Home Mailbag: How does college baseball make sense when it loses so much money?
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Mailbag: How does college baseball make sense when it loses so much money?

Chris Graham
henry ford uva baseball
Photo: Chris Graham/AFP

You have to ask, how much money do you lose before you cry uncle (“Public-records request: Is UVA Baseball a revenue sport? Not even close,” June 18 AFP)?

Is there any college baseball program that is in the black? Seems to me you need to play in a bigger venue and/or charge lots more money for tickets. Of course, student fees are not figured in; pretty soon that will run its course. Thanks for the article. PS I am a college baseball fan.

Al

The news that I reported this week about the fiscal state of the UVA Baseball program only adds to my struggle to make sense of the purpose of college athletics.

Only a few schools actually turn even a small operating surplus each year, and it’s not like even those few are under pressure to do anything more than break even, because they’re not publicly-traded, for-profit companies with stockholders demanding monetary return on investment.

It seems like a lot, then, to put all the time, money and effort into college athletics to just to maybe break even at the end of the fiscal year.

That UVA Baseball, which has been to three of the past four College World Series, routinely has 4,000-plus at its home park even during the cold-weather months of the oddly-timed college baseball season, and is packed every May for Regional and Super Regional weekends, loses money hand over fist is just emblematic of the bigger issue here.

Al alludes to the uncomfortable reality of how the books are actually balanced at UVA Athletics, which reported a $2.7 operating surplus in fiscal year 2022-2023, according to the Knight-Newhouse College Athletics Database, but reported on the revenue side $16.2 million in student fees.

Student fees amounted to a bigger line item on the revenue side of the ledger than ticket sales ($14.1 million) did last year, according to the database.

Basically, UVA, like almost everybody else in D1 sports, doesn’t make enough money from ticket sales, TV dollars and its donors to be able to balance the books without fleecing the student body rather severely.

Without the student fleecing, UVA Athletics lost $13.5 million last year.

So, again, why – why do we do all of this?

It’s nice, no doubt, having UVA swimmers in prime time on NBC (average viewers: 3.2 million) all this week, and then later this summer, and it was fun for me to travel out to Omaha again to see the baseball team compete for another national championship, with ESPN broadcasting the games to a national audience (average viewers: 1.1 million).

And that’s, pretty much, it.

The only way the money spent on college athletics makes sense is if you think of it as money actually spent on marketing.

UVA pays Brian O’Connor and Todd DeSorbo good money not because it hopes the baseball and swimming programs will turn a profit, but because their success on the diamond and in the pool casts the University of Virginia in a good light for millions of TV viewers, some of whom might be prospective students.

In the world of politics, the political marketing people call this “earned media,” because those folks think their never-ending efforts to try to get journos to write and give TV time to their candidates that end up paying off with positive media coverage is something that they’ve created out of the thin air, like so many widgets.

I’ve had to remind more than one political consultant that what they think is “earned media” is, in truth, not “earned,” but rather, something that people running media companies like me are “giving” them, in terms of our time, money and resources, and anymore I’m doing the same with the PR people at a certain university athletics department that shall remain nameless.

I digress.

O’Connor addressed the subject of why do we do all of this? in the postgame press conference following his team’s win over Mississippi State on June 2 that advanced UVA Baseball to the Super Regional round.

“I’ve shared this with our president, President Ryan, before, that, I just really believe whatever school you’re at, it is important to be good in baseball. And the reason I believe that is there’s no other college athletics going on, right, and you have the chance in June to play on national television potentially for four weeks. And what that can do, not only for your program, but what it can do for your university, I think is really important.”

A $3.1 million operating loss for the baseball program, then, is an investment, by O’Connor’s rendering, in the University’s prestige.

I’d be all for that if the books could be balanced without the student fees.

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham, the king of "fringe media," is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].

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