One for the Money

by Dan McDonald

Empty seats at UL basketball games are the least of the university's conference problems.

At a recent Sun Belt Conference basketball game, a visiting media member asked me about the decline in UL basketball attendance over the past couple of years, and if that would affect the program's status in conference realignment.

I gave the usual responses for the lack of crowds - the team not having much success, Mardi Gras activities, weather - but I also added a theory that caught his attention. I called it the "football factor."

For nearly two decades, Ragin' Cajun fans didn't have a lot of reasons to get excited about UL football, and many looked forward to the start of basketball season as a new beginning. The winter brought a chance for their hoopsters to find the success that was absent during football season, and that hope brought them to the Cajundome.

Now that Cajun followers have enjoyed the most successful back-to-back football seasons in program history - 18 wins, victories in their first-ever bowl games - their thirst for post-season rewards has been quenched. In addition, their football jones carried them through late December's New Orleans Bowl trips.

By the time this year's trip and the holidays were over it was January, and both the Cajun men's and women's basketball teams were struggling. That wasn't a surprise considering the extreme youth of both units, but it's human nature that fewer fans come out when losses outnumber wins.

But the screaming pundits who insist that low attendance figures will limit UL's chances at increased conference stature are off base.

It doesn't help, obviously, if the Cajuns play in front of empty stands in any sport, but there are bigger problems regarding UL's positioning in a revamped Sun Belt or another conference home. And there isn't a lot that the university can do in the short term to fix those problems.

The overriding issues in every recent conference move and realignment are money and television, and the inter-relation between the two. In both, UL is way, way in the back of the line.

UL's athletic budget has increased dramatically over the past four years, but even with that growth the program lags well behind the norm for a Football Bowl Subdivision member. The Cajuns were so far behind budget-wise that even an increase of nearly 40 percent in that time still puts them behind all but a couple of Sun Belt and Mid-American Conference teams, and in the bottom 5 percent of the 124 FBS members.

Even worse, a recent Wall Street Journal report calculated the value of FBS football programs. Out of the 115 for which an intrinsic value could be determined through revenues, expenses, cash-flow, risk assessments and growth projections, UL ranked 113th - ahead of only Arkansas State and UL Monroe.

USA Today's survey of Division I public schools lists UL's athletic revenues at $13.55 million for the 2010-11 fiscal year, and the only FBS schools lower than that are other Sun Belt members. The lowest MAC program revenue listing was $19.5 million at Toledo, the lowest Western Athletic Conference total was $17.1 at Louisiana Tech, and the lowest Conference USA total was $20.6 million at Southern Mississippi.

It's worth noting that many of those programs are heavily subsidized by their schools. Tech's school subsidy is $9.2 million, USM's is more than $8 million and Florida International gets over 80 percent of its athletic budget - a whopping $19.1 million - through a school subsidy. UL's subsidy figure is $5.8 million, only 43 percent of its budget.

Those in charge of conference membership - commissioners and university presidents - look at those dollar figures as proof of a school's commitment to athletics. They also look at television markets, and it doesn't matter if a program is only a blip on the radar screen in their market.

If a school is located in or near a major market, conference decision-makers don't care much that a program is an afterthought among that area's fans. They do care about how many millions of cable-wired homes they can beam their league's programming into, and they care about squeezing a couple of pennies for each of those homes from the cable providers.

That's why FIU and Florida Atlantic are both on their way to Conference USA despite most in metro Miami not being able to pick those schools out of a lineup. The major reason Tulane received an invitation from the Big East Conference - a move cited by many as the final reason the league's core seven Catholic basketball schools are breaking away - was to expand the Big East's television footprint and get their programming on more southern cable systems.

Barring a huge influx of money from some new source, UL's growing revenues can't catch up enough to become a true player in conference realignment. And the area doesn't have large cable TV numbers to make the Cajun program attractive to other leagues.

That doesn't leave a lot of alternatives - except for a watered-down Sun Belt.