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Why Craig Littlepage doesn’t care: The UVA athletics money trail

UVaHelmet_1Logic would seem to dictate that yet another losing season for UVA football under Mike London would bring about a financial impetus for change. The thought there being, losing football teams that have trouble filling half the seats in the stadium at home games are losing money, and money is why you go to the trouble of playing college sports in the first place.

And you’d be wrong in thinking that way.

The University of Virginia athletics department makes money whether Scott Stadium is filled or not, whether the team wins games or not, for two reasons: alums and students.

First, the alums. A 2012 analysis by USA Today has UVA among the leaders nationally in private donor contributions to the athletic department bottom line, at more than $34.5 million annually. But even with that haul, the books wouldn’t be balanced if not for the exorbitant so-called student fees required of UVA students, who pay an average of $940 a year in monies that go to athletics support, adding up to just under $13 million a year in total.

Football ticket sales in the study were equal to the line item for student fees, and were about 70 percent of what Virginia Tech brings in terms of ticket-sales revenues from football.

Tech also assesses a far smaller student fee on its undergrads – about $313 a year, for a total of $7.2 million a year – while bringing in a good bit less from private donors, about $15.9 million a year.

Lots of numbers there, but the bottom line for UVA football is, the money comes in even if the football team stinks up the bottom of the ACC, because the donors are forever in a giving mood, and the kids have no choice in the matter.

So what if the difference in ticket sales vis-à-vis Virginia Tech could lead to a rollback in student fees to the level that Tech assesses on its students. (And so much for the long-discredited argument that college sports brings in money for the academic side of the school that it’s attached to; when it’s clearly the case at UVA and many other schools that the budget would be in deficit if not for the siphoning of dollars from students already facing many, many years of debt service after graduation for the privilege.)

Those monies are there, and will be there as long as the Board of Visitors continues that student-fee absurdity, and also as long as the money folks continue propping up what you can’t even say is a mediocre program anymore.

Fans and sportswriters love to engage in ongoing discussions about the latest London gaffes in game planning, play calling, situational management and the like, because frankly that’s what fans and sportswriters do. Part of why big-time college sports exists is to, OK, make money, supposedly, or at least pay for itself, but really, as long as it comes close to breaking even, it’s essentially marketing for the brand.

UVA athletics is a pretty solid brand, outside of football, finishing fourth in the Directors Cup last year even with a two-win football team, and was a Game 3 win in the College World Series away from winning the Cup, a sign of the overall health of the Virginia brand.

It might be hemorrhaging money without the student fees and the well-heeled alums, but as long as the kids and the geezers don’t revolt, the Good Ship Littlepage will continue to sail with Mike London captaining the football team.

Leave it to the Nebraskas of the college athletics world to fire coaches who win nine games every year in front of sellout crowds every week because that doesn’t meet their idea of a standard of excellence.

Five wins amid of a sea of empty seats is good enough at Virginia, where, like the volume on the guitar amp on “This Is Spinal Tap,” the losing streak to the in-state archrival also rather humorously goes to 11.

– Column by Chris Graham



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