How Villanova gets its money's worth from basketball

Villanova University, the winner of last year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship and the top seed in this year’s March Madness tournament, broke even on athletics last year. That’s because the private Catholic college from the suburbs of Philadelphia used its hoops success to fund its other money-losing teams.

According to data Villanova reported to the U.S. Department of Education, its men’s basketball team, which plays in the Big East conference, generated $11.4 million in revenue on expenses of $9.4 million. The school’s football team, which plays in the less competitive Colonial Athletic Association, broke even, earning $6.57 million in revenue on the same level of expenses.

The school’s women’s sports programs also broke even, and overall Villanova’s athletic department revenue was $39.5 million.

Those figures, however, include the money that Villanova and other universities provide their athletics program through mandatory student fees and other sources, which sports economist Victor Matheson at the College of the Holy Cross argues inflates their financial performance. Sports is a money-losing affair for most universities, with the exceptions of some larger schools that can pay for their programs through either their football or basketball teams.  

“By the numbers, Villanova is reporting that their women’s volleyball team, their women’s track team and their women’s water polo team … are generating in total $8 million,” said Matheson. “All that $8 million is money that is transferred to those programs and counted as revenue to make sure that books balance.”

In an interview, Villanova Director of Athletics Mark Jackson said he’s trying to reduce his department’s dependence on subsidies, though he declined to discuss specific numbers. The university meets all the federal reporting requirements for the finances of its athletic department.

“I hope we have an opportunity to decrease it over time,” Jackson said. “We renegotiated a deal with Fox Sports to handle our multimedia rights. That was a significant guarantee increase. We are in the midst of building an entirely new revenue model through the [$60 million] renovation of our campus basketball arena, which increases the numbers or revenue streams for us.”

Winning March Madness has paid off for Villanova in other ways (it also claimed the championship in 1985).   

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The NCAA awards payouts for the tournament to the athletic conferences, which later divide the funds among their member schools. Last year, the Big East’s haul was about $10 million. Jackson declined to divulge Villanova’s cut, though he indicated that the school got more money that other teams.  

Villanova estimates the publicity value of winning the championship at about $250 million, rising to more than $1 billion if the value of the game broadcasts is included, according to Villanova Provost Patrick Maggitti. 

He said the estimate came from a public relations firm Villanova had retained. “When you think about the extent to which we were in just about everything,” said Maggitti, “to me it seems like a believable, if gigantic, number.”

The publicity sure hasn’t hurt applications from prospective students. For the fall 2017 class, they surged more than 22 percent to 21,095, topping the previous year’s record level of 17,266. Villanova attracted students from as far away as Alaska, and international applications doubled. 

The school, however, has no plans to increase its freshman class, which has remained at 1,670 for the past few years. The college also has benefited from its growing academic reptuation.

“We may be the highest growth in applications in the country, both in absolute and percentage terms,” Maggitti said.

Merchandise sales also spiked following last year’s basketball victory. Sales at the university bookstore in March and April 2016 rocketed to more than $2 million versus about $600,000 a year earlier.

Villanova’s alumni are also more engaged, with 27 percent of them donating to the university, an increase from 20 percent eight years ago. The school recently surpassed its $600 million Capital Campaign goal 17 months early.    

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.