The Information Age

The High Costs Of Being An NCAA Tournament Cinderella


Last night the Dayton Flyers punched their ticket to the Elite Eight with a 82-72 victory over Stanford. A No. 11 seed that took down Ohio State in the opening round, Dayton is this year’s biggest Cinderella story. But that sort of tournament success doesn’t come cheap.

As we’ve previously noted, Wichita State’s run to the Final Four last year wound up causing the team to lose money. The Shockers ordinarily net about $1 million per year from basketball, which helps support the school’s non-revenue sports, but tournament costs so increased the team’s spending – up 16% to $5.4 million – that the athletic department had to rely on school reserves to make up its losses.

This year’s tournament has featured a wealth of upsets, and three double-digit seeds made the Sweet 16. With those Cinderella stories in mind, we sought to find out just how expensive it is to go dancing in glass slippers. To do so, we turned to theDepartment of Education’s financial database and pulled financial details for every Cinderella team – in this case any team that made it to at least the Sweet 16 as a No. 8 seed or higher – of the last decade.

It’s first worth noting a few limitations of our study. One is the obvious small sample size. Cinderella teams are, by definition, rare underdogs. And that sample size unfortunately shrinks even smaller when we have to exclude schools that don’t report detailed losses. The Dept. of Education doesn’t require schools to list financial losses, so athletic departments in the red will often adjust their numbers to show a profit of exactly $0.

That can still be useful information if a team that ordinarily makes a profit suddenly falls to $0, showing that it crossed into the red, but for teams like Richmond, Cornell and St. Mary’s that have reported undefined losses throughout the last decade, there’s no easy way to quantify what sort of impact a Cinderella run had on team finances.

Another thing worth pointing out is that we have a rather wide definition for a Cinderella team, so our pool includes programs like Arizona, Marquette and Xavier, all of which are tournament regulars. If we had financial data for the current season, our selection would also include Kentucky. As we’ll detail later, there’s an important distinction between tournament regulars that win despite a low seed and “true Cinderellas,” or the mid-major programs that make entirely unexpected tournament runs.

There were three excellent examples of the latter in last year’s tournament: Wichita State, La Salle and Florida Gulf Coast. The three teams knocked off far superior competition, and they all saw expenses surge from previous years.

Wichita State made the Final Four, while the other two were eliminated in the Sweet 16. Florida Gulf Coast, everyone’s favorite high-flying team in 2013, was spending well under $1 million on basketball just a few years ago. Last year the team spent $1.6 million, a 45% year-over-year increase, and the team barely broke even on the year (see below).

The same is true for underdogs in 2012, when NC State, Xavier and Ohio – all double-digit seeds that were knocked out in the round of 16 – saw expenses skyrocket:

The NC State Wolfpack had clearly begun spending more in the season prior to the tournament, and continued that spending spree afterward. But for Xavier and Ohio, the 2012 tournament marked a sudden uptick in spending that either leveled off or fell in 2013.

The 17 teams in our pool experienced a 29% surge in costs year over year and, in the 14 cases where enough data was available, a 36% increase over the average spending of the previous three seasons. Below are the spending figures for the applicable teams:

Keep in mind that, since 2004, men’s basketball expenses have increased by an average 8.5% annually across all NCAA teams, so 12% bumps for teams like Washington or Bradley aren’t particularly telling. But even after correcting for natural growth, more than half the Cinderella teams in our pool saw men’s basketball spending increase by 10% or more.

Of course those increases in expenses aren’t unique to Cinderella teams. Louisville, Kansas and Michigan State also have to spend more when they make deep tournament runs, and when Kentucky failed to qualify for NCAA Tournament play last year the team’s expenses dropped by 10% to $13.7 million.

The key difference, however, is that top-tier programs can afford and, perhaps more importantly, better anticipate that sort of spending. Mid-majors like Wichita State or Davidson have smaller budgets and a far harder time dealing with the unanticipated costs. Even with the revenue growth associated with tournament success – the teams above saw income increase 16% over the previous season – the surprise spending can often derail a team’s hopes of profitability.

Four teams – Wichita State last year, Florida State in 2011, Davidson in 2008 and George Mason in 2006 – went from being profitable teams to losing money after a tournament run. Others remained profitable, but with much smaller margins.

Note: As detailed earlier, a profit of exactly $0 is indicative of undefined losses. In other words, Wichita State and Florida State suffered a bigger dip in profits than is shown in the table.

Some teams clearly performed better than others, and it’s no coincidence that most of the financially successful teams are also NCAA tournament regulars. Xavier, Marquette, Arizona and Villanova were mostly able to sustain profits from the previous season, and all four had gone to at least the three previous tournaments.

La Salle, meanwhile, was breaking a two-decade tournament drought. George Mason had missed the four previous tourneys, FGCU had never been to one and teams like Northern Iowa and Davidson had made appearances but without any success to speak of. The surprise spending of a run to the Sweet 16, or further in some cases, seriously impacted each team’s net income.

There are exceptions, most notably Ohio and Bradley, but on the whole true Cinderella teams suffer at the bank. And it bears repeating that our study doesn’t even include teams that were already losing money before making an expensive trip to the Sweet 16 or beyond.

So what of this year’s teams? Dayton isn’t quite an NCAA Tournament regular, playing in its first big dance since 2009, which suggests tournament spending will exceed the team’s budget. But at least the Flyers have plenty of cash to work with: Dayton nearly made our list of college basketball’s most valuable teams thanks to 2012-13 profits in excess of $7 million.

Stanford may not be so lucky. The team is ordinarily profitable on revenue that fluctuates between $4 million and $6 million, but the Cardinal’s last tournament appearance in 2008, which also ended in the Sweet 16, proved to be quite costly. That year, team profit fell 50% to $1.4 million.