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.