March Madness: May the Most Profitable Team Win

What if the most profitable basketball programs won each match of the tournament? We wondered. Here's what we found.

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March Madness is about tradition. It's about Cindarella runs and dynasties, fans screaming their lungs out at the stadium, and goofing off from work to stream games on our desktops. 

It's also about a $771 million paycheck for the NCAA, and 68 teams trying to win the biggest cut they can.   

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This is the time of year where America celebrates college basketball as a spectacle, and more and more, as a business. In 2010, the NCAA struck a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal with CBS and Turner Broadcasting System for the rights to the tournament. Part of that money eventually devolves down to the teams, some of which have become truly enormous profit generators. At The Atlantic, we wondered what this year's bracket would look like if, instead of their on-the-court play, teams won and lost based on their most recent balance sheets. Using data from the Department of Education, we calculated which teams earned the biggest profits during the 2010-2011 fiscal year, then set them up against each other. 

The Final Four: Louisville, Duke Ohio State, and the University of North Carolina. Your national champion: Louisville. By a longshot. (Click the bracket below for a full-size version.) 

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The government's numbers have one major flaw for our purposes. Colleges can hide the true cost of running a money-losing team with some fancy accounting -- essentially by covering up their losses with dollars from the school's general fund. As a result, many teams appear to finish the year breaking exactly even, despite the fact that they're actually in the red. On the bracket, I've marked those programs as having "unknown losses."* 

But while the data won't tell you much about most of the money losers, it will tell you a lot about the money makers. Louisville has been college basketball's earnings leader three years running, raking in a monstrous $40.89 million in revenue in FY 2010-2011, and $27.55 million in profit. Second place Duke made a total of $28.91 million in revenue, netting $15.1 million. 

College basketball teams earn income off three main things -- ticket sales, donations, and distributions from the NCAA itself, says Transylvania University Professor Daniel Fulks, who analyzes university athletic department finances on behalf of the NCAA. The ticket sales are the most straight-forward part of the equation. Large schools with large stadiums that can pack a crowd have an obvious built-in advantage. Unsurprisingly, four of the five highest revenue generating teams in this year's tournament -- Louisville, UNC, Syracuse, and Kentucky -- also led the NCAA in average per-game attendance.

But a successful team can get by without massive attendance. Duke, with its relatively modest 9,300 seat stadium, is the second most formidable revenue earner in the tournament. They do it with donations from alumni and boosters. Before Blue Devils fans are allowed to buy season tickets at Cameron Indoor Stadium, they're required to make a sizable donations. According to Duke Senior Associate Athletic Director Mike Cragg, the two worst seats in the house require an $8,000 dollar gift on top of the ticket price. Fans give all the way to up to the cost of a year-long scholarship, roughly $55,000. Many other universities have adopted similar practices. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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