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Should UVA even be in the big-time football business?

uva football
Photo courtesy UVA Athletics.

UVA doesn’t have any trouble with money. The school has a $14.5 billion endowment. Alums are always writing checks – $50 million here for a new performing arts center, $35 million there for a basketball arena.

I’m not quite in that alum donor class, but I went to school with people who are.

People with money don’t have money because they’re bad with money.

We have to ask the question, then – is throwing $65 million at the football program a good investment?

That’s the price tag for the new football operations center that some among the fan base are holding out hope will help get UVA football to the next level.

The sobering reality is that football ops centers are just another front in the stupid arms race that makes absolutely no fiscal sense.

We already pay Bronco Mendenhall $4.25 million a year.

And before you @ me: I can say “we.” My wife and I are donors to the Virginia Athletics Foundation. I’m not some detached impartial sportswriter here.

I’m an alum who just wrote another check this week.

Back to Mendenhall’s salary, which works out to a tenth of the program’s annual revenue – in the 2019-2020 academic year, the program brought in $43 million, according to The Cavalier Daily.

That’s more than double the median compensation for a CEO, and it’s guaranteed money, unlike what the typical CEO gets – around three-quarters of CEO compensation comes in the form of stocks and stock options.

At least the stocks and options, problematic as they can be, serve to incentivize a CEO to get things moving. Yes, there are incentives in football coach contracts related to wins and the rest, but the bulk of the money is paid out regardless of wins and losses, or how many people buy tickets for Saturday’s home game.

Which has been an issue at Virginia, which averaged 42,439 fans at Scott Stadium this fall, more than 19,000 under capacity.

That’s a lot of dollars being left on the table. Using $30 a ticket just for some quick math, that would be $570,000 per home game, right at $3.99 million for the seven-game home schedule this year, just for tickets.

What would that mean to the overall bottom line for Virginia Athletics?

The next sobering reality: not much.

According to the College Athletics Financial Information Database, 10 percent of the athletics department’s overall annual revenue in 2019-2020 – $110.2 million – was from ticket sales ($11.1 million).

TV money ($32.5 million), donors ($27.1 million) and student fees ($14.4 million) all account for bigger slices of the pie.

Those sources of revenue aren’t quite fixed, granted. There’s some deviation, in the sense that the donor dollars might not be there at quite the level they are now if football were to go 2-10 every year, and the TV dollars might go down a little, though not as much as you’d think, because of conference-wide revenue sharing.

The reason you see that is, Clemson and whoever else from the ACC hopes to compete for a CFP spot each year need to be able to beat up on somebody.

So, there is a floor, not unlike what you see in MLB, the NBA, the NFL. Not everybody can be the New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the L.A. Lakers, the Dallas Cowboys. You need your Pittsburgh Pirates, Sacramento Kings, Jacksonville Jaguars, to flesh the schedules out.

This is where I get to the most sobering of our sobering realities here: in football, we’re not the Cowboys; we’re the Jaguars.

Virginia has the same problem that Duke, Northwestern, Vanderbilt and Stanford have, in that we’re not willing to tack down on admissions requirements to be able to compete with the Alabamas, the Ohio States, on an even playing field.

Speaking as an alum, I’m 100 percent on board with that, but the bottom line is, we’re never going to have 85 kids on scholarship at the same time who will be able to go four quarters with the 85 kids on scholarship at ‘Bama, Ohio State, Clemson.

Football is a numbers game – the numbers being the 85 scholarships, the 50 guys you need on your two-deep.

We can compete in men’s basketball, where you have 13 scholarships, an eight- or nine-man rotation.

We can compete in baseball: 11.7 scholarships, a couple of weekend starting pitchers, couple of guys with pop.

Eighty-five and fifty are big numbers.

Virginia just will never be a top four team in CFP terms given the realities. Even with the playoff likely to expand to a 12-team format with automatic bids for conference champions, the best we can hope for is to win the Coastal, upset Clemson in Charlotte, win a first-round CFP game, maybe upset somebody in the quarterfinals, then be respectable in the semis.

That’s the rosiest of rosy scenarios for UVA football.

That’s if we find our checkbooks for a $65 million football ops center that, honestly, isn’t going to do anything other than catch us up to where other mid-tier Power 5 programs have been for the past decade or more.

Our taste of big-time success was fleeting, and long ago – three weeks at #1 in the polls in 1990.

I was a first-year student on Grounds that fall. It was a magical time. I remember looking at the USA Today bowl projections the week of the Georgia Tech game, and seeing #1 Virginia vs. #2 Notre Dame on one of the lines, I think for the Orange Bowl.

A return to the George Welsh era is what we need to aspire to. Win seven games a year as the floor, and every few years – 1990, 1995, 1998 – we had a mix of talent that, if the ball had bounced the right way a couple of times, we could have done more.

But I’ve gotta be honest with you, if I was of the means to be able to write one of those really big checks to help get that ops center online, I don’t know.

I mean, if I could write a million-dollar check to help fund academic, science or medical research that could change the world, I might value the impact of those dollars more than helping a football team win a couple more games.

I get that this conclusion isn’t what a lot of folks who read 1,000+ words from a sports columnist want to hear.

I do think it’s the answer why we’re maybe not seeing the progress on that ops center that we’ve been expecting.

Story by Chris Graham

augusta free press
augusta free press