The SEC is known for producing college football powerhouses, but for one school the claims to fame have been far less flattering. While the Alabama and LSU’s of the world reign supreme, SportsBusiness Journal has published a report that claims the University of Tennessee is over $200 million in debt, and that their road to redemption isn’t going to be an easy one.
According to the report, the Vols athletic department has a budget of only $99 million, and the program spends a “startling” $21 million on debt payments annually.
“We’ve got to get football healthy,” athletic director Dave Hart said from his office in the new $50 million Brenda Lawson Athletic Center, just weeks after hiring Butch Jones from Cincinnati to be the Vols’ fourth football coach in the last six years. “That’s our economic engine. When that program is successful, everybody wins.”
- SportsBusiness Journal
The Vols saw their attendance dip to it’s lowest and poorest since 1979, and even before the Lane Kiffin era ruined the program, attendance had been on a gradual decline. In 2000, the Vols attendance was averaging well above 107,000 but after shaky years, attendance was just above 89,000 in 2012. Dave Hart has been tasked with getting Tennessee out of this hole they’re in, but as long as the schools programs are in the dumps, the money won’t be rolling in anytime soon.
“Our financial position was probably the biggest surprise of the assessment,” said Hart. “We’ve got to be better stewards of our finances.”
Most SEC schools like Alabama, Georgia or Florida have anywhere from $50 million to $100 million in reserve money, but as of now, the Vols have roughly $1.95 million in their reserve. To put it in perspective, most average backup NFL players make at least $500,000 more than Tennessee has in it’s reserve right now.
But while times are tough now, things are about to get better. As part of the SEC’s $300 million television deal with ESPN and CBS, the Vols will get roughly $15 million annually, as that’s the average revenue each school in the conference can expect to make.
Where did all the debt come from? Most of it is said to have come from improvements made to Neyland Stadium which actually cut back on seats for students and fans and added premium seating for high paying boosters and visitors. While attendance was averaged at just under 90,000 this season, that number seems to be inflated. While the Vols may have sold tickets, the number of people who showed up to games didn’t accurately reflect sales.
During two late season games against Troy and against Kentucky, the Vols announced ticket sales around 81,000 while only 6o,000 people actually showed up.
The money will eventually start to come in, but the Vols are on a stricter than strict budget when it comes to how that money is used. With massive debts to pay off and virtually no reserve money, times will be tough in Tennessee for the foreseeable future.