind major college athletics — subsidies. Athletic departments relied heavily on additional revenue from student fees or state/school aid in 2012. According to USA Today:

Subsidies for all of Division I athletics rose by nearly $200 million compared to what they were 2011. That is the greatest year-over-year dollar increase in the subsidy total since USA TODAY Sports began collecting finance information that schools annually report to the NCAA; the first year of those data covers the schools’ 2004-05 fiscal year.

Of the 23 athletic departments in the black last year, only seven of them were able to do it without subsidies — Nebraska, Texas, Ohio State, LSU, Penn State, Oklahoma and Purdue. That puts Nebraska in some pretty good company, but you can reduce it down even further from there.

There were seven unsubsidized athletic departments last year, but only two schools for certain received no subsidies whatsoever between 2005 and 2012: LSU and Nebraska. (The data for Penn State is incomplete due to a state law that didn’t require the school to publicly release that information between 2006 and 2009. Penn State did not receive subsidies in 2005, 2010, 2011 or 2012.)

How does Nebraska do it? Here’s a look at Nebraska’s yearly revenues and expenditures in three major categories by year:

Some thoughts based on that data:

–The most shocking numbers above are the drop in donations from 2008 to 2009. At the end of the year in 2009, Nebraska reported just $5.16 million in contributions, down from $16.41 million the year before. That’s a nearly 70-percent decrease. Since that eight year low, contributions climbed back up to $12.64 million in 2011 before dropping again in 2012.

There’s a temptation here to tie this directly to Nebraska’s fortunes on the football field but that seems hasty without further investigation.

–Nebraska’s biggest increase in expenses over the period surveyed is in coaches’ salaries. Between 2005 and 2012, that expense climbed by 59.06-percent.

–That increase in coaching salaries — which more than any other category is heavily influenced by national trends — was tenable thanks to the even larger increase in television rights. Nebraska’s licensing rights grew by 72.22-percent in the past eight years.

–There’s a significant spike in rights revenue when Nebraska joined the Big Ten. That increased by more than 12-percent from 2010 to 2011 and Nebraska’s not even receiving a full share of the Big Ten revenue yet which helps explain why Nebraska only ranked eighth in the Big Ten in revenue last year.

–With Pinnacle Bank Arena opening in 2013-14 and already sold out for men’s basketball as well as additional seats at Memorial Stadium, Nebraska’s ticket revenue in 2014 should finally eclipse the eight year high of $33.98 million in 2009.

Overall, the USA Today report raises some difficult questions about the state of spending in college athletics but trying to come up with blanket answers is probably unwise. The circumstances vary widely by school. In some cases, the student body has voted to contribute student fees whether the athletic department needed it or not and that’s just one example.

But one conclusion that is immediately clear is that Nebraska and LSU are unique in that they not only are completely self-sufficient athletic departments, but they have been for at least the past eight years.

That’s a pretty good place to be.