I love college basketball, always have.
Starting from the age of 15, I have coached at all levels, from elementary school to NCAA Division I.
With a deep-seated love for college basketball, I have tried to be the voice for the teams and players who typically do not attract the national spotlight. I enjoy telling their stories, while shining a light on their challenges and successes.
Looking at the collegiate game today, I have concluded that the influence of money needs to be addressed in a thoughtful and pragmatic way.
Money dominates and determines the NCAA Tournament selection process. Power 5 conference budgets have soared and that money has slanted the competitive balance to look more like a ski slope than a level playing field. NCAA members are establishing budget levels that do not reflect a responsible business model for non-profit universities.
Something has to change.
According to the Office of Postsecondary Education, which is part of the Department of Education, the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville lead all of college basketball by spending more than $16 million on their men’s programs, as reported for budget year 2014, the most recent figures available. Duke was third with more than $14 million in budgeted expenses.
Budgeted expenses include coaching salaries, recruiting and travel expenditures as well as operational monies.
Eighty men’s basketball programs spend nearly $5 million per year. Most of them are from a Power 5 conference — ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, SEC — or the Big East. But SMU, Cincinnati, Temple, UConn, Memphis, Gonzaga, San Diego State, Wichita State and Dayton join those conferences as $5 million+ spenders. (Utah was the only Power 5 men’s basketball program with a budget under $5 million.)
“The current system is all set up for high majors to be successful,” said one mid-major head coach.
The average budget for the teams that advanced to this year’s Sweet 16 was $8.2 million. The average budget of the nine non-Power 5/Big East teams who lost in the tournament’s round of 32 this month was $2.83 million. All 36 teams selected for at-large tournament bids had budgets of $4 million or more.
“Bigger budgets give those programs a major competitive advantage, especially in recruiting and scheduling,” said Scott Cross of UT Arlington. “Everything revolves around the almighty dollar so schools that have more money will have a much higher chance of being successful.”
George Mason in 2006, to Butler in 2010-11, to VCU in 2011 and Wichita State in 2013 all spent below $5 million during their Final Four seasons. From their successes it appears that to remain competitive in college basketball requires at least at least $2.5-3 million based on today’s NCAA D-I spending.
What is the solution?
Spending caps have proven successful in professional sports, so I propose a $6 million budget cap for all NCAA D-I men’s basketball programs.
Gonzaga could be a model for teams outside the Power 5 and Big East. Their current budget is in the $6 million range. Why should anyone need to spend more than $6 million at a non-profit university?
After reviewing all of the numbers for years, I see a budget cap of $6 million as both reasonable and responsible. It would bring more sanity to spending — and scheduling, which is closely intertwined with money — at non-profit institutions.
For starters, consider:
- The Power 5 conferences and the Big East play more than 86% of their out-of-conference (OOC) games at home or at a neutral site.
- The Power 5 and Big East collectively play over 62% of their OOC games at home.
- The Power 5 and Big East play just over 13% of their OOC games as legitimate road games.
- More than half of their legitimate road games are against other Power 5 or Big East opponents.
- Only 6.5% of the Power 5/Big East schedules combined are on the road versus teams from outside the Power 5/Big East.
- Computer rankings for teams and conferences are first based on out-of-conference (OOC) performance. The more games a team wins in the OOC portion of their schedule the more favorable the ranking for their team and their conference.
- A majority of Power 5/Big East OOC games are played at home (62%).
- The reason they play more than 62% home games is because they pay teams to play in their arena with no promise of a return game at the opponent’s home site. They literally buy that opponent for one game. Example: Ohio State could pay UT Arlington $80,000 to play one game in Columbus, Ohio.
- According to several mid-major coaches, the going rate for “guarantee games” is anywhere from $60,000 to $120,000 (if teams hold out late in the scheduling process).
What do those numbers mean to programs that play on the road for money?
“At UT Arlington, we are required to bring in $300,000 in guarantee revenue each year to help support our athletic budget,” Cross said. “The average guarantee is somewhere in the neighborhood of $75,000 to $85,000; therefore, it will take us four games in order to meet this requirement. You will have at least 7-8 road games with only 2-3 home games, unless you play non-Division I games (which don’t count in RPI).
“It is almost impossible to have a high RPI with all of these road games against ‘high major’ opponents. You have to have a magical year, like we did this year, and upset teams like Ohio State, Memphis and UTEP on the road in a hostile environment.”
While UT Arlington won those games, the rest of the Sun Belt was not as fortunate. Once Cross’ team returned to conference play their RPI was guaranteed to fall dramatically as other conference members had much lower computer rankings based on their OOC schedules. The collective impact of the Sun Belt’s road losses versus Power 5 opponents assured the Sun Belt would be a one-bid league.
The Power 5 and Big East play a large majority of their OOC games — more than 86% — at home or at a neutral site. The collective impact is that the Power 5/Big East dominates a selection system by overloading their schedules with a glut of home games versus all other lesser-funded conferences.
No one can say for certain but the 2016 NIT provided some eye popping comparisons. The Power 5/Big East collectively went 9-0 at home in NIT first round games. Over the next two rounds when those schools went on the road to play at non-Power 5/Big East sites those same teams were 0-7.
“Our league has to stop being bought!” said Kermit Davis, head coach at Conference USA member Middle Tennessee. “Programs and leagues that buy games play the most home games. It’s that simple.”
His 15th-seeded Blue Raiders upset second-seed Michigan State in this year’s tournament this year. “Getting top 50-100 home-and-home games and top 50-RPI neutral site games are our goals,” Davis said. “More upsets take place in March as a direct result of neutral-site NCAA tournament games.”
Based on the numbers, the scheduling advantage for the Power 5 and Big East is a direct result of their ability to buy more home games than other conference members.
“It is practically impossible for a successful mid-major program to get any power conference schools to play you at home,” said Belmont head coach Rick Byrd.
Another mid-major head coach shared his frustration: “We can’t even get our schedule anywhere close to gaining an at-large bid under this systematic Power 5/Big East scheduling monopoly.”
What is the solution?
No guarantee games where Team A can offer a monetary reward to attract Team B only to play at Team A’s home site. Also, schedule all OOC games either home/home or at a neutral site.
“No one will do that” is the most common argument I hear against these solutions.
Why not? Do the New England Patriots buy home games? Do the New York Yankees buy home games? Does your local high school team buy home games?
I rest my case.
BUT … “Out-of-conference scheduling is different than conference scheduling.”
Why? Every conference in the country requires a balanced schedule in conference play, so why should OOC scheduling be so radically different?
Professional and amateur sports around the world want integrity built into their scheduling. The goal is for the players and coaches to win championships, not the schedule. This simple solution ensures fairness and a competitive balance where all teams win or lose based on coaching and talent, not the schedule.
BUT … “What about the teams that need guaranteed revenue to survive?”
There needs to be a serious discussion at every Division I school regarding the financial commitment to remain Division I. More home games will be a direct result of this scheduling change which will generate revenue for those schools.
If your current model requires student-athletes to leave campus on a regular basis to generate money for the rest of the athletic department perhaps you should reconsider how the program is funded. Factoring in the cost of lost classroom time should also be included.
Is guaranteed game revenue worth the price every student-athlete pays to miss class and spend a majority of November and December on the road?
Is guaranteed game revenue more important than the integrity of the NCAA Tournament selection process?
The current OOC scheduling practices and results can be made more pertinent to the selection process as it stands today.
Convene the selection committee in late December/early January when OOC schedules are complete. The committee will evaluate all results regardless of conference affiliation and rank the top 68 OOC performers based on their selection criteria. This will do two things:
- This real-world use of the criteria and tools the selection committee will employ for the actual selection process in March is a training plus.
- This exercise will highlight for the committee and the basketball world the importance of the OOC schedules and the challenges teams face in scheduling against Power 5/Big East teams under the current guaranteed-game scheduling practices.
This season’s Monmouth team is a great example. Based on their wins during their OOC schedule the Hawks would have been favorably viewed by the committee at that time. My concern is that the OOC accomplishments fade from memory in late February. By evaluating the OOC portion of the schedule in early January the committee may have viewed Monmouth in a different light.
I invite everyone who loves and cares about college basketball to get involved in protecting and enhancing the game’s future. It is my opinion that the status quo cannot stand. Either we stay in the current money-driven system or we create a new paradigm where the playing field (or court) is level and championships are decided by players and coaches, not money and schedules.