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.