The Business of College Athletics

Enoch Lawrence • 1/23/2020
Never before have athletic departments faced so much pressure to unearth new and creative approaches to revenue generation.

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It is no understatement, and will come as no surprise, that the revenue from collegiate athletics can be a significant contributor to the financial resources necessary to support the overall academic mission for a host institution. The degree to which this is true has ballooned over the past 35 years with the expansion of sports revenue via marketing and broadcast rights. For context, the NCAA’s 2018 D-1 Revenue and Expense Report noted that “currently, broadcast rights revenues for just one of the major December bowl games exceed the amount that was paid for the entire college football season in 1984.[1]”

MEDIAN REVENUES AND EXPENSES BY EXPENSE QUARTILE(2) FBS 2018

Business of College Athletics Revenue ChartAt the institutional level, the three most common categories of revenue include tuition and fees, donor contributions and other commercial activities including food and beverage sales, merchandise, corporate partnerships and third-party leasing/concessions. Public and private institutions have additional avenues to raise capital in the form of bond issuances and public-private-partnerships. Private institutions can also enter into traditional joint-venture arrangements with private developers to leverage best practices perfected in the traditional commercial real estate sector.

TOP EXPENSE & REVENUE CATEGORIES (OVERALL FBS 2018)

Business of College Athletics Expense ChartOutside of the venue and in the context of collegiate sports as a business, larger sports programs do benefit from conference-driven TV/media rights. As the success of a program gains in notoriety, its access to shared revenue in the large conferences including any performance-based financial incentives such as bowl games help to tilt the financial scales towards those programs. However, the difficult balance of maintaining a program of this caliber also comes with dramatic expenditures to remain at the top of annual recruiting classes for incoming student-athletes. Ultimately, each institution seeks to balance its academic mission, culture and the revenue potential of its athletic program to arrive at an optimal revenue scenario where both the athletics department and academic departments receive a sustainable allocation of capital to optimize operations.

TECH: A (LITERAL) GAME CHANGER

The most disruptive feature of collegiate athletics is the intensity of the emotion underpinning the demand for its unique live content and curated experience. The emotional anchor is not limited to large institutions, and in many cases, could be much more intense in smaller, concentrated communities where the fan experience has more of an intimate setting. Equally important is the culture promoted by an institution’s leadership and the downstream adoption of its values across the student body, fans and alumni.

The centrality of technology in daily lives has created an inflection point in expectations for technology within the buildings and structures that house both the academic departments and athletics facilities. The physical age and operational infrastructure of buildings is no longer the sole consideration, but the level of data connectivity and modern telecom infrastructure now serves an increasingly vital role in the optimization of the student and fan experience.

These upgrades serve all aspects of the university mission, from academic departments’ mission to enhance research functions and leverage the latest advances in digital classroom technology, all the way to how technology improves the effectiveness in creating positive student-athlete recruiting experiences. Both indoor and outdoor infrastructure upgrades are required to reach optimization in the digital environment today. 5G and Wi-Fi 6 are the most recent standards that signal a dramatic shift in both transmission speeds and latency. Wireless and wired installations including fiber-optics will unlock the next generation of applications that will program stadiums, arenas and other physical spaces in a similar fashion to installing apps on a phone or wireless device.

Universities and athletic departments benefit from both sides of the equation as technology drives additional revenue through enhanced experiences while also providing avenues for cost savings. Upgrades to the base building network as described above will lead to operational technology efficiencies in HVAC controls, lighting, occupancy detectors and occupancy tracking, to name a few. The amenities to support fan’s in-stadium engagement are beginning to see wide adoption across the major sporting leagues and include digital signage with interactive features, parking routing, enhanced in-venue audio-visual (AV), e-ticketing and digital reservation systems, fan mobile apps, and real-time analytics and replay. Carefully planning these upgrades will not only support the mission to improve fan experience and student-athlete performance, but also improve operational expense considerations at the property level. There are many stadiums that have already benefited from technology upgrades to enhance the fan experience, such as Ohio Stadium, Dallas’ AT&T Stadium and London’s Destination Tottenham. Dozens of others are already considering upgrades or are in pre-planning stages.

WHAT FANS WANT IN NEW STADIUM / ARENA DESIGN

In 2018, Deloitte conducted its Fan Engagement Survey that addressed each of the three individual aspects of fan engagement starting with the stadium experience, before addressing streaming and broadcast media and the year-round fan experience. The results substantiate how critical fan engagement is to the success of a host institution.

Business of College Athletics Infographic

It is evident that one of the most requested stadium/arena upgrades is improved Wi-Fi and wireless coverage. Additionally, more practical desires such as better parking facilities to manage gameday logistics, concession pricing, better crowd control and management of rowdy fans, wayfinding and pedestrian flow in-venue are important to consider. Fans would like to experience and see higher quality video, sound and display board systems in close coordination with quality seating enhancements and lines of sight. These improvements improve the fan experience, making it more desirable to be in the stadium more often and for longer periods of time, both of which lead to increased revenue opportunities on-site via food and beverages concessions, high-end food options, in-stadium merchandise stores and other on-site for-pay experiences.

IT ALL STARTS WITH THE REAL ESTATE

Traditional private sector developers and businesses are beginning to opportunistically leverage the importance of building culture and fandom in and around stadiums. Developing in the immediate vicinity around campuses and providing corporate sponsorship to drive local brand recognition is an important strategic consideration to achieving this goal. This type of private sector activity is not isolated to large institutions with nationally recognized athletic programs but serves as the social infrastructure of local communities in a symbiotic relationship. The real estate in and around college campuses is more critical than ever, and athletic departments are rightly focused on the way that sports and real estate integrate to improve student, fan and student-athlete experiences.

For many years, real estate has been referenced as a local business. The locational attributes of college campuses significantly impact economic activity in their immediate surrounding communities. In addition, the size and scale of the campus may not play a significant role in the potential commercial development opportunities. This discovery process is blind to institution size and could unlock value for both small and large colleges that learn more about the value of their campus location from a commercial development perspective. This knowledge would be invaluable to planning and considering public-private-partnerships and other commercial concessions with private developers.

THE FUTURE IS NOW

In summary, the future of business in collegiate sports will be dramatically influenced by trends in wireless and digital technology and creative integration of the neighborhoods surrounding athletic venues. Applying these advances to in-venue fan experience and athlete development may drive new categories of revenue for athletic departments and unlock new opportunities for collaboration with other academic departments at the host institution. The first step for athletic departments will involve a survey of existing technology at both performance venues and administrative buildings paired with a review of the host institution’s revenue requirements and strategic goals, laying the groundwork for subsequent action. The future is now and our decisions today define what comes next.

 

[1] Sanderson, A.R. & Siegfried, J.J. Rev Ind Organ (2018) 52: 305. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11151-017-9593-9

[1] For example, Quartile 1 includes the 25% of FBS athletic departments that had the highest expenses.

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