Chris Graham: Is the well-being of UVA Athletics dependent on football?

chris graham uva footballUVA football coach Bronco Mendenhall should be advocating for a new football operations center.

I got no problem with him doing that. He’s the football coach. He should want the best in terms of facilities to be able to get his team ready to win games.

I do got a problem with one thing he said this week, answering a reporter’s question at his weekly press conference.

Mendenhall: “I would go as far as to say the well-being of the athletic department is tied to football’s success.”

Me: “Meh.”

The UVA athletics department brings in $100 million a year. Football ticket sales account for roughly $8 million of that total.

Basketball ticket sales add another $4 million, give or take.

The annual distribution from the ACC is $25 million. Donor contributions are $30 million most years.

My personal bug-a-boo, student fees, come in around $14 million, the highest student-fee total in the Power 5.

Now, yes, the half-empty stadiums on Saturdays are a drag on the bottom line. Virginia Tech, down the road in Blacksburg, brings in $5 million more from ticket sales than UVA does on an annual basis.

Even so, UVA’s athletics budget is $13 million fluffier than the one down at Tech. Part of that is the student fees – UVA’s fees are more than double Tech’s – and part of that is the donor money.

One could look at the numbers and come to the conclusion: hey, fill Scott Stadium up, make another $5 million, maybe that cuts into the student fees.

Reality: the student fees are not going anywhere, but maybe up.

All selling more football tickets does is rake in even more money for a department awash in it already.

Which, yes, anomaly here, the UVA athletics department actually operated in the red in 2016-2017, the last year for which complete financial figures are available.

The big hit there was a $5.4 million drop-off in donor contributions, which you can certainly argue, hey, that’s because the football team sucks.

Except, the football team has sucked dating back to the mid-Aughts. I’d love to know what the folks at the VAF decided was the root cause, and if the 2017-2018 numbers show it to be a one-off or the beginning of a new trend.

In either case, even filling up Scott Stadium doesn’t do more than have a 5 percent impact on the overall bottom line for UVA Athletics.

Which, we’ve got to do better than we’ve been doing, clearly. They added 20,000 seats to the stadium 20 years ago, or thereabouts, and we had 34,000 for the ACC opener last month, which would have looked bad in the old 42,000-seat Scott Stadium.

It’s going to look worse tomorrow night with a Top 15 team on national TV with the seas of empty metal seats in the student section and upper decks.

It seems to be the feeling across the college football landscape that you need to have these football performance center doo-hickeys to be able to win games, which, when everybody ends up building one of their very own, then what, the answer being, we need another new performance center, bigger than the last one.

It’s an arms race, and frankly, it’s one Virginia isn’t going to win. The ceiling for this program is an occasional run at a Coastal Division title, maybe pulling an upset of Clemson in the ACC title game, but, playoffs? Don’t talk to me about playoffs.

No matter what I say, the die is cast. We’re building our own shiny new performance center palace thingy.

Which maybe helps our teams win eight or nine games a year, maybe 10 some year down the road.

Which I very much want to see happen.

But the well-being of the athletics department is good either way. We’re long since past the time at UVA that we need football to be healthy.

Column by Chris Graham

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