SEC, Big Ten each top $2 billion in athletic department revenue, outpacing Power Five foes

Public-school athletics departments in the Southeastern and Big Ten conferences each collectively combined for more than $2 billion in operating revenue during their 2022 fiscal years, a USA TODAY Sports analysis shows.

The numbers for those two conferences and the others in the Power Five showed a significant, expected rebound from 2021 amounts that were heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. But when taking inflation into account, neither the combined revenue nor the combined spending of the 52 Power Five public schools in 2022 returned to pre-pandemic levels.

The data come from financial reports the schools provide annually to the NCAA, and that USA TODAY Sports obtained in partnership with the Knight-Newhouse Data project at Syracuse University.

DATABASE: NCAA finances revenue and expenses by school.

The figures provide some stark illustrations of the disparities that already exist among the Power Five conferences. Those disparities seem almost certain to get even wider starting in the 2024-25 school year, when Big 12 titans Oklahoma and Texas will move to the SEC and the Pac-12 will lose UCLA and USC to the Big Ten.

In 2022, when money from student fees and forms of institutional and government support is not counted, there was a $62.1 million difference between the median revenue generated by an SEC school and that generated by a Pac-12 school.

For some context, in 2022, only nine public schools outside the Power Five conferences had more than $62.1 million in total operating expenses for their entire athletics program.

SEC, Big Ten public schools dominate

In 2022, the SEC’s 13 public schools combined for $2.17 billion in total operating revenue, a figure that includes money from student fees and forms of institutional and government support.

The Big Ten’s 13 public schools combined for $2.04 billion.

Each of those conferences has one private school, which makes for imperfect comparisons with the other Power Five conferences. The Atlantic Coast Conference has six private schools among its 14 full members (Notre Dame plays football as an independent). The Big 12 and Pac-12 each have two private schools. And while the Pac-12’s private schools, USC and Stanford, likely are among its revenue leaders, Vanderbilt and Northwestern likely are — at best — at the mid-level of revenue within the SEC and Big Ten, respectively.

Using median values for their schools’ revenues, rather than the averages, the conferences ranked in the following order:.

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SEC: $159.1 million.

Big Ten: $150.1 million.

ACC: $134.4 million.

Pac-12: $117 million.

Big 12: $110.7 million.

However, this hides some of these schools’ individual revenue-generating power. The Pac-12’s public schools receive more revenue through allocations of student-fee money than do the other conferences’. In 2022, there were 19 Power Five schools that received at least $10 million in allocated revenue; eight were in the Pac-12.

Going based on revenue actually generated by athletics departments, which includes conference and NCAA revenue shares, the medians change — and the gaps grow:.

SEC: $159 million, with a range of $203 million for Alabama, to $110.7 million for Mississippi State.

Big Ten: $147.1 million, with a range of $251.6 million for Ohio State, to $85.6 million for Rutgers.

ACC: $125.2 million, with a range of $151.9 million for Clemson, to $94.8 million for Georgia Tech.

Big 12: $106.9 million, with a range of $239.3 million for Texas, to $91.4 million for Oklahoma State.

Pac-12: $96.9 million. The top amount was $153 million for Oregon, which reported that total included nearly $13.1 million in the form of a one-time, non-cash gift: a video board that was part of a massive overhaul of the Hayward Field track and field complex, which hosted the 2022 track and field world championship. The lowest amount was $69.7 million for Washington State.

Mississippi State, the SEC’s lowest revenue generator, was at least $8.5 million ahead of every Pac-12 public school except Oregon and Washington.

Pac-12 at a disadvantage

“You know, we don’t have a lot of stadiums that are 100,000 (capacity). And it seems like the Big Ten and SEC are all selling those things out — and that’s a lot of revenue,” University of Arizona president Robert Robbins told USA TODAY Sports. “So I think we’re at a disadvantage, obviously. For those numbers that you just quoted, that’s a big delta — and it obviously hurts us in terms of being able to attract coaches and pay salaries. We aren’t going to be as competitive (in those offers) as, say, the SEC or Big Ten.”.

Robbins added: “I think if you look at the Pac-12 … What are the parameters you use to measure success? And if you look at how many national championships are being won, the Pac-12 is right up there with everybody — and probably leads the pack over the last 20 years. We think that’s really important. I think we’ve been leaders in mental health and other ideas about the welfare of athletes. But on the sheer financial competitiveness, I would say, using that lens and those metrics, we’re punching above our weight.”.

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But the Pac-12’s edge in national championships has been challenged, even before UCLA and USC depart. In 2021, Texas ended Stanford’s 25-year streak of winning the Directors’ Cup, which is based on schools’ top national finishes in 19 men’s and women’s sports. And in 2022, when Texas won again, it was the first time in the competition’s 28-year history that the Pac-12 did not have at least five schools in the top 25 (it had three). Stanford has re-captured the Directors’ Cup in 2023.

Some pandemic spending approaches worked

The Power Five public schools’ nearly $7.5 billion in combined total operating revenue for fiscal 2022 was about $2.2 billion greater than the amount for the pandemic-influenced fiscal 2021, which saw massive alterations to football and men’s basketball schedules.

But in recent years, inflation has become a significant economic factor, so making year-to-year comparisons requires taking that into account. Using federal Consumer Price Index information from June of each year, because most public schools’ fiscal year ends June 30, the 2022 revenue total is lower than an inflation-adjusted total of nearly $7.8 billion for fiscal 2019, the last year not affected by the pandemic.

Adjusted for inflation, the Power Five schools’ operating expense for 2022, about $7.15 billion, also was below the inflation-adjusted total of just under $7.6 billion for 2019.

Some schools chose to maintain some spending approaches they adopted by necessity during the pandemic. Speaking during a recent webinar sponsored by the LEAD1 Association, which represents athletics directors at Football Bowl Subdivision schools, Mississippi State athletics CFO Eric George talked about how its women’s volleyball and women’s soccer teams had traveled to and from some Friday night games on the same day by charter aircraft.

He said that prior to the pandemic, those teams typically would use commercial flights that required the teams to leave campus on Thursday and return on Saturday. The charter flights, he said, were “almost the exact same cost” as two nights of hotel, plus two days of meals and local transportation.

“Our coaches were a little bit hesitant to do it initially,” George said, “and then as they started doing it, they found they really liked it. . . . We’ve tried to focus on what puts us in the best position to win games and trying to really prioritize those costs.”.

Make money, then spend a lot of money

The emphasis on winning in a financial environment in which profits don’t matter makes it likely that as revenues continue to recover from the pandemic and then start growing again, spending increases will follow. The Big Ten, SEC and Big 12 soon will be starting new media rights contracts, and the College Football Playoff is set to expand.

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In a separate interview, LEAD1 executive director Tom McMillen was direct and drew comparisons between pro sports and college sports.

“Really, (college sports) is much more of kind of the Wild West in terms of get as much revenue in and spend as much as you can. I mean, the professional leagues have some mechanisms that constrain the enterprise,” McMillen said, referring to salary caps and luxury taxes. “College sports doesn’t have that. … The mentality is winning and the mentality is do whatever you can, and if you have to incur some bills — you know — kick the can down the road.

“But don’t do anything that will not allow you to win. … I mean, think about it — presidents, ADs, their lifespan is often less than 10 years, so there’s a now-ism in college sports that is not so true in professional sports because owners have to look for the future. They have to look at ultimate profitability.”.

One indicator of this mentality is the amounts that Power Five schools have been committing to spend on buyouts to fired coaches. The payments in some cases are spread over later years, and some get offset when the coaches find other jobs.

In 2022, the total committed to buyouts was $132.9 million. Even adjusting for inflation, that amount is nearly $34 million more than what the schools committed in 2019.

The 2022 total is second to the inflation-adjusted total of $170.1 million in 2018, and it made 2022 the second consecutive year in which the schools recorded more than $100 million in buyout payments — something that had never happened before.

‘It’s already been spent, right?’

As the recent LEAD1 webinar wound down, it was noted that more revenue for all FBS schools likely would be coming from the expanded College Football Playoff. The three panelists, all athletics department CFOs, were asked by a fellow CFO serving as the moderator how they planned to use that money.

There was a pause.

Then George intoned: “It’s already been spent, right?”.

All four participants chuckled knowingly.

When the laughter subsided, George said: “You know, it’s a good question. There’s still a little uncertainty on exactly what that’s going to look like for each school … So you don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself.

“But … When you look at where the expenses are going, compared to the revenue, I truly don’t anticipate that allowing us to do a whole lot more new things. It’s really more about continuing to operate at the level that we’ve got to do.”.

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