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.


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.)

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.
Finally, there are the funds the NCAA distributes to conferences based on their performance in the national championship tournament. Conferences earn money based on the number of games their teams have played in the big dance during the past six years. The more games, the more the conference earns. Last year, the NCAA doled out about $180 million this way. It's up to each conferences to split up its haul between its teams.
Combined, those three categories make up three quarters of most basketball teams' revenue, Fulks says. Now consider Louisville. The Cardinals play in the brand new, 22,000 seat YUM Center, where prospective season ticket buyers are essentially required to make donations before they can claim a seat. According to Forbes, the team received more than $20 million in total contributions last year. It also plays in the Big East, which received the single biggest portion of last year's NCAA tournament bounty.
Wealthy teams, like Louisville, only stand to get richer. In the last few years, the top athletic conferences have signed lucrative television deals for football and basketball worth many millions of dollars to each of their member schools.
But just like in any other game, earning a nice financial return won't necessarily earn a college basketball team points on the court.  Arizona is sitting out March Madness, even though it was the third most profitable school in Division I-A last year, with more than $14 million in net income. Other big spending, big-earnings schools such as the Universities of Illinois and Minnesota* will also be watching from home. On the other hand, Mississippi Valley State, which operated at a loss despite a shoestring budget of $682,000, got a shot at the tournament.
Thankfully, in real life, the big money doesn't always win.
*A note about the bracket: In matchups between teams with two unknown financial losses, I gave points for thriftiness and advanced the squad with lower expenses. When a program with an unknown loss played one with a known loss, I gave points for honesty and advanced the team with the known loss.
*An earlier version of this piece mistakenly stated that Wisconsin had not made the tournament (despite having them on my bracket). Having spent time working in the badger state, I realize that residents there rightly get frustrated about being mixed up with their next door neighbor. My sincere apologies.