Does the Catholic 7 Make Financial Sense?
- Updated: February 19, 2013
Since the publishing of John Feinstein’s article last weekend the Albany media, blogs, and message boards have been abuzz with discussion of any connection between Siena and the so-called Catholic 7 schools departing the Big East. Within the article Feinstein, a respected journalist at the Washington Post, states that in addition to the standard names everyone has heard of, Butler, Dayton, Saint Louis, and Xavier, two new schools, Richmond and Siena, are being discussed as potential fits for the new conference. The report has set off an all too familiar debate, does Siena have the financial resources to make such a dramatic leap?
Before considering if such a move is feasible it must be considered whether it is one which fits in Siena’s plans. We asked Siena Director of Athletics, John D’Argenio, if in light of the initiative involving athletics, which is part of Siena’s Strategic Plan, could elevating conference level be a means by which to achieve the goals of broadening the schools regional and national profile and also increasing revenue?
“There are many ways athletics can promote the name of Siena and its values.” said D’Argenio. ” Certainly who you associate with is one way. Improving our current association and being successful on the court is another way and the one which we have the most control over.”
D’Argenio, in an interview with the Times Union also spoke of the financial concerns a conference move, specifically one with Catholic 7 institutions, would raise.
“To put it in perspective, some of the schools in that (Catholic 7) group spend almost as much on a singular sport, men’s basketball, as we do for our entire athletic department, so that’s always a major factor,” D’Argenio told the TU.
And he’s right. Finances are clearly a major factor when assessing any move of this magnitude and the school does have more direct control over its success on the court and current conference affiliation, but what if Siena were to move? Just how large of a disadvantage would Siena face when compared to current Catholic 7 members and potential suitors for the proposed five conference openings? How viable, financially, is a Siena move to such a conference?
The obvious first place to begin is an apples to apples comparison of each school’s basketball and overall athletic expenses. Using information gathered from the Department of Education’s records for the 2011-12 school year, we can gain access to exact figures to see what Catholic 7 institutions spend in these areas and compare that with the expenses from seven possible suitor schools (Creighton, Dayton, Xavier, Butler, Saint Louis, Richmond, and Siena).
|Catholic 7||Possible Additions|
|School||Basketball Expense||Athletic Expenses||School||Basketball Expense||Athletic Expenses|
|Saint John’s||$7,289,171.00||$33,644,628.00||Saint Louis||$3,101,169.00||$14,200,727.00|
In looking at the tables above it becomes abundantly clear that there is a sizable financial gap between not only Siena, but all potential suitors’ athletic budgets and that of the Catholic 7 institutions. Of the seven schools listed above as potential new conference members, only Dayton and Richmond crack the 20 million dollar threshold for athletic spending. Its important to note here that both of these schools, unlike the other five, host Division IAA football programs, with Richmond spending 5.5 million and Dayton 1 million respectively on these programs. With football expenses eliminated from the equation, all schools, outside of Dayton, face a climb of 5-6 million dollars to reach the lowest of the Catholic 7 institutional budgets, Seton Hall at $20,886,250.
Siena’s hill is a slightly greater climb. With the lowest athletic expenses of any school studied, the school would need to increase its expense budget by 8 million dollars. Additionally, we have confirmed with a MAAC spokesperson that any school leaving the conference would need to pay a one million dollar exit fee. Does all of this add up to an insurmountable sum?
While many people immediately turn to increased ticket prices and alumni donations, and not to downplay these as they would certainly be major avenues of revenue growth, we first need to examine the moneys schools are presently receiving due to their current conference affiliations.
According to IRS form 990 data for 2010 (the most recent year available), the MAAC gave a grant to Siena, and most affiliates, in the amount of $49,078 for “Summer Tuition Assistance and Room and Board for Eligible Student Athletes.” Let me put a caveat here that I am by no means a financial wiz, and could certainly be overlooking other direct financial benefits to the school, but I could find no mention of other direct payments to Siena or any other affiliated institution.
The Big East on the other other hand doled out much larger dollar sums to its schools. According to their 2009 IRS form 990 all schools received direct financial contributions from the conference. Football schools received two recorded contributions of varying sums while basketball schools received one. These contributions to basketball schools varied as well with the lowest of the Catholic 7 being DePaul, with a grant of $2.6 million, and the highest being Villanova at $3.9 million.
This is not to say one conference is more generous than the other. The simple fact is the Big East has much deeper pockets than the MAAC. In 2010 the MAAC had total revenues of $4,382,767 with generous portions being used for league marketing, $940,184, and other league events that directly benefit member institutions. The Big East brought in revenues of $113,336,466 courtesy of a $35 million dollar payday for media rights, $48.7 million for post season tournaments, and $7.6 million for conference tournaments amongst other revenue streams. Its important to remember too that while the disparity would still be large, Big East football is a major contributing factor to the size of these figures, something the Catholic 7 will not have.
Postseason success in the NCAA tournament also effects the figures a conference makes and the money it has to distribute to members through the NCAA Basketball Distribution Fund. Conferences earn credits for every round of the tournament each participant appears over a 6 year rolling span. Simply put, the more teams a conference enters into the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and the further they advance, the more revenue the conference will receive. While every conference distributes funds differently, the NCAA encourages an equitably split amongst members. In 2010-11 the distribution to the MAAC was 1.9 million compared to the 24.9 million distributed to the Big East.
It should be noted that within the last six years Siena has more NCAA tournament appearances (3) and wins (2) in the past six seasons than DePaul (0), Providence (0), Seton Hall (0), and Saint John’s (1 appearance) combined.
What this all means is that by using the Big East as a present template to compare Siena to there would be an expected revenue increase of $3-4 million based simply on money received from conference affiliation. This increase could get Siena to an approximate 16 million dollar expense budget (assuming no change from current Big East funding, this of course will change but would equally impact the Catholic 7 schools).
This still leaves a sizable gap that would need to be filled to match Seton Hall’s low end $20 million dollar budget. For Siena, the last bit of revenue increase would likely need to come from internal sources in the way of alumni donation, increased corporate sponsorships, and increased ticket revenues. As the table below shows, the Saints certainly have a fan base to compete with the existing Catholic 7 schools and other proposed new members. Facing lower-profiled competition compared to the present Big East and A10 institutions, the Saints have been able to average 7,000 fans a game.
To give some perspective on current ticket prices for Siena against Catholic 7 institutions, Siena’s game tickets, according to ticketmaster.com, range from $14-$28, not including premium seating packages. Providence College has tickets ranging in price from $12-$85, not including premium seating packages (note the lowest priced tickets are in areas of the arena currently not available for sale at Siena games at the Times Union Center). Meanwhile Georgetown ranges from $15-$45 , Marquette $15-$60, Seton Hall $10-$80, and well you get the point. Premium ticket prices ranged as much as two to three times that of current Siena prices.
The question remains as to whether the potential for increased corporate and individual support exists that would be necessary to make a move to a higher conference.
“We started our corporate partners program in the mid 90s with revenue of about $60,000.” explained D’Argenio. “It has grown consistently over the past 20 years to over $500,000. A move to a different level would require continued growth in that area and, probably, at a much steeper curve. Individual support to Siena basketball has followed a similar growth pattern. Is there more there to mine? The Capital Region business presence has grown significantly over the past 20 years, but so has the number of organizations competing for corporate and individual support. Even where we are now, in terms of conference affiliation, will require additional support from many areas: corporate sponsorships, ticket sales and donations to Siena athletics.”
It is really impossible from the outside to say definitively whether or not the remaining financial variance would be able to be filled with these revenue avenues. Would fans continue to pack the Times Union Center during a transitional period just to see big name basketball institutions like Georgetown and Marquette? Would they tolerate the increased ticket prices, or would this chase away the casual fan? Alternatively, if the $20 million threshold is unobtainable, could Siena consistently compete with lower expenses? These are questions we can’t answer, but undoubtedly ones that will be evaluated by decision makers at the school if and when an opportunity to advance presents itself.
However, one thing is clear. With the history and tradition of success of Siena’s basketball program, particularly in achieving as underdogs in NCAA tournament games, it is understandable why all involved wish to aim higher when looking towards the future.
“It is natural for fans and supporters to dream bigger.” said D’Argenio. “That’s a great outlook to have. All of us–students, coaches, administrators–look toward to the future and want to achieve and work to moving Siena basketball forward.”
Joining a conference like the Catholic 7 might be just that, a big dream, but many great ideas started out as someone’s crazy big dream. Maybe this is another one of them.