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Kentucky Footall: What's Worth More, UK Basketball Or Football?

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The Kentucky Kernel had a very enlightening article out today about the football program, and it answers some of the questions I've seen asked around the Big Blue Nation lately.

First of all, we know, or should know, that football is the bell cow of virtually every school's athletics program -- yes, even at Kentucky, and it isn't even a close call:

"What most people don’t understand is that every school is a football school. The amount of revenue that football can generate dwarfs even the greatest basketball programs," said Mark Nagel, associate professor in the sport and entertainment management department at the University of South Carolina. "Certainly the fans identify with what sport wins the most, but football just has the potential to make so much more money with attendance and television contracts."

Some of you may think that it can't be that way at Kentucky, but if you've been reading this blog, as well as others, you know otherwise. Here are the numbers:

The 2012-13 athletic budget approved in the summer by the UK Board of Trustees shows that football is slated to produce $27.6 million in revenue while spending $9.5 million — for a profit of $18.1 million.

By comparison, men’s basketball, even coming off a national championship, is projected to produce $20.8 million in revenue, while spending $12.6 million — for an $8.2 million profit.

Those are the only two profitable programs for the university. The other 20 sports lose a combined $11.6 million, according to the 2012-13 budget.

Now, think about that for a minute. The football program, as bad as it is, generates over twice as much net revenue as the basketball program, as good as it is. That is a staggering statistic, and should leave every Kentucky fan thinking about football, and what it means to the university athletics programs.

Football is why the revenue in schools like Florida and Alabama dwarf that of Kentucky. A big football program means big, sweet dollars, and when football struggles to bring in fans, athletics department budgets get rearranged, cut, and priorities reviewed.

The reality at Kentucky is that even though the football program nets more than twice what the basketball program does, the first 'Cat at the feeding trough is always the basketball program. Many people famously blamed this reality for the fact that Paul "Bear" Bryant decided to relocate to Texas A&M rather than stay at Kentucky and compete with Adolph Rupp. A very good examination of that issue can be found at Jon Scott's site.

What this causes is a distortion in the athletics department. Because basketball is the big favorite of university boosters, they get the resources first, and football second. That goes a long way to explain why you rarely see schools succeed at both sports, because one or the other invariably gets short shrift.

For this reason, Kentucky's football facilities, unlike basketball, are not among the tops in the SEC. That matters. How much? Consider this commentary from Myron Metcalf of ESPN regarding the new Wildcat Coal Lodge:

Kentucky just built another multimillion-dollar facility mostly to accommodate its basketball squad. It’s another way to set those athletes apart from the rest of the student body. And that exclusivity caters to former prep stars who are used to special treatment.

But it also makes you wonder how the bulk of the college basketball world will ever compete with the seven or eight programs that devote that level of resources to the sport. The answer is it won't.

The exact same thing can be said about football, and the seven or eight football programs (many of whom live right here in the SEC) who stand head and shoulders above the rest in resources dedicated to the care, feeding, and comfort of the athletes they bring into the program, which has a major impact on recruiting -- not to mention the success these programs have had in the sport.

So while you continue to scratch your head about Kentucky's commitment to football, understand until Kentucky fans become football fans, the football facilities will be improved at a slower and relatively uncompetitive pace compared with the rest of the SEC. Our basketball facilities will thrive, but football will fight with everyone else, like baseball, for scraps.

I understand that energizing Kentucky fans about football requires major surgery to the team leadership unless something unexpected happens. Joker Phillips isn't on the hot seat for nothing.

This is the first year football is budgeted to decline in revenue since 2004-05. Football revenue grew nearly 50 percent from 2008-09 ($20 million) to 2011-12 ($29.6 million), fueled by success on the field and SEC revenue-sharing agreements.

A decrease from an average of 60,000 tickets per game to 55,000 per game represents almost a 10% drop. Ticketmaster has UK football tickets on sale for $41 for non-conference and $46 for conference game, which brings the average average price to $43.86. For each 5,000 absent fans, that's $1.54 million in lost revenue. We know that season ticket sales were down more than 10,000 this year, and that translates to roughly $2.3 million in lost revenue (season tickets are cheaper than individual tickets, and I just averaged the various season ticket package prices).

So when people suggest, "how can we afford to buy out Joker's contract," the question becomes, how can you not? When the team performs poorly, the cost to the athletics department is substantial. If we just consider the season tickets as the only loss, which is probably close, that's the equivalent of saying the net cost of Joker Phillips is his regular salary of $1.7 million, plus $2.3 million in lost revenue. That amounts to $4 million, more than the salary of LSU's Les Miles. You think UK fans would come to Commonwealth if we hired Les Miles and gave him a $200,000 raise?

Which is why Mitch Barnhart will have to look long and hard at the football situation at the end of the year. If Phillips turns it around, obviously he'll be retained. But if the season continues as it looks like it will on paper, Barnhart can't afford another year of further decline. If the team is headed upward, winning some, and giving fans a reason for optimism next year, Phillips may keep his job.

If not, I can't see how he does. These are not my rules, although they are my calculations, and admittedly imprecise. Kentucky is not coming off probation, and the days of minimum four-year auditions have probably come and gone. UK needs to get fans in the stands, and hiring a new coach would do that.

Barnhart knows this, and so does Phillips. This is the big-boy world, and keeping Phillips on at an effective cost of $8 million or more over two years is a mighty big pill to swallow. Even with that said, and even if we hired a Les Miles type, that still doesn't address the structural problems that UK football has to deal with, like being second in line when the dollars get handed out.