The Gathering Gator Storm
Largely on the strength of his six-volume account of World War II, Winston Churchill won the 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature. The first volume of his account, The Gathering Storm, is a day-to-day account of Hitler's unfolding menace and the failures of appeasement attempts by European leaders. In no way do I liken the University of Florida or athletic teams to the Nazis (but to the Taliban? Sure, why not.). Nevertheless, as a fan of a rival program, I am alarmed at the Gators' sudden dominance of the major revenue and non-revenue varsity sports and I consider their sweep of the SEC landscape analogous to Germany's steamrolling of Europe in the 1930s.
Some will argue that Florida's emergence will benefit the entire SEC, as the national exposure and television and bowl riches will trickle down to the rest of us. It's true that, over the past two decades of Gator dominance, the SEC has run circles around the rest of the country in the race for bowl and television revenue. Roughly half of the conference finished in the AP final top 25 football rankings. Competition breeds competition and the Gators' rising tide has lifted the rest of the SEC's boats. But, rest assured, that wealth will hardly be spread evenly.
I contend that the SEC is in danger of becoming the Pac-10, with Florida playing the role of USC as the conference's undisputed alpha. If you're an SEC fan (or, heaven forbid, an SEC athletics administrator) untroubled by Florida's rise, you're not paying attention. More troubling to me is that Georgia, which is well-equipped to turn back this tide, has instead allowed it to gather volume. For evidence, look no further than this season, when the Gators completed a sweep of Georgia in football, men's basketball, baseball and freaking gymnastics, which, during my time as a student during the Ray Goff era, was the only source of consolation for Bulldogs sports fans.
Today, the Florida men's basketball team stands on the cusp of repeating as NCAA champs. If they do so, they will become the first team to do so since Duke did it in 1991 and 1992. This marks a major change in the landscape. If we were talking about UCLA, Kentucky, Indiana, UNC or any other traditional basketball heavyweight, we could remain content that the status quo remains unchecked. But this Florida. Prior to losing in the second round of the 1987 NCAAs, Florida had never been to the Big Dance. Of Florida's 10 NCAA tournament appearances and two final four appearances, half occurred under current coach Bill Donovan, who is in his 10th season in Gainesville. Florida's emergence as a basketball power is as sudden and out-of-nowhere as was Miami's arrival as a football power in 1983.
While we're on the subject of football, consider that prior to Steve Spurrier's arrival in 1990, Florida went some six decades without a football title of any kind – conference or national. Since then, they've amassed seven SEC titles and two national championships.
As Pat Forde notes, we have entered the mega-program era, in which the demarcation between "football school" and "basketball school" is being replaced by the simple distinction of "haves" and "have-nots." Per the Indianapolis Star's NCAA Financial Reports Database, the University of Florida's athletic department operates on a $77.7M budget and spends all but $3.8M of that. Ohio State's AD budget is $89.7M (Forde says it's $102M, but he doesn't cite a source), with but $120,674 unallocated. Georgia's AD budget is comparable, sporting $68.8M in revenues and, much to my consternation, leading the country with nearly $24 million in unallocated funds. So while Georgia's budget is comparable to Florida's, our spending is not.
"Advertising and sponsorships," which includes merchandise royalties, brings in $6.7M to UF's AD, which is a little over 60% of what a season's worth of ticket sales at 88,548-seat Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Given the glut of Gator gear that presumably would fly off the racks with another Gator championship, we can safely assume that Florida, which leads the SEC in royalties, will extend its lead significantly.
As Forde notes, "Six members of this year's Sweet 16 traditionally have been football-first schools: Florida, Ohio State, USC, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Oregon. Thirteen schools that advanced to the round of 32 in this tournament have played in at least one BCS bowl game this century."
Florida and Ohio State, as you will recall, just finished competing for a BCS championship in football. The cash flow that leads to this kind of preeminence is not hard to diagram. Football produced over $26M in profits for Ohio State and $27.1M for Florida. Men's basketball delivered $7.4M for Ohio State and nearly $1.9M for Florida. If football profits are driving the bus – and it appears abundantly clear that they do – then this is clearly a game Georgia can play. Football profits at Georgia totaled $38.4M, nearly $10M more than the SEC's second-most profitable team, Alabama.
Most Profitable Football Programs - SEC
Most Profitable Football Programs - National
1. University of Georgia
1. University of Texas
2. University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa
2. University of Georgia
3. Louisiana State University
3. University of Michigan
4. University of Florida
4. University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa
5. Auburn University
5. Louisiana State University
6. University of Arkansas
6. University of Florida
7. University of Tennessee
7. Ohio State University
8. University of Kentucky
8. Texas A&M University
9. University of Mississippi
9. Auburn University
10. University of South Carolina
10. University of Arkansas
11. Mississippi State University
11. University of Tennessee
As I have said before it is time for Georgia's athletic director Damon Evans to spend. Spend wisely, but spend. When it comes to total facilities and maintenance spending, Georgia ranks 48th nationally and last in the SEC. Aside from the nation's loveliest football setting, an excellent baseball park and a new basketball practice facility, Georgia has very little to show in facilities spending. Nowhere is this negligence more glaring than at Georgia's basketball facility, Stegeman Coliseum, dubbed "the Stegasaurus," for its Jurassic-era design. (EDIT: Per Paul Westerdawg's comments below, the Georgia AD carries roughly $100M in debt related to facilities upgrades. It's an accounting issue, but apparently, the Indy Star's database doesn't count debt service towards facilities and maintenance spending.)
We've held our own in salaries, ranking 13th nationally and 4th in the SEC. And I'm on board with the recent decision to extend men's basketball coach Dennis Felton's contract. As Paul Westerdawg notes, there's been noticeable progress from the crater in which the Harricks left Georgia men's hoops and we need stability in the program for recruiting reasons and for a host of other reasons as well. The loss of Tubby Smith to Kentucky, coupled with the subsequent Harrick era, set Georgia men's hoops back well over a decade. A decade ago, Georgia men were in the Sweet 16. This year, we were routed in the second round of the NIT. I strongly encourage Evans to not allow the new practice facility to be the end of Georgia's hoops commitment.
If there's a positive in all of this, it's that Florida has proven conclusively that, with the right funding and management, a Johnny-come-lately can come in and dominate any sport in this new era of mega-programs. But soon, as the rich continue to get richer, that won't always be the case. Right now, Florida may resemble USC. Left unchecked for another couple of years, they'll resemble a better-managed version of the New York Yankees. Regardless of whether Florida wins or loses tonight – but particularly if they win – I hope someone in the Butts-Mehre building responds with a Churchillian sense of urgency.