College sports may be major growth spot

Published 12:00 pm Tuesday, June 7, 2016

By Charlie Mitchell

Ole Miss and Mississippi State — this state’s two members of the Southeastern Conference — may be financial midgets when compared to most other SEC schools, but the size and scope of their athletics operations is staggering.

Both are experiencing explosive financial growth.

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Both are economic engines for the state, employing hundreds of people.

For perspective, consider that the budget for Harrison County, one of the state’s most populous, grew by $1.3 million to $59 million for the last budget year.

At the same time frame, the Athletics Department budget at the University of Mississippi grew by $6 million to $76.5 million — and that was before last year’s infusion from ESPN’s new SEC Network.

The 2012-2013 Ole Miss sports budget was $62.6 million. This year’s budget is $96 million, up 53 percent in four years.

If the state’s overall budget had increased by a like amount, Gov. Phil Bryant would be driving a gold-plated Ferrari and there sure as heck wouldn’t be any cuts in health care or education spending.

Somehow, a lot of us still think of sports as trivial — something for kids to do to keep fit or to provide entertainment at the high school stadium on fall Friday nights. No way to prove it, but a majority of Mississippians might not be able to name the head coaches at the state’s two largest universities — although they are the highest paid public employees in Mississippi. We may have heard the names of the star quarterbacks, but they don’t come immediately to mind.

Yes, there are many sports-obsessed folks. They are still a minority, though.

So, where does the revenue come from?

Almost 40 percent comes from the conference via the aforementioned broadcast rights and shares of bowl revenue. Ticket sales, greatly dominated by football, provide 20 percent and donations, including earnings on endowments, provide another 20 percent. The remainder comes from concessions ($8 sodas), licensing (athletic merchandise) and advertising (including sponsored messages on jumbotrons).

And where does it go?

The smaller categories include scholarships for athletes (about 15 percent) and travel and equipment (about 5 percent each). The major categories are payroll — coaches, foundation staffs, marketing, event management and others — totaling well over half.

And nothing succeeds like success. For the 2014 football season, when Mississippi State was the No. 1 team in the nation for several weeks, the Athletics Department reported a record $7.8 million in revenue over expenses.

It’s high-stakes stuff. And that, if nothing else, explains why athletics directors and coaches are under so much pressure to avoid anything that could lead to a downturn in revenue — mainly a losing season or a significant scandal.

Both universities have had their share of players making headlines for “bad stuff” and coaches being in the type of limelight they’d just as soon avoid.

“This job will make you callous,” Ole Miss head coach High Freeze said recently, “and I do see where that is true because it is very difficult to be raised by my parents like I was, to be who I want to be, say who I am and have people create narratives I may or may not have had control over,” he said.

Many conversations take place at one time: Who’s cheating? Will the NCAA punish the state for its flag? Should athletes be paid?

Too, the tenor of modern college sports is very much like politics. Regardless of the magnitude of a misdeed, the opposition will cite it as proof positive of deep-seated evil. A zit is morphed into a malignant cancer if it helps recruit the best players.

As stated, Mississippi, despite a rising national reputation in all sports, is still a piker financially. Texas A&M, also in the SEC, heads the pack with revenue of about $200 million and expenses of about $110 million. Other conference competitors for the Bulldogs and the Rebels also receive more and spend more. Kentucky, Auburn, LSU, Tennessee and Florida each spent more than $115 million. Neighboring national champion Alabama spent $132 million. The NCAA lists Ole Miss as 34th in revenue and Mississippi State as 45th.

Strangely, several state university athletics departments still receive subsidies (less than 3 percent for MSU and Ole Miss) and only a selected few “profit-share” with their parent institutions in terms of dollars. Winning does translate into enrollment increases.

Anyway, with so much on the decline in Mississippi’s economy, it’s a positive to note a growth area. And there’s no doubt about it, collegiate sports may well eclipse all other sectors.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at