Illini athletics stay afloat with Big Ten contracts

Illustration by Debbie Su

Illustration by Debbie Su

By Stephen Spector

One year after a Rose Bowl appearance and in the heat of the men’s basketball season, the University’s athletics department has seen its fair share of national media. While the University is confronting monetary concerns, the athletics department is staying afloat as waters get choppy.

To guarantee revenues, the athletic department assigns its television rights to the Big Ten Conference. Contracts are then constructed between the conference and each television partner. At the end of each fiscal year, money from the contracts is dispersed evenly to all 11 Big Ten institutions.

“It is a challenging time for all of us,” said assistant athletics director Kent Brown. “We have to be fiscally responsible too. We are less than 25 institutions in America that are able to break even. We take no university funds. We’re proud of that, but that’s an advantage of being in the Big Ten that some of the smaller universities don’t have.”

The total television revenue received from the Big Ten in 2007 was $9.3 million. In 2008, the television revenue jumped to almost $14 million, according to University spokeswoman Robin Kaler.

Brown said that television revenues are the highest they’ve ever been.

Michael Raycraft, a lecturer in the recreation, sport and tourism department, said athletics is the easiest way for alumni to connect with the University.

“If you are an alumni, it’s hard to engage via the physics department,” Raycraft said. “The way you engage with University is with sports teams. Television also provides a vehicle to recruit student athletes as a marketing tool.”

Since the total Big Ten revenues are allocated evenly to the 11 schools, it guarantees money for the University, but possibly prohibits greater television revenue.

“If you have the conference negotiate television contracts, it’s like bowl money,” Raycraft said. “All the money is pooled, and if you divide it out evenly; now what that does, it gives Northwestern a shot at getting the same dollars as Ohio State, which makes the conference more competitive.”

In August 2007, ABC/ESPN and Fox Cable (Big Ten Network) reached an agreement with the Big Ten that Commissioner Jim Delany said, “will provide the organization with its greatest media exposure ever and ensure long-term vitality for its member institutions broad-based athletic programs.”

Brown said that there is fine print in the Fox contract that ensures more revenue to the respective institution if total viewership across the country breaks a certain threshold.

In contrasting the athletic division’s 2007 and 2008 operating statements, the department’s two largest sources of revenue flipped. In 2007, the athletic department received a little more than $16 million in gate receipts. In 2008, athletics became more dependent on Big Ten distributions as ticket sales declined.

Brown said that I Fund, the department’s principal scholarship fund furnished by donation, has been dented in turbulent economic times.

“We’ll have a better idea of where this year’s ticket sales are in a few months,” Brown said. “But our scholarship fund is down. It’s taken a hit during this time.”

Brown added that corporate sponsorships of the University athletics’ program are still intact.

Nevertheless, plans to renovate Assembly Hall have been stalled. The money and strategy to refurnish the stadium is up in the air, and Brown said television revenues will most likely not be used toward the Hall.

“I don’t think we’ve earmarked it toward the facility,” Brown said. “There has not been a final decision made on that or how to fund it.”