Quest for national title boosted UC sports revenue to an all-time high

'They're pretty good shape for a move into the Big 12'
College Football Playoff UC fans
Posted at 12:18 PM, Feb 28, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-28 12:18:12-05

CINCINNATI — Two years after the University of Cincinnati made it to the College Football Playoff, the financial results are in: UC’s quest for a national title led to all-time highs in revenue and expenses, while shrinking its athletic subsidy to a six-year low.

UC spent $75.9 million on athletics in the 12 months ending last June, according to its annual membership report to the NCAA, which WCPO obtained in a public record request. Total revenue increased 34% to $83.3 million in its 2022 fiscal year, including $24.3 million in direct institutional support.

“They’re in pretty good shape for a move into the Big 12,” said Joe Cobbs, a professor who runs the sports business program at Northern Kentucky University’s Haile College of Business. “I don’t know if you can expect that kind of a run, certainly not every year, and probably that’s going to be rare. But I think you can build off that growth.”

UC has been building toward national prominence in sports for more than decade now, investing more than $300 million in direct and indirect subsidies to get the job done.

Direct subsidies, which come from student fees and tuition, have been a point of contention for UC faculty. They argue it cuts into academic resources and impedes the core mission of the university.

“The mission is to teach people, to educate people. And if that’s not happening, or if that’s becoming more difficult, that’s a problem,” said Jeff Cramerding, director of contract administration for the American Association of University Professors at UC.

While he’s encouraged that direct subsidies hit a six-year low in the 12 months ending last June, Cramerding thinks they’re still too high as UC heads into the Big 12 conference in July.

“I am hopeful that the money will come down. I think it’s probably likely that the opposite will happen,” Cramerding said. “This is a bigger conference and to try to keep up with those other universities, we’ll be spending more and more and that athletic subsidy will continue to grow.”

In January 2022, UC Athletic Director John Cunningham said his goal was to make the program “fully funded and self-sufficient.” But he added, “A lot of things have to happen to have that happen. And there’s very few programs that have been able to do that, very few.”

Since then, Cunningham was forced to replace the most popular coach in UC’s history when Luke Fickell went to Wisconsin. New coach Scott Satterfield has so far produced a recruiting class ranked 67th in the country, according to 247 Sports.

Cunningham declined to be interviewed, but UC released a statement about its financial condition:

Our entrance into the Big 12 will increase our revenue by millions of dollars, and also continue to give our University of Cincinnati brand a larger national presence, which will also help take our programs’ recruiting efforts to the next level.
Additionally, our entry into the Big 12 will move forward UC Athletics’ mission to connect our community, enhance our University and impact the lives of our student-athletes by investing in signature facilities and student-athlete health and wellness.
In the coming months, we will break ground on the indoor practice and performance facility, and we will continue to build out our sports psychology and nutrition departments, while providing our student-athletes and athletic programs with the resources to compete for championships at the highest levels.

UC ranked seventh out of 90 schools in direct institutional support last year, according to Sportico, a sports business publication that maintains a database on college sports finances. Two universities that spent more than UC – Houston and Central Florida – are also bound for the Big 12.

But the Sportico database also shows existing Big 12 schools got an average of $4.3 million in direct institutional support in their 2022 fiscal years. Oklahoma State got the most, at $12.9 million. That’s a little more than half of Central Florida’s $24.6 million subsidy and less than a third of Houston’s $39.9 million.

“I would expect that subsidy to go down,” Cobbs said of UC’s $24.3 million in direct support last year. “That would be a very large subsidy for a school in the Big 12 right now.”

UC’s 2022 financial results show the impact that on-the-field success can have on a college sports program. Ticket sales increased 20% to $9.6 million from pre-pandemic levels while its $6.8 million in bowl revenue was 11 times more than UC earned from its last three bowl appearance combined.

UC also hit an all-time high in donations with $14.2 million, a figure that bodes well for UC as it prepares to compete in a conference that averaged $27 million in annual donations in recent years.

“If they can be a decent competitor in this new, more prestigious conference, then I think people will get excited about it even if they’re not, you know in the top 20 or top 25,” Cobbs said. “If they can just show competitiveness in new conference, I think in this coming year, that’s a win for the program.”

UC expects conference revenue to more than double to $18 million in its first year as a Big 12 school. Media revenues are likely to increase in 2025, thanks to a $2.3 billion media rights deal with Fox and ESPN that was announced last fall.