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April 28, 2014

Despite basketball glory, UConn must look to football to boost athletics business

Photos | Contributed UConn Athletic Director Warde Manuel wants to add 10,000 seats to East Hartford's Rentschler Field, shown above left, to boost ticket revenues, but the school's football team must improve significantly before that happens. Manuel also hopes UConn's two recent basketball championships bring more revenue to the athletic department.
Photo | Contributed UConn’s top administrators Lawrence D. McHugh (left), Susan Herbst (second to right), and Warde Manuel (right), welcome new football coach Bob Diaco.

Winning two college basketball national championships in two days drove revenue, visibility, and economic development for UConn and Connecticut, but for the university to reach the financial success of big-time athletics programs it will have to focus on football, experts say.

To drive more revenue, UConn Athletic Director Warde Manuel wants to add another 10,000 seats to Rentschler Field — home of the university's football team — sometime in the next 10 years, generating an additional $2 million in ticket revenue.

Such a major infrastructure investment to expand the facility's seating by 25 percent would have to be driven by ticket demand, which only will come if the team is performing at a top level, Manuel said.

Last season UConn football, which posted a 3-9 record, drew an average of 22,024 fans, down 5 percent from a year earlier, according to data from the Capital Region Development Authority. That number represents patrons who actually showed up at the turnstile. UConn put last year's average football attendance at 34,676.

Regardless, the poor performance on the field led to the firing of head coach Paul Pasqualoni.

“Football takes time, and it depends how the new staff is doing with the system that is in place,” Manuel said. “My hope in the next 10 years is that we have reached the point where we are consistently competing for championships, which will drive more demand and higher ticket prices.”

Because football weighs so heavily on the college sports landscape, UConn will either need to leave the American Athletic Conference (AAC) or decide to become a basketball-specialty school, said Fred Carstensen, director of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis. That decision will become particularly important as college football moves toward a new playoff system and major conferences, like the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and Big Ten, push for their own super division so they can play by their own rules.

“You want to be in the big four [or five] leagues because they are going to dominate the new football playoff and get the television revenue,” Carstensen said. “If any of the AAC schools are going to be successful in football, they are going to jump to one of the big four conferences.”

Football money

UConn football generated $11.1 million in revenue in fiscal 2012-2013, more than the men's and women's basketball teams combined, according to the U.S. Office of Postsecondary Education, which tracks athletic program spending.

Football also had higher expenses than basketball, but an examination of regional and national big-time college athletics programs shows their revenues and margins are driven by football. Syracuse, for example, earned $33.2 million in football revenue in fiscal '12-13; Boston College raked in $22.9 million; Duke earned $24.1 million; and Texas made $109.4 million.

“We have had a successful formula, even in football,” said Manuel, who was an associate athletic director at Michigan and an athletic director at Buffalo before joining UConn. “We are three years removed from playing in a [Bowl Championship Series] game.”

Even though UConn football did not make a bowl game last season, Manuel said the program is on the upswing with new head coach Bob Diaco, a former defensive coordinator from traditional football powerhouse Notre Dame.

The heart of generating additional revenue is growing Rentschler Field in East Hartford to a 50,000-seat stadium, something the current design can accommodate with limited rehabilitation, Manuel said.

Global Spectrum, which manages Rentschler Field and the XL Center in Hartford, is more than willing to look at a stadium expansion once ticket demand calls for it, said Chris Lawrence, Global's general manager.

Global has never had anything other than passing discussions about expanding the facility and doesn't have a cost estimate for the project, Lawrence said. That would all come after UConn consistently starts drawing more fans to its six-to-eight home games each year.

“Obviously, they are an up-and-coming program with Coach Diaco coming in,” Lawrence said.

XL Center upgrades

Meanwhile, with both UConn basketball programs reaching the peak of the NCAA, Manuel said he wants to maximize the revenue each team generates. UConn will continue to split its basketball home games between Gampel Pavilion in Storrs and the XL Center in downtown Hartford, but the university wants to see more improvements at the Hartford venue, he said.

The XL Center is undergoing $35 million in state-funded renovations to update its mechanical systems, improve concession systems, modernize concourses, add high-definition scoreboards, and create special loge boxes in the lower seating area to give customers a slightly more private experience, Lawrence said.

Global is doing a good job with the current renovations, Manuel said, but UConn would like to see club-level seating and suites in the lower bowl of the arena.

“Those are things that really help to increase revenue,” Manuel said.

Despite UConn's desire for suites, the loge boxes are going to have to be the solution for now, Lawrence said, because the arena doesn't have the capability for suites without some major renovations.

The UConn men's hockey team, which is joining the high profile Hockey East Association in 2014-15, also plans to play games at XL Center.

Even without suites, the two national championships from the men's and women's basketball teams will help the athletic department get more donations for scholarships and teams, and keep up a winning tradition at the school, Manuel said.

National championships don't necessarily drive attendance spikes, but UConn will see better recruiting for all its sports because athletes are attracted to scools with a history of winning, Manuel said.

“The feeling that I have after winning both basketball [championships] is that we are in position that other schools are saying, 'We should be more like UConn,'” Manuel said. “If it helps the governor attract a business to the state, that makes me even prouder.”

The publicity and brand awareness built by the basketball teams' tournament runs has a multi-million dollar impact on the visibility of the region and the state, said Peter DeMallie, immediate past chairman of the Connecticut Central Regional Tourism District.

“Husky Nation is a tremendous positive method to get out the message of excellence and success,” DeMallie said. “The overall pride in the region and the state is enhanced among the community and the alumni.”

Because of the way college basketball championships are awarded, a team that is even marginally successful in the regular season will be accepted into the postseason tournament to play for the national championship, Carstensen said.

Because men's basketball coach Kevin Ollie can tell recruits they can compete for a title every year at UConn, that should ensure the program is excellent for the foreseeable future, Carstensen said. The women's team has been the model of excellence in its sport for the past 15 years.

“Basketball, as you know though, has declined significantly as the driver in college sports. It's football,” Carstensen said. “It is hard to see how much they are going to get in terms of television revenue.”

Back when UConn was in the Big East, it received about $3 million annually in television contracts (from football and basketball), which was 85 percent lower than the members of other major conferences like the ACC and the Big Ten, according to the NCAA.

After the Big East broke up and UConn formed the American Athletic Conference with nine other schools, television revenue has fallen to about $2 million per year.

Even though AAC schools have won the last two NCAA men's basketball championships (UConn and Louisville, which is leaving the conference next year), it's hard to imagine TV revenues increasing significantly because of the lack of football powerhouses in the conference, Carstensen said. The next round of television contracts will be dominated by the teams that consistently compete for entry to the four-team football playoff starting next season.

“The American Athletic Conference is cobbled together, and I wouldn't expect the AAC to be particularly stable, because of the upcoming football playoffs,” Carstensen said.

Even though a switch to a power conference might be more lucrative, Manuel said UConn isn't going to worry about things beyond its control and will work to add value to the AAC.

“I am always going to put UConn in the best position possible,” Manuel said.

Even if UConn wanted to switch conferences, two of the likely destinations — the ACC and the Big Ten — might not be achievable, Carstensen said. UConn sued Boston College when BC left the Big East for the ACC, and now BC could block any attempt by UConn to join the ACC, Carstensen said.

When the Big Ten expanded to include Rutgers and Maryland in 2012, it chose those schools because it gave the conference access to two large media markets: New York and Washington D.C.

Also, Maryland, Rutgers and the rest of the Big Ten schools are members of the exclusive Association of American Universities, a 60-school nonprofit comprised of the best research institutions. UConn is not a member of that association and would have to see significant dividends from its latest research investments to be considered a top public research university, Carstensen said.

“The challenge that UConn has in joining one of these conferences is you have hostility in one direction and a problem with status in another direction,” Carstensen said.

UConn could go another way: de-emphasize its football program, try to be a basketball-specific school, and grow its revenue by helping make the AAC a preeminent basketball conference like the Big East used to be, Carstensen said.

“In the long run, this is a really profound challenge for the university,” Carstensen said.

UConn, though, plans on pursuing consistent excellence in football, Manuel said. The AAC might not seem like a power player in football now, but the success of the school's basketball teams shows that the young conference is headed in the right direction.

“It is immensely helpful because it builds success throughout the department,” Manuel said. n

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