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Breaking down the UConn athletic department’s 2019 deficit

The athletic department is still losing (a lot) of money, but the future looks better.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Another year, another big athletic department deficit.

With an eventful 2019 in the rearview mirror, the UConn athletic department wrapped up its financials, and Alex Putterman of The Hartford Courant got his hands on the numbers to break it down. To put it simply, it wasn’t great; the department posted a deficit of $42.3 million for 2019, up from a $40.4 deficit in 2018.

While it isn’t ideal to see the athletic department expenses increase after multiple pledges to lower them, some new, expensive costs played a major factor. Since the Huskies are leaving the American to join the Big East next season, they have begun paying their $17 million exit fee by foregoing revenue from the American this season - that meant roughly $3 million less revenue than last year.

Aside from forfeiting AAC revenue, UConn also pulled in roughly $5 million less in revenue, due to a new, less-lucrative deal with media/sponsorship rights provider IMG and declining ticket revenue.

According to UConn, every major sport saw a decrease in ticket sales in 2019. Men’s and women’s basketball, which rolled out a new season ticket format that requires a more expensive per seat donation, saw decreases of three percent and 17 percent respectively.

Football unsurprisingly also saw a decrease in sales of about 20 percent. All other sports, which includes men’s hockey and both soccer programs, among others, racked up $615,000 in ticket sales, a decrease of 27 percent.

With the exception of women’s basketball, most UConn teams did not play up to their expected standards in 2019, so the decrease in attendance isn’t necessarily surprising. It’s also important to note that men’s soccer, who frequently leads the NCAA in attendance, played off campus this season as Morrone Stadium is under renovation.

UConn also made tickets to all sporting events free to students for the first time ever starting in 2019. While the students still pay plenty to the athletic department via student fees through tuition, it is unclear how much this change may have also impacted ticket sales.

As far as individual programs go, no program turned a profit in 2019. Football was once again the biggest culprit, generating just $3.3 million in revenue compared to $16.6 million in expenses.

According to Putterman, UConn says the deficit may remain around this number next year before decreasing in 2021 and beyond. While that sounds awfully optimistic, there’s some logic behind it as well: UConn will once again forfeit revenue from the AAC for 2020, but will only pay $1 million a year from 2021-26 going forward to complete the buyout.

On top of that, UConn will also need to pay a $3.5 million entry fee to the Big East, but will receive a full share of money from the Big East’s TV deal with Fox as soon as it joins. Without getting too much into the math, this deal brings in around $5 million, before accounting for any football-only TV deal that UConn can manage to create.

Obviously, the school hopes decreased travel costs, increased attendance and donations, along with improvement in the fortunes of football and men’s basketball, will help make up for the cost while providing a better athletic experience for student-athletes, the students who support them, and alumni.

Lastly, the move to the Big East will also lead to slightly more cash in the form of NCAA tournament win shares. With the Big East as one of the best basketball conferences in the country and home to two of the last four NCAA titles, that’s a pretty penny that can help pay off the remaining AAC exit fee costs from 2021-26 if the conference continues to do well come March.

Even with the promise and potential of the Big East so close, the large deficit is certainly a shocking number, although it is likely somewhat inflated due to the way athletic departments factor in scholarships as the cost of full tuition even though money doesn’t ever really change hands.

Regardless, it’s still concerning. From Putterman:

So, while the move to the Big East can’t come soon enough, the cost of moving from one conference to another means that high student fees likely aren’t going anywhere any time soon.

However, there is much more potential for UConn to chip away at this deficit as an independent football program and Big East conference member through buy games, third-party TV deals, win shares and reduced travel costs. The deficit won’t go down right away, but there is a real chance the Huskies’ move to the Big East can help paint a different picture for the athletic department in both the near future and by the end of the decade.