COLUMBIA, Mo. – Missouri athletics revenues failed to match expenses for the 2017 fiscal year. It was the first time the program ran a deficit since 2012 – that year, the Big 12 withheld $12.4 million in allocation from Missouri because of its decision to move to the Southeastern Conference.
The situation was more complicated in 2017: sagging ticket sales,
combined with increased spending on coaches’ salaries and overhead at the new Mizzou Softball Stadium, resulted in a deficit of $4.5 million.
Missouri was the only athletic department in the SEC to fail to turn a profit last year, according to a recent report by the USA Today. (That report excluded Vanderbilt, which did not share its financial data.)
While the department is working to recoup its losses through outbound ticket sales and increased donations, it might be a while before Missouri’s revenues catch up to its expenses.
“It’s probably a couple years,” athletic director Jim Sterk said, referring to the department’s return to solvency in a wide-ranging interview. “I’m hopeful that we can balance it this coming year. That’s making sure that we stay within our means and invest wisely, but then grow our revenues at the same time.”
Missouri expects the new south end zone structure at Memorial Stadium to increase ticket revenues by $4 million annually, though those figures won’t be factored into the equation until fiscal year 2020.
In the meantime, the department’s partnership with IMG Learfield to sell tickets has helped bring in 1,000 new season-ticket holders, Sterk said. Yet football ticket sales are still down compared to this point last year, when the Tigers averaged 51,490 fans per game.
When asked if attendance was the best indicator for fan interest in the football program, Sterk said brought up the department’s annual scholarship fund.
“Not everybody can make a Saturday, or they have kids, or whatever,” Sterk said. “If we can grow that in a way that’s significant and can help us pay our scholarship bill each year and grow beyond that, that’s a good indicator.”
Missouri was able to cover its 2017 deficit through reserves from surpluses earned in previous years, according to spokesperson Nick Joos, and its revenues still ranked 33rd in the nation according to the USA Today report.
“It’s not like we are in the poor house,” Sterk said. ... “It’s just that the SEC has continued to accelerate as far as our competitors in the league. What we’ve looked at doing also is compared where we are with our peers budget-wise. We look at North Carolina, Virginia, Florida State, that group when we are looking at different things throughout the department.”
From a financial standpoint, the athletic department operates independently from the university. Athletics received 1.07 percent of its funding from MU, which paid $1,015,000 to cover out-of-state tuition fees.
FOOTBALL GOALS: A little more than one year ago, with the Tigers’ football team coming off a disappointing 5-7 year in 2016, Sterk told reporters in a similar setting that his goal for coach Barry Odom in 2017 was to make a bowl game. Odom obliged, leading Missouri to six straight wins after beginning the season 1-5.
Unlike last year, there isn’t an obvious bar to clear for 2018.
“I expect it to be an exciting year. I think it sets up,” Sterk said. “Tough schedule, but I think it’s a really good one. I think the culture of the team is in great shape.”
Missouri opens the season against Football Championship Subdivision foe Tennessee-Martin on Sept. 1. The Tigers will host Wyoming in Week 2 and will travel to Purdue for Week 3 before entering an SEC gauntlet: home against Georgia, at South Carolina, at Alabama. Missouri has a bye week between games against the Bulldogs and Gamecocks.
The Tigers have already started a Heisman campaign on behalf of Drew Lock, last year’s national passing touchdowns leader. Lock appeared on ESPN Radio’s “Golic and Wingo” on June 28, and Missouri will distribute bobbleheads of Lock to fans who renewed their season tickets before April 14. It’s part of a minutely-detailed plan to increase awareness and excitement around the quarterback who is expected to go high in next year’s NFL Draft.
“You don’t want to start with everything in July, and in August and September you’ve got nothing,” said Joos, one of the main executors of the Heisman campaign. “We’ve got a well-thought-out plan that we’ll continue to roll out as he plays well, and as he plays at a high level there will be more intensity and more prongs to that.”
Defensive lineman Terry Beckner Jr., who many thought could have been a first- or second-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, also elected to return for his senior year. Sterk stayed mum on the idea that Odom’s future would be determined by how he performs with the abundance of returning talent this year.
“You never know. Something happens to players or things that occur... you have to take into account all of those things when you look, at the end of the season, was this a successful season?” Sterk said. “I try to do that when I look at it. It’s not just wins and losses, but do we want to make the postseason? Yes. Do we want to win our division? Yes. We want to do that, but it depends on how things go.”
HOOP DREAMS: The excitement around the Missouri basketball program spiked a nearly $2.1 million ticket sales increase from a season ago.
Michael Porter Jr., the No. 1 ranked player in the 2017 class, had a lot to do with that spike and excitement. Porter was drafted No. 14 by the Denver Nuggets in the 2018 NBA Draft and is now gone.
Sterk doesn’t believe that the excitement will dip going into 2018.
“I think it could certainly match last year,” Sterk said. “Overall, competitively, I think we have an opportunity to be even better. I think that excitement should be around the program and I know the team and coaches feel that way.”
Part of the reason Missouri’s excitement is still high is because Cuonzo Martin is leading the program. His hire marked the end of an abysmal three-year stretch under Kim Anderson that saw the team win just eight conference games.
Despite juggling the injuries, most notably the back injury to Porter, transfers and dismissal of Terrence Phillips, Martin led the Tigers to a 20-13 season and it’s first NCAA Tournament berth in five years.
Sterk said Martin’s year was better than he expected.
“He is mature about his approach,” Sterk said. “I think he was open and honest with the players, not only Michael, but the rest of the team. I think they had good dialogue and maximized the opportunity that they had.”
Sterk also noted that the return of Jontay Porter, last year’s SEC co-Sixth Man of the Year, was a major help in boosting excitement.
“It helps to have Jontay come back. I think he had made a decision a lot earlier than you or I knew,” Sterk said. “I think it was good for him to experience that and test that. The benefit for him too will be having a full summer training with Nicodemus (Christopher) and the rest of the team. You saw the transformation with (Jeremiah) Tilmon and I think that can occur with Jontay too.”
Among basketball topics discussed, Sterk was asked about his relationship with Jeff Long, the new athletic director at the University of Kansas.
Long, who was previously the athletic director at Arkansas from 2008-17, was hired on July 5. Sterk said he sent Long a congratulatory text and that he thinks they have a good relationship.
As far as another Border War exhibition game, Sterk isn’t sure yet.
“I think there is a good relationship, but what comes with that I’m not sure, because overall, it’s not just an athletics thing. It’s a university overall,” Sterk said.
SOFTBALL EXPECTATIONS: The Missouri softball team has seen changes to its roster since Larissa Anderson was named coach at the end of May.
Braxton Burnside, Amanda Sanchez and Rylee Pierce have already transferred from the program, leaving Anderson without three of Missouri’s top hitters from a season ago.
Sanchez led the team with 37 RBIs last season, Burnside was second with 28, while Pierce batted .318 and had 23 RBIs.
Sterk said though he thinks Anderson will succeed at Missouri, any successful program takes time to build.
“She has opportunity to take it even further, but you have to give it three or four years for her recruits and players and develop,” Sterk said. “I think they plan on winning right away, so they aren’t going to wait around.”
Missouri has reached the NCAA Regional in each of the last 12 seasons. Last year the Tigers finished the season 30-29 and did not qualify for the SEC conference tournament, which it hosted.
HALTER LAWSUIT: In June, former Missouri track assistant CarJay Lyles sued the University of Missouri Board of Curators, head track coach Brett Halter and associate athletics director for compliance Mitzi Clayton, for racial discrimination during his time as an assistant under Halter from 2013-16.
Lyles, who coached briefly at Tennessee in 2017 and is now an assistant track coach at Akron University, filed the lawsuit in Boone County.
In a statement from June 27, MU spokesperson Christian Basi said that the university cannot comment on pending litigation.
“However,” Basi said, “the University of Missouri has a strong anti-discrimination policy and has worked hard to address any concerns through our Office of Civil Rights & Title IX. Anyone who believes they are experiencing any inappropriate behavior is encouraged to contact the Office of Civil Rights & Title IX, which will investigate any allegations.”
Sterk, speaking for the first time since the lawsuit, did not comment on the lawsuit specifically.
“He was here and I want it to be clear he left on his own for a job at Tennessee,” Sterk added about Lyles.
No extra details have emerged in the lawsuit, which alleges that the “defendants instituted a continuous practice of exhibiting discriminatory and demeaning behavior toward black athletes and staff members, including Plaintiff,” and is in violation of Missouri’s Human Rights Act.
The lawsuit alleges that from Lyles’ first day, in 2013, Halter referred to black athletes and staff members as “you people.” Lyles also claims to have been racially harassed by Halter on numerous occasions.