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Cinicinnati's Athletic Department Has Room To Grow

The Cincinnati Bearcats transition from Conference USA to the Big East was a massively expensive proposition. From 2005 to 2008 UC was running average deficits in the neighborhood of 4 to 5 million a year. That was the period when the Bearcats were still only provisional members, not receiving a full share of the Big East's payouts. For the last couple seasons things have stabilized.


Over the last four years the tables have turned. UC is within shouting distance of breaking even with the department. But there is still something off, the sources of where the Bearcats get their funds is troubling, to wit. Published below are the Bearcats revenues from 2005 and 2012.



One problem is that the share of revenue derived from ticket sales has not really changed in 8 years, despite the total ticket sales more than doubling over that period*. But its not just the revenue that has changed, the Bearcats have two sources of income today in Football and Basketball, both of which have made money for the last four years. In 2004-05 UC made money in Basketball and lost money on everything else. What is really interesting to me is that the Bearcats are getting more ticket revenue, without really increasing attendance in Football and Basketball, at least over the period included in the data.

* From 3,889,980$ in 2004-05 to 8,098,155$ in 2011-12

Here is a chart for the Bearcats attendance over the period, plus this past season as well.

Football Football Average Basketball Basketball Average Total Average Attendance Capacity Percentage of Capacity
2004-05 106,275.00 21,255.00 203,489.00 11,305.00 309,764.00 32,560.00 399,477.00 78%
2005-06 112,113.00 22,423.00 186,019.00 9,301.00 298,132.00 31,724.00 443,055.00 67%
2006-07 142,613.00 20,373.00 158,966.00 8,831.00 301,579.00 29,204.00 483,225.00 62%
2007-08 181,477.00 30,246.00 145,081.00 8,534.00 326,558.00 38,780.00 434,931.00 75%
2008-09 191,788.00 31,965.00 140,725.00 7,818.00 332,513.00 39,783.00 448,128.00 74%
2009-10 203,741.00 33,957.00 145,360.00 8,076.00 349,101.00 42,033.00 448,113.89 78%
2010-11** 245,472.00 35,067.00 127,678.00 7,093.00 373,150.00 42,160.00 518,523.00 72%
193,757.00 32,293.00 145,235.00 8,069.00 338,992.00 40,362.00 509,004.00 67%
2012-13 203,965.00 29,138.00 166,560.00 9,253.00 370,525.00 38,391.00 483,232.35 77%

** UC played three games in the cavernous Paul Brown Stadium in those two seasons, with the effect of increasing total attendance while decreasing the Bearcats ability to fill their venues to capacity. Everything is a trade off.

The Bearcats have been playing Basketball and Football before 3/4 filled stadiums for the entirety of the study. One trend that is readily apparent is that when attendance for basketball fell drastically for the end of the Huggins fiasco, the Kennedy experience and the start of the Mick Cronin era it increased markedly for Football. The net effect was the same in the end, but the trends are worth noting.

There is still room to grow the ticket sales, obviously. Being 25 per cent full means that there are always tickets available for those want them. But that still isn't a big concern for me. The concern is that over the 8 years since leaving C-USA and entering the Big East everything about the Bearcats revenues has gotten bigger and better. Ticket sales have doubled, University subsidies and licensing revenue have tripled. The only thing that hasn't? Alumni contributions. They were around 4.5 million in 2004-05 and were 6.2 in 2011-12, and increase of just 34 per cent.

There is no doubt that the conclusion of the Huggins fiasco robbed UC of much of the momentum created by the initial announcement that the Bearcats were heading to the Big East. Where Missouri and Texas A&M have both seen big increases in donations jumping to the SEC UC actually saw giving bottom out. Fundraising actually fell by 17 percent by 2006-07. The lingering negative effects from the Huggins-Zympher war are still felt today, anyone who worked as a fundraiser for UC knows exactly what I am talking about. There are still some former big donors who refuse to give a dime to Cincinnati, despite everyone involved in the incident having long since moved on.

Even among UC's peers and former peers the Bearcats aren't in a great spot when it comes to getting contributions from fans. Only USF has a lower level of contributions***. In an ideal world the athletic department gets more or less equal amounts of revenues from tickets, contributions and rights licensing. For most sustainable athletic departments that is what takes place.

***This information is only available for public institutions. Places like Temple might have a lower level of contributions

But that is not Cincinnati situation, UC is not getting enough return on investment from the revenue sports. A big reason for that is that the Bearcats are missing a key revenue stream, one that every other department in the country started tapping long ago.

Most power 5 athletic departments have a dual revenue stream when it comes to seating at football and basketball games, this comes from seat licenses as well as the ticket to the game. The seat license amounts to the right to buy a particular seat for that seasons games, it is usually purchased or "given" with a donation of X amount of money. After acquiring the license the holder can then buy season tickets. That creates a dual revenue stream, from the donation to get the license and from the tickets to the actual events. It is enormously profitable, it is also something the Bearcats don't have.

UC has 16 private suites in Fifth Third Arena, and 200 seats in the Nippert Press Box, but only for members of the George Smith Society. That is it. For the broad middle of fans who have the money and desire for a club or loge seat there is nothing. That is the cost of an opportunity lost, and the lack of diversity in seating options has a real effect tamping down potential revenues.

That is why the coming rennovation of Nippert Stadium, and the potential for UC to move down to a renovated Bank of America Arena make so much sense. That upper middle portion of the UC fan base has largely been undeserved.