Nine straight trips to the NCAA tournament. A national title in 1994. Four straight ACC titles from 2005-08. By any standard, North Carolina’s women’s basketball program is one of the most successful in the nation.
But in the 2008-09 season, the program spent $1.86 million more than it brought in — a larger deficit than any other sport at UNC.
As North Carolina tries to straddle the line between big-money sports and a broad-based athletics program, the department is caught in a nationwide arms race of spending.
The Numbers$2.45 million in expenses for women’s basketball for 2008-09
$585,021 in revenue in 2008-09
$27,102 in expenses per player — more than any other non-revenue sport
The cycle of spending is pulling women’s basketball into the spiral of increasing expenses, but revenue hasn’t kept up.
The price of success
Karen Shelton has spent 30 years running North Carolina’s field hockey program and won six national title trophies. She’s one of a host of successful coaches at UNC and one of five who have won national titles.
Shelton is happy at UNC. She and other coaches of non-revenue sports understand the system: football and men’s basketball pay the rent.
North Carolina’s 26 other programs — including women’s basketball — get facilities and operating budgets largely through money brought in by the highly visible revenue sports.
But it gets a little murkier when talking about women’s basketball. The athletic department spent $2.45 million on women’s basketball in 2008-09, for a return of only $585,021 in reported revenue. In UNC’s athletic department, which walks a financial tightrope to stay in the black, the expenditure stands out.
“To me, it doesn’t seem right,” Shelton said. “They’re non-revenue, like the rest of us. And the rest of us get to enjoy the revenue from football and basketball, but it’s taken away to support women’s basketball at that level.”
Athletic director Dick Baddour said that he considers women’s basketball in the same group as UNC’s other non-revenue sports. But the women’s basketball operating budget, which includes transportation, lodging, meals and equipment, is larger than any other non-revenue sport.
In 2008-09, women’s basketball spent $27,102 per athlete — more than double what any other non-revenue sport spent.
“You’ve got to compare apples to apples,” UNC women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell said. “You’ve got to compare us to women’s basketball. UConn, Tennessee, Duke, Stanford … Not us with volleyball or wrestling or anything like that. You’ve got to compare us to our competition.”
The investment from the athletic department — including a contract extension for Hatchell and a brand-new $36 million Carmichael Arena — has been substantial. And while Carmichael’s floor and office space benefit the rest of the non-revenue sports, the chief reasoning was to give women’s basketball a better home than the dilapidated Carmichael Auditorium.
“I don’t look at it like every sport except for men’s basketball and football — nobody yields enough to pay for its own, so they must be a strain,” Baddour said. “I look at it as the University of North Carolina Department of Athletics has a 28-sport program, and everybody contributes what they can.”
For her part, Hatchell has advocated that she wants her program to generate revenue.
“When I said that, that I wanted us to be a revenue-producing sport, I was told, ‘That’s not necessary,’” Hatchell said. “But for me it is. I want to be revenue-producing.”
UNC is still a long way from that idea. This season, average attendance for women’s basketball games was 3,002 per game — Carmichael Arena holds around 8,000.
But UNC isn’t unique; even the most elite teams did not generate profit in 2008-09. The Connecticut Huskies, with their two straight national titles and 78-game winning streak, lost $264,067. Tennessee lost $1.7 million.
The problem is comparison.
Women’s basketball is the same sport as men’s basketball — and it’s always been tagged as the women’s sport most likely to be financially successful.
The women’s NCAA tournament gets national television exposure, and the WNBA offers professional prospects.
Conventional knowledge is that to have a top-tier program, athletics departments have to spend money.
The rapid spending escalation in men’s basketball has pulled women’s basketball along for the ride. The result is a cluster of elite women’s basketball programs that, despite their success, don’t make money.
UNC’s $2.45 million in expenses actually adds up to much less than many of its competitors. UConn and Tennessee both top $5 million in women’s basketball expenses, and Duke reported just more than $3 million in expenses.
Revenue aside, Hatchell’s recent record stands up to UNC’s men’s team. In the past decade, Hatchell’s team has played for the ACC Tournament title eight times, been to the Final Four twice and been to the NCAA Tournament more times than the men.
“That’s where we want our women’s basketball program,” Baddour said.
“It is, that’s the cost of doing business, and it’s the fun part of doing business.”
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