Do Colleges Make Money From Athletics?

Although college sports play a big role in bringing in money for universities, they rarely generate a positive net revenue.
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Updated on October 12, 2023
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  • College sports, especially football, bring in millions of dollars for universities each year.
  • New media contracts for the Big Ten and SEC promise billions of dollars for those conferences.
  • Despite these huge sums, few university athletic programs operate in the black.
  • Most of the NCAA's revenue comes from the "March Madness" basketball tournament, not football.

"Do colleges make money from athletics?" might seem like a ridiculous question given the millions of dollars we hear about pouring into university coffers from lucrative television contracts, ticket sales, alumni donations, and licensed apparel. But the answer is rather surprising.

Before we explore this topic in detail, let's look at how much money the top 25 earners in college athletics made in 2019-20:

  1. University of Oregon: $391,769,609
  2. Ohio State University: $233,871,740
  3. University of Texas: $200,772,813
  4. University of Michigan: $192,403,168
  5. University of Alabama: $189,282,549
  6. University of Georgia: $179,295,904
  7. University of Florida: $174,950,823
  8. Texas A&M University: $166,736,120
  9. Penn State University: $165,077,390
  10. Louisiana State University: $160,433,475
  11. University of Oklahoma: $159,116,745
  12. Auburn University: $153,703,749
  13. University of Wisconsin: $148,198,907
  14. University of Kentucky: $146,150,480
  15. University of Iowa: $145,636,544
  16. University of Louisville: $140,867,112
  17. University of Tennessee: $140,335,769
  18. University of Washington: $137,573,939
  19. University of Nebraska: $133,629,080
  20. University of South Carolina: $133,011,012
  21. Michigan State University: $130,636,629
  22. Clemson University: $129,949,014
  23. Florida State University: $129,481,351
  24. University of Arkansas: $123,357,572
  25. University of Illinois: $122,566,259

Yet these figures tell only part of the story. Most casual observers might be shocked to learn that despite the huge sums of cash seen here, only a handful of schools actually make money through college athletics.

Football Remains King but Doesn't Always Ensure Profit

What do these 25 schools have in common? Besides being public institutions, they all have football teams. (Note that private institutions are not required to release college sports revenue and expense data, which is why key players like the University of Notre Dame aren't listed.)

Since the late 1800s, football has by far been the top-earning sport on American campuses, financing not only every other sport but also often the growth and development of the universities themselves. On average, a university will realize more revenue from football than it will from the next 35 sports combined. At the University of Texas — routinely ranked No. 1 on the earnings list — 70% of its athletics revenue is derived from football.

But that still doesn't mean all these institutions are making money from athletics. According to the NCAA, among the 65 autonomy schools in Division I, only 25 recorded a positive net generated revenue in 2019.

The term "autonomy" refers to a 2014 NCAA decision that allowed the Power Five conferences — the Southeastern Conference (SEC), Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Big Ten, Pac-12, and Big 12 — to establish their own rules regarding student scholarships, recruitment, and staffing, among other concerns. These schools, especially those in the SEC and Big Ten, along with Clemson in the ACC, typically dominate college football each year.

Among those reporting a net positive, the median profit per school was $7.9 million. And among the 40 autonomy schools reporting a negative net revenue, the median loss was $15.9 million. In other words, the majority of universities in the nation's top athletic conferences — the schools you see on TV every weekend competing for national championships — lost money through their sports programs to the tune of approximately $16 million each.

“The majority of universities in the nation's top athletic conferences lost money through their sports programs to the tune of approximately $16 million each.”

A new deal struck last year between ESPN and the SEC might change this calculus come 2024, when the network begins airing SEC football games. The conference signed a 10-year deal worth $3 billion, more than five times what it earns through its current contract with CBS.

Even more lucrative is the new media rights contract between the Big Ten and Fox, CBS, and NBC, which began last July. The conference will now earn more than $1 billion per year over seven years. Adding the University of Southern California and the University of California-Los Angeles to its ranks — along with the L.A. media market — enabled the Big Ten to command such a deal.

The situation isn't so rosy for Division I non-autonomy schools, or those outside the Power Five conferences. All 64 of these institutions lost money in 2019, with a median deficit of $23 million per school.

Also included in the NCAA's Division I classification are Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) schools, the former I-AA programs that compete in a year-end tournament to determine the national champion. The Power Five and other top conferences are classified as Football Bowl Subdivision schools, which compete at the season's end through a series of bowl games culminating in a four-team playoff to determine the champion.

Of the 125 FCS schools, all reported a negative net generated revenue in 2019, with a median loss of $14.3 million per institution.

Finally, Division I includes 97 schools without football programs. All of them had a negative net revenue in 2019, with a median loss of $14.4 million. And not one college in the NCAA's Division II or III saw their revenues exceed expenses that year.

In total, then, only 25 of the approximately 1,100 schools across 102 conferences in the NCAA made money on college sports in 2019. That's because the cost of running an entire athletics program, which can feature as many as40 sports, almost always exceeds the revenue generated by the marquee attractions of football and basketball.

The Role of College Basketball in the NCAA

Basketball, particularly the annual March Madness tournament, brings in most of the NCAA's income. Of its roughly $1 billion in annual revenue, about $820 million comes from this Division I men's championship, largely through TV and marketing rights. The organization earns another $129.4 million in March Madness ticket sales.

But as a nonprofit, the NCAA isn't about making money for shareholders. Instead, it allocates around $842 million annually — nearly 90% of its income — to member institutions for scholarships, travel, academic services, compliance, and drug testing. The remaining funds support the NCAA's operations.

Curiously enough, the NCAA doesn't receive revenue from college football bowl games and the championship playoffs, all of which are independently operated. For example, the Allstate Sugar Bowl — one of the bowls involved in the January 2021 championship semifinals — is run by a nonprofit organization of the same name, which earns money through ticket sales, sponsor payments, and licensing fees.

How the Pandemic Impacted College Athletics

Given the NCAA's financial reliance on the March Madness basketball tournament, the cancellation of the event in 2020 due to the COVID-19 outbreak had a crippling effect. Not only did the NCAA lose its biggest moneymaker, but schools also suffered. According to one estimate, the NCAA was originally slated to distribute more than $600 million to member schools, but the cancellation slashed that figure to $225 million.

As a result, colleges had to reduce the number of scholarships they offered, cut coaching positions, and even eliminate some sports. In April 2020, Old Dominion University dropped its wrestling program, and the University of Cincinnati cut men's soccer. When making such adjustments, colleges must remain mindful of Title IX compliance, which requires equal opportunity, including scholarships, for both men's and women's athletics at the collegiate level.

Canceling the football season would have been even more catastrophic for sports programs. While some conferences, such as the Colonial Athletic Association and the Ivy League, postponed fall football, the Power Five conferences soldiered on, albeit in front of empty stands or sparse crowds.

The Big Ten, originally reluctant to participate, offered a reduced schedule of games. Had the Power Five conferences canceled their seasons altogether, they would have lost an estimated $4 billion in revenue.

“Had the Power Five conferences canceled their seasons altogether, they would have lost an estimated $4 billion in revenue.”

Limited fan engagement also took a serious toll on greater university communities. Schools themselves lost revenue from foregone ticket and concession sales, but local businesses that rely on game-day activity suffered even more.

When the Tigers host a game at Clemson in South Carolina, roughly 150,000 fans populate the downtown area, eating and drinking at restaurants, staying in hotels, and buying souvenirs and other memorabilia. The economic impact per game exceeds $2 million. In Madison, Wisconsin, that figure is closer to $16 million per game when the Badgers play, with the football season accounting for 70% of annual revenue for some local businesses.

The receding tide caused by the COVID-19 pandemic indeed sank all boats.

By any measure, college sports are a big business — but that doesn't mean universities are getting rich off athletics. The reality is that most sports programs operate in the red. If the time comes when colleges have to pay athletes to participate, then the financial picture will change even more dramatically. But that's a story for another day.