Big Ten Blues?

Four Pac-12 teams (USC, UCLA, Oregon & Washington) will be joining the Big Ten Conference beginning with the upcoming 2024-25 school year. The reason ultimately boils down to the prospect of receiving an enhanced TV contract over what these schools likely would have received had they remained in the Pac-12.

So it’s about money.

But will these schools actually come out ahead financially?  There is some compelling data out there that strongly indicates they may not.  Let’s take a look at a couple of examples of two schools that left their conferences for the Big Ten, compared to two of their peer schools that stayed: Nebraska & Oklahoma and Maryland & Virginia.

Nebraska & Oklahoma:

These schools were synonymous with football success for decades. Nebraska v Oklahoma was as big of a football rivalry as Ohio State v Michigan is today.  Competing in the Big-12, the Cornhuskers were National Football Champions in 1994, 1995 and 1997. However, in 2010 Nebraska announced its move to the Big Ten while Oklahoma remained in the Big-12 (although it is moving to the SEC this year). How have the two schools done financially since then?

Using data on public universities compiled in USA Today’s NCAA Finances Report published in April 2023, it appears that despite enjoying substantially higher media income by competing in the Big Ten (over $ 22 million more received in 2021 than Oklahoma), Nebraska has actually come out on the short end financially compared to Oklahoma. Why? Because Nebraska’s lucrative Big Ten media benefits have been more than offset by a dismal amount of athletic department booster contributions.

Based on the first three years of the USA Today data available (2004-2006), Nebraska averaged $ 12.7 million in annual contributions while Oklahoma averaged somewhat less: $ 11 million per year. So in terms of annual athletic department contributions, Nebraska and Oklahoma were more or less comparable during these years.

But the annual average for the three period 2019-2021 (the most recent years in the USA Today report) reveal a strikingly different picture: Nebraska’s average annual athletic contributions declined by over $ 2 million annually to only $ 10.5 million per year, while Oklahoma’s average contributions increased by over $ 38 million annually to $ 49.4 million per year:


In fact, Nebraska substantially underperformed every Big-12 school during this time period. The average increase in annual Booster contributions during this time period for the six Big-12 public schools was almost $ 18 million annually, while Nebraska’s declined by over $ 2 million, a difference of over $ 20 million annually:

Would Nebraska’s average annual athletic contributions have also doubled had it remained in the Big12? Impossible to say and of course, many factors involved here. But hard to discount Nebraska’s dismal performance in football since joining the Big Ten. And let’s face it, athletic booster support is affected by how the school’s teams perform om the field.  So when you factor in Booster support, Nebraska appears to have significantly underperformed Oklahoma’s overall financial performance:

While Nebraska is receiving significantly higher media income from being in the Big Ten, it appears to come at the cost of a very disgruntled booster base. What percentage of Nebraska football fans do you think will say they are happy with the current state of the football program?

Nebraska achieved the ultimate success in intercollegiate athletics – 3 national championships in football. There are likely a fair amount of Cornhusker fans thinking, we were incredibly successful … why did we leave the Big-12?  And it appears that boosters are letting their (closed) wallets make a statement.

Similarly, there are a fair amount of Maryland fans likely regretting their move to the Big Ten for identical reasons.

Maryland & Virginia:

These schools in bordering states were fierce rivals for many years with elite athletic programs in multiple sports. Maryland won the NCAA basketball championship in 2002, but moved to the Big Ten in 2014 after 6 decades of competing in the ACC. Similar to Nebraska, Maryland’s move resulted in significantly higher TV contract revenues, but appears to come at an enormous cost to booster support. And Virginia seems to have done just fine by sticking with the ACC.

Based on the first three years of the USA Today data available (2004-2006), Maryland averaged $ 11.5 million in annual contributions while Virginia averaged $ 21.4 million per year. But the averages for the three period 2019-2021 shows a stark difference between the two schools. Virginia’s average annual booster contributions increased by over $ 17 million per year, while Maryland’s annual athletic contributions declined by over $ 4 million annually:

Maryland substantially underperformed every ACC school in booster support. The average increase in annual Booster contributions during this time period for the eight ACC public schools was over $ 16 million annually, while Maryland’s declined by over $ 4 million, a difference of over $ 20 million annually:

Would Maryland’s average annual athletic contributions have also doubled had it remained in the ACC? No one knows, but athletic department contributions are affected by on-field performance, and while Maryland enjoyed the ultimate success in the ACC, it is struggling in the Big Ten.

So while Maryland’s Big Ten membership has allowed it to realize total annual Media and related revenues almost $ 11 million higher than Virginia, it appears to have come at a clear cost:

Again, there are many factors in play, but it’s pretty evident that many Maryland boosters are not satisfied with the direction of the basketball and football programs. But the bigger factor may be the loss of booster enthusiasm due to abandoning the historic fierce mid-Atlantic basketball rivalries against Virginia, Duke and North Carolina to become a middle (or lower) tier school in the Big Ten.

The similarities between Nebraska’s and Maryland’s travails in the Big Ten are very close:

  1. Both schools left conferences where they had achieved the ultimate success – NCAA national championships.
  2. Switching conferences resulted in the abandonment of regional rivalries dating back several decades.
  3. Both schools have become – at best – middle of the pack members of the Big Ten.
  4. Both schools have experienced a decline in annual athletic contributions while virtually every other school in their former conferences have experienced significant increases.
  5. Both schools are now at the bottom of the Big Ten in annual Booster support, which is especially foreboding going into the new NIL collective era where boosters are essentially funding athletes.

What’s particularly ominous for both Nebraska and Maryland in the short-term is that their NIL fundraising efforts are likely to be equally dismal as well. NIL Collectives get their support from School athletic boosters – the same people who donate to the school athletic departments. This paints a bleak picture of these schools’ prospects in football the next few years, as along with Rutgers, Nebraska and Maryland are at the very bottom of Big Ten Booster support:

More importantly, the loss of athletic booster support may have a negative impact on the school’s educational operations as affluent athletic boosters are also often among the biggest contributors to the school’s core non-athletic funds.  For example, Phil Knight, co-founder of Nike has donated hundreds of millions to the University of Oregon’s athletic department. But he also donated $ 500 million alone (that’s one half billion dollars) to launch a new Science campus at Oregon.

Similarly, T. Boone Pickens donated $ 185 million to help renovate the football stadium at Oklahoma State, but he and his foundation have also donated hundreds of Millions to non-athletic causes at OSU –contributions totaling around $ 625 million to date.

So literally the million-dollar question is:  will weak athletic department contributions due to diminished booster enthusiasm also result in reduced contributions to the school’s core educational programs? Unfortunately, no hard data on this, but if I was a school looking at switching athletic conferences, this is one of the factors I would be paying very close attention to.

On a side note, you would think that Rutgers joining the Big Ten from the Big East would be a godsend to the school financially. But it appears to have turned into a fiscal nightmare instead – the athletic department has racked up $ 265 million in debt trying to keep up with its Big Ten competitors. It’s a valid question to ask how long the school will continue to allow its athletic department to continue to pile up massive operating deficits trying to complete in a conference in which it appears to be literally – out of its league.

The financial travails of Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers should be a clear warning sign to the four Pac-12 schools entering the Big Ten this year, as well as any school looking at switching conferences. These four schools (USC, UCLA, Oregon & Washington) have been extremely successful in the Pac-12 including multiple NCAA championships in many sports … the Conference of Champions.

And these schools for the most part will be abandoning decades long West Coast rivalries to compete with schools mostly 2,000 miles away.  With the exception of Oregon, the entering Pac-12 schools will be in the mid to lower tier of the Big Ten schools in annual booster support, likely indicating that their NIL collective fundraising will also be in the mid to lower tier.

The booster base of the four Pac-12 schools are accustomed to excellence and for the most part expect it. If similar to Nebraska and Maryland, these schools go from perennial conference championship contenders to middle of the pack Big Ten also rans, boosters are likely to become less enthusiastic and this will almost certainly be reflected in what they contribute annually.

Of course someone needs to be in the mid to lower tier. Rutgers has consistently done this for over 150 years since playing in the first college football game in 1869. But for a program like say Washington, who competed in the NCAA football championship game earlier this year, abandoning long-time west coast rivalries to become a mid-tier member in a faraway conference may not go over well with the fan base. Husky fans might begin asking themselves, why did we ever leave the Pac-12?

And in a few years, the school’s financial people may also be asking that same question.


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Statistics compiled & edited by Patrick O’Rourke, CPA Washington, DC