KU basketball saves athletic department budget, allows leaders to dream of ‘blue sky potential’

Allen Fieldhouse is shown in this Journal-World file photo.

Despite popular opinion, KU has a good football program. It just happens to play basketball.

No, you haven’t missed any gridiron victories. Rather, that’s just a way to note that KU’s nationally renowned basketball program performs financially like a good football program.

Knowing that fact is important to understanding how Kansas Athletics is able to remain financially competitive in the world of big-time college athletics. But perhaps more importantly, recognizing KU basketball’s financial prowess is key to understanding why KU leaders often think the sky is the limit for KU’s athletic department.

Numbers game

Men’s basketball ticket sales 2017

Kansas: $15.1 million

Kansas State: $3.01 million

Missouri: $3.03 million

Football ticket sales 2017

Kansas: $3.4 million

Kansas State: $11.8 million

Missouri: $11 million

All sports ticket sales 2017

Kansas: $18.9 million

Kansas State: $15.2 million

Missouri: $17.9 million

In 2017, the KU men’s basketball team generated $15.1 million in ticket sales, according to reports filed with the NCAA. That’s more than the $11.8 million that K-State’s football program generated in the same year. It also is more than the $11 million that Missouri’s football team produced in the vaunted SEC.

Thus far, KU’s woes on the football field haven’t put the athletic department at a financial disadvantage. KU football in 2017 generated only $3.4 million in ticket sales — or about $8.4 million less than K-State’s football program. But K-State’s basketball program only generated $3 million in ticket sales. Add it all up — including women’s programs and the school’s smaller programs — and KU had a total of $18.9 million in ticket sales. K-State had $15.2 million in total ticket sales. Mizzou also trailed KU in total ticket sales, with $17.9 million.

KU basketball can make up for a lot.

It also can cause athletic directors to dream of what could be. It is hard to build a basketball program that ever sells $15 million in tickets. But KU has one. If it can now build just a good football program, it could have a truly elite revenue-generating athletic department. Just a good, not elite, football program because, remember, K-State has only won two conference championships in 14 years, and you would need an abacus to calculate the last time Mizzou won a conference championship in football.

Viewed that way, KU is one of the few athletic departments positioned to make a moonshot. Sure, it still may not rival the ranks of Texas and Ohio State, but KU definitely would be living in an upscale neighborhood. KU athletic department leaders do view the possibilities as great.

“We are in a unique position,” KU Athletic Director Sheahon Zenger said. “What you have just described is incredible blue sky potential. It is exciting to think about.”

But, to state the obvious, a total of three football wins in the last three seasons doesn’t send anything into the blue sky stratosphere — other than the blood pressure of fans. Zenger, though, thinks he has the right formula in place. While he vowed not to make win-loss projections, he said the program has the key ingredient in place for success.

“You have to have continued commitment,” Zenger said. “You can’t stop and start, stop and start. Probably the thing we have right now more than ever is we have a solid commitment from central administration, athletic administration, endowment association, alumni association, all with locked arms to support that program.

“Now you need coaches and student athletes to give their best every day, work hard, and take a blue-collar approach.”

There you go: Blue collar to blue sky.

Related stories: The finances of KU Athletics

In September 2017, when KU announced plans to build $350 million in new facilities, primarily for football, it marked the beginning of one of the biggest financial bets the program has ever made. The Journal-World decided to study the financial books, talk to leaders and give readers a better understanding of the money game that is constantly a part of big-time college athletics. These are the resulting stories from spring 2018.

April 29 — A look at the finances of Kansas Athletics: Rising revenues, soaring costs, big bets

April 29 — KU basketball saves athletic department budget, allows leaders to dream of ‘blue sky potential’

May 6 — KU football ticket sales down about $6 million per year; some question whether $300 million in new facilities will help

May 13 — Administrative salaries jumped by 42 percent in a single year at Kansas Athletics; KU salaries top K-State’s

May 13 — How much does KU spend on athletics? More than the city spends on police, fire and roads, but returns are big too

May 20 — Girod: Athletics important to KU, but there is a “disconnect” too

May 20 — Should KU be worried about getting dumped from a Power 5 Conference? The financial stakes are huge

May 22 — Rock Chalk Park started as $39 million deal for KU; now it may top $100 million after KU allowed lease to be changed