CARBONDALE — North Dakota State's football program is used to winning, taking three straight FCS national championships and a division-record 38-game winning streak into the spring season.
The Bison are also a big step ahead of the rest of the Missouri Valley Football Conference off the field. NDSU's football team drew more in ticket sales during the 2018-19 fiscal year — $3,781,913 — than seven other programs in the league made in total revenue, according to public records obtained by The Southern Illinoisan through Freedom of Information Act requests. The Bison averaged just over 18,000 fans a game in 10 dates during their 15-0 national championship season in the Fargodome, a city-owned facility with a capacity of 18,700 fans.
NDSU also drew significantly more money than anyone else in the 10-team league (North Dakota joins the league as its 11th team this year) from media rights ($497,999, nearly 10 times more than any other program) and royalties, licensing and sponsorships ($2,568,080, more than a half a million dollars more than SIU's $1.96 million in 2018-19, the second-most of any MVFC team). NDSU athletic director Matt Larsen said he and his staff are always looking for more revenue streams, especially during the pandemic. The Bison are one of the only programs in the MVFC, if not the country, to have sponsors for their field (Gate City Bank) and their radio team (games air on the Peterson Farms Seed Bison Radio Network).
Full coverage of our analysis into MVFC finances
"There's never been a blueprint for anything like this. We're kind of taking everything in stride a little bit," Larsen said. "I think we actually have looked at a lot of the ways that we do things. Right now we're very fortunate that we have a loyal fanbase that supports our football program, and I don't see that financial model going away, per se. You hope that a pandemic is one time, and we don't have to ever deal with again, but I think we're always going to look to diversify revenue coming into our department."
NDSU's media rights contracts paid nearly a half million dollars in 2018-19. Most of that money came from the radio network and the program's contract with NBC Fargo, the only major network to air MVFC games. The Bison recently joined the Salukis and Northern Iowa, among others, in signing a media rights deal with Learfield Sports, which will be heavily involved in renegotiating when the contract with NBC Fargo ends after this season.
South Dakota State, which raised more than $5 million in revenue in fiscal year 2019, the second-most in the league, drew $15,756 from media rights and more than $1.9 million in licensing, royalties and sponsorships. The Jackrabbits opened the season at Iowa State, which earned a guarantee of $425,000, and played seven games on the Midco Sports Network. SDSU also earned $675,000 in guarantees and had the lowest scholarship costs of any school in Valley Football: $4,042,441.
The Southern reached out to South Dakota State athletic director Justin Sell but did not hear back.
Scholarships are one of the top expenses for athletic departments, along with facilities debt service, coaching salaries and travel. SDSU featured the second-lowest cost of attendance of any team in the league, an average of $22,931 for in-state students and $26,179 for out-of-state students. Cost of attendance comes from each school's financial aid office using federal regulations, and includes the cost of tuition and fees, room and board, books, supplies, transportation and other expenses related to attending. NDSU had the cheapest average cost of attendance, $22,393 for in-state students and $25,756 for out-of-state students, while SIU had the highest, with an average cost of attendance for in-state students at $29,262 and $43,719 for out-of-state students.
With only $379,476 in ticket sales (SIU's average attendance, 6,456 fans per game in five dates, ranked sixth-best in the league) and the fourth-most scholarship costs (for all sports), the Saluki football program lost more than $2.3 million in fiscal year 2019 despite having the lowest coaches' payroll in the league.
SIU spent more than $300,000 just hosting five football games in 2018, so losing the fall season didn't impact the program as much as other things, according to athletic director Liz Jarnigan.
"It cost us so much to operate our games, as opposed to the lost ticket revenue, so there's that component there," she said. "Obviously, last year our ticket revenue for the season, for football, was about $380,000, and it costs us about $75,000 a game to run the game, including game operations, Saluki Row, cleanup, setup, all that. For a school our size, the hit isn't as large as what you're hearing about with the Big Ten Conference or the Pac-12."
SIU wasn't alone in losing money in football. Only two of the league's 10 teams broke even, like Missouri State, or lost money. Indiana State, which had the lowest amount of ticket sales in the MVFC ($52,390), the ninth-fewest donations ($121,549) and no media rights money, made a profit for the third straight year in 2019. The Sycamores' football program received more than $3.4 million in student fees and were able to turn up $144,567 after a $500,000 guarantee from playing at Louisville. Indiana State made $132,173 in 2018 and $93,622 in 2017.
Despite its revenue from television rights, broadcasting and hosting nine games during the 2018 season, NDSU even lost money in football, down $41,339.
Illinois State's football program lost $1,212,293 and Western Illinois lost $987,614. Even the University of Illinois, which earned more than $67.5 million just from media rights and licensing/royalties/sponsorships, lost more than a million dollars last year. The Fighting Illini, with more than $43 million in coaching salaries and more than $28 million in facilities/overhead, according to USA Today, couldn't make a profit despite more than $118 million in revenue.
Most athletic departments, even at the highest levels, don't profit in the end. Two of the top 10 revenue-producing departments lost money last year, with Ohio State and Alabama, two of the most successful and well-known programs in the country, losing more than $9 million and $20 million, respectively, in 2019.
Financial documents we obtained through FOIA are below:
What MVFC teams are profitable?
On Twitter: @THefferman
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