Miro Vrlik Photography via shutterstock
Rentschler Field stadium in October 2014 in East Hartford (Miro Vrlik Photography via shutterstock)

There’s a government department where state employees earn eye-popping seven-figure salaries, put out products that are sometimes brilliant but mostly mediocre, and have lately been losing over $40 million each year. If we weren’t talking about University of Connecticut athletics, it’s hard to see how it would ever survive.

A new report submitted to the NCAA by the university illustrates just how bad things are. In 2018, UConn athletics pulled in about $40 million in revenue, but ended up spending about $81 million. Of that, $31.5 million was spent on staff alone: about $17 million on coaches and $14.4 million on administrative and support staff. Another $16.9 million goes to players in the form of athletic scholarships, and $7.3 million is spent on travel.

The department’s $41 million deficit is subsidized by student fees and institutional support.

According to a USA Today analysis, UConn’s subsidy for athletics was the highest in the country in 2017 at $42.2 million.

The department’s deficit is also a significant piece of the $343 million the state’s taxpayers appropriated for UConn in 2018. Of that total, $191 million goes to Storrs and the regional campuses, and the rest goes to the Health Center in Farmington.

The fact that athletic programs are subsidized by the rest of the university isn’t in itself surprising or negative. Few departments at any university pay entirely for themselves — it would be absurd to require, say, the English department to raise enough money to cover all its expenses. Student athletics are vital parts of the experience, with students gaining experiences that the classroom won’t always provide.

Athletic scholarships are also an important way for students who excel in sports to attend the university and get a high-quality education. There’s nothing wrong with that, either.

But there’s a major difference between, say, the women’s rowing team and the big-time, Division I basketball and football teams. For instance, according to the state government’s salary database, the longtime head coach of that rowing team made an enviable but not eye-popping $85,202 in 2017-18. The Huskies came in 11th in the renowned Head of the Charles race. Considering the competition, that is really fantastic.

On the other hand, Dan Hurley, head coach of the basketball team, will make at least $2.75 million this year, with the possibility of more should the Huskies perform well. Geno Auriemma, women’s basketball coach, makes about $1.75 million per year, while Randy Edsall, coach of the football team, makes at least $1 million per year, plus plenty of incentives for successful seasons.

Big-time college athletics, which means the TV-friendly sports of football and Division I basketball, are essentially functioning as minor leagues for the NFL and the NBA. They draw huge TV audiences, especially for post-season games and tournaments, and can be massive cash cows for high-profile schools.

For example, from 2014 to 2016:

• Penn State averaged $92 million in revenue from its football program, allowing the athletics department as a whole to turn a profit.

Texas A&M averaged $148 million in revenue over the same time period, of which $107 million was profit.

• The University of Texas football program averaged $133 million in revenue, of which $87 million was profit.

The NCAA itself earns over $1 billion in revenue each year.

The competition for athletes and coaches at this level is intense, which is why the salaries are so high. For those schools that can reach elite status, the benefits are obvious. Revenue from ticket sales, television, and donations from alumni can make running a university a lot easier, and national attention attracts high-caliber students and faculty. The success of UConn’s basketball programs is credited in part for the university’s increased prestige over the past two decades.

This is the argument for big-time sports — that they are major revenue sources for the school and raise its profile. But in UConn’s case, at least when it comes to revenue, that doesn’t seem to be true anymore.

The football program, UConn’s attempt to break into the big-money world of the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), is a cash-eating failure. Average home attendance was 20,334 in 2018 — lowest since 2002. The team isn’t competitive against other FBS schools, and few outside Rentschler Field seem to care. Even the men’s basketball team isn’t as popular as it once was, with attendance sagging to a 30-year low.

None of UConn’s athletic teams, the basketball teams included, actually turn a profit. Football lost $8.7 million last year while men’s and women’s basketball lost $5 million and $3.1 million respectively. Another $22 million was spent on the rest of the sports offered in the program.

As for donations from alumni, according to the UConn Foundation’s latest report about $10 million went to athletics. Not paltry, but not nearly enough to offset their expenses.

And, according to USA Today, UConn spends more on athletics than any other school outside the “Power 5” conferences, largely because they’re hoping to get invited to one of those conferences someday. And that was the whole idea of the football program, which was made more urgent after the collapse of the Big East.

Being invited to one of the big conferences would instantly raise the school’s profile, and would lead to the massive revenue streams enjoyed by schools in P5 conferences.

It’s a lot to spend on a what-if, though. And thus far, none of the Power 5 conferences have shown much interest in UConn, or expansion in general.

UConn sports have intangible value to the school and the state, especially the basketball teams. But given all of this, it may be time to rethink the amount of money being plowed into them.

UConn Athletic Director David Benedict told ESPN that he might cut some sports in the face of his department’s deficit. It may be impossible to cut football completely at this point, but the amount of money being spent chasing what is likely an unattainable dream is too much.

Outgoing UConn President Susan Herbst didn’t believe that this trend could continue, either.

In response to a series of questions about the university’s finances in April 2018, Herbst, in a written statement to CTNewsJunkie, said that, “As recently as 2013 the Athletics Division’s budget did not require a significant subsidy. In recent years, declining conference and media licensing revenue, along with rising costs, have created the current deficit. It is not sustainable and the Division of Athletics is continually working to identify savings and drive up revenue in order to help close this gap.”

So let’s set 2013 as a benchmark for what’s acceptable — it was the first year of the American Athletic Conference following the demise of the Big East. According to the UConn Senate’s breakdown of the data, the university’s subsidy for athletics that year was $9.1 million, just under one quarter of the 2018 subsidy.

Notably, from 2005 to 2007, while UConn was still a member of the Big East Conference, the subsidy for athletics averaged only about $6.5 million a year. But while the subsidy has risen each year, athletics revenues have floated downward from $48 million in 2012 to $40.4 million in 2018.

It is fair and reasonable to ask what the department and programs would look like if, in their down years, they were limited to a $20 million annual subsidy instead of $40 million. Yes, that might mean some cuts.

UConn’s next president after Herbst’s departure in June will need to make some hard choices. Reforming and rethinking the Division of Athletics should be at or near the top of the list.

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com or any of the author's other employers.