Last week, Bellarmine University officially decided to move the school’s athletic programs up to Division I. The costs for the Knights programs to jump from D-II to D-I are relatively straightforward: primarily a $1.6 million NCAA application fee and additional fees to join the ASUN conference (these are currently unknown, but recent ASUN addition University of North Alabama reportedly paid $175,000 to join the conference).
Bellarmine President Susan Donovan said “diversifying your revenues” is an issue that universities of Bellarmine’s size face “with or without athletics.”
So, when the Knights programs officially begin competing in D-I during the 2020-2021 academic year, what opportunities will they have to bring in revenue?
Bellarmine’s men’s basketball team is perhaps its most successful, and it’s the athletic team that has the most potential to bring in significant revenue for the university.
Under coach Scott Davenport, the Knights have made four Final Four appearances and won the 2011 D-II National Championship.
The basketball program’s addition to the ASUN will give the conference an even number of 10 hoops teams, most of which will fill their non-conference schedules with what are commonly known as “buy games” or “guarantees.”
In a deal for a guarantee game, a team from one of the five largest conferences (sometimes called Power 5) or another large conference team will pay a school from a smaller conference like the ASUN to come play a game on their home court. Guarantees are common in basketball and football and can produce paychecks of tens of thousands of dollars for the traveling small conference team like Bellarmine.
In North Alabama’s first year in the ASUN, the men’s basketball team got $95,000 to play at Gonzaga who was ranked No. 4 in the country at the time. North Alabama Athletic Director Mark Linder told the TimesDaily in August that his school was scheduled to bring in $420,000 in basketball game guarantees for the upcoming season.
Bellarmine has played the University of Louisville in exhibition games on an annual basis, and Davenport said he would be “creative” when scheduling.
“All the schools in this area that are our level or above our level, we welcome that,” Davenport said last week. “We’ll be creative.”
Sports economist Victor Matheson says schools can generate substantial revenue from guarantees, but the amount is hardly enough to make a meaningful difference in the athletic budget.
“A school can earn money by offering to play away games at large institutions, but these revenues typically cover a tiny fraction of all expenses,” Matheson said. “A school with a football team and a men’s basketball team might earn as much as a couple of million if they maximize these opportunities, but that might be at most 5 percent of total athletic costs.”
Another cost for most schools reclassifying to D-I is in upgrades to athletic facilities. Donovan said Bellarmine does plan to upgrade some of its facilities, including the basketball arena, Knights Hall.
Donovan said additional seating will be added for the students to sit in the area behind a basket which is currently a performance stage.
A major draw for teams to move up higher in conference ranks is the opportunity to gain in revenue sharing.
Again, Bellarmine’s basketball program has the best chance to earn money in revenue sharing through media deals and the NCAA Tournament.
Every D-I conference receives money from the NCAA each year after the tournament based on the number and success of the teams representing the conference in the Big Dance. The conference can then distribute the money to its members however it pleases.
“You get a little bit of revenue sharing from the NCAA as part of March Madness, even if you’re not in the Big Dance yourself,” Matheson said. “But again, these are pretty small revenue amounts, compared to the additional costs it takes to run a Division-I program.”
The potential to bring in revenue depends heavily on the postseason success of Davenport’s team, which cannot compete in the NCAA Tournament until the 2024-2025 season. Due to the four-year application process, none of Bellarmine’s new D-I programs can compete in postseason play outside of conference tournaments and smaller basketball tournaments like the National Invitational Tournament and the College Basketball Invitational.
Davenport said he doesn’t see this as a stumbling block in recruiting because he will be able to pitch the unique opportunity to recruits to be Bellarmine’s “first ever” D-I players.
“In recruiting, those players will be the first ever,” Davenport said. “As coaches, we will be the first ever. So, is it tough on us that we’re not immediately contending for a national championship? We’re doing something that’s never been done before and will never be done again.”
Though this year the NCAA plans to distribute more than $168 million to teams, most of the major conference teams earn more revenue from their TV and media rights deals.
The Big Ten Conference signed a six-year deal with ESPN and Fox Sports worth $2.64 billion in 2017. ASUN games currently air on ESPN+, a subscription-based streaming branch of ESPN, and Matheson said there’s not a lot of potential for Bellarmine to make money there.
“They’re joining a conference that generates essentially no media revenue,” Matheson said. “You know, no TV revenue, no radio revenue, and no big end of season tournament that generates millions of dollars. Yeah, I don’t think they’re going to be getting much revenue sharing. But even if they got a full slice of the pie, they wouldn’t be getting much anyway.”
A popular word at Bellarmine’s press conference announcing the move to Division I was “exposure.” Almost every official who spoke at the event mentioned the opportunities for the athletic teams to gain more visibility than ever before.
“The improved reach offered through ASUN and ESPN will shine a brighter spotlight on Bellarmine, drawing more regional and national attention,” Bellarmine Athletic Director Scott Wiegandt said.
Bellarmine Board of Trustees Chair Bill Mudd pointed to the basketball program as a positive example of national exposure.
“We witnessed the power of national exposure in 2011,” Mudd said. “Immediately following Bellarmine’s nationally televised NCAA Division-II Men’s Basketball Championship, there was an elevated interest in the university, and we saw it in increased inquiries and online searches from prospective students. With the move to Division I, we no longer have to wait for a national championship to play on the national stage.”
The Knights basketball team is poised to be the soon-to-be D-I university’s most opportunistic program for generating additional revenue, but the payoff relies largely on sustained success.
“If I were a small school and I could guarantee myself getting into March Madness every year, even if I don’t ever win, you know, that’s a pretty good gamble to take,” Sports economist Victor Matheson said. “That being said, you know, they’re going to be joining a conference with eight or 10 other schools who all have exactly that same goal.”