Dom Amore’s Sunday Read: UConn athletic budget trending in right direction; Huskies’ injured gang could be reunited, beware following legendary coaches and more

UConn Athletics is about to release its NCAA financial report for fiscal year 2023, and can finally say the numbers are trending in the right direction — the direction demanded by the school’s hierarchy a few years ago.

The numbers to come out Tuesday, updating the annual report out out last June, will show the department is bringing in more money, keeping its cost somewhat under control during inflationary times and that it managed to cut the institutional support it received by 35 percent, from $46.2 million to $30.2 million between fiscal years 2022 and ’23.

“We’re below the number and the threshold that was expected of us (in 2020),” AD David Benedict told The Courant this week. “I don’t want it to ever come off that athletics is on an island or we’re arrogant about what we’re doing or what we should get. We are part of the university community and we appreciate the significance of the investment we get from the university and that’s why it’s so important to us that we have success and that we’re showing improvements where we can control them.”

UConn’s first athletic annual report released. Here’s what it shows on spending gap and successes

The athletics budget issues came to a head in April 2017, about a year after Benedict took over, when the UConn Senate’s budgetary committee termed the athletics deficit, which had by then soared above $40 million, “unsustainable.” As the gap between revenue and expenses widened, complicated by the costs of the pandemic, Benedict was tasked in 2020 with reducing the operating deficit, one of the largest among NCAA Division I programs, by 25 percent, or $10 million by 2023.

Then the payouts totaling more than $11 million to former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie, who won his arbitration case, caused the deficit to swell again in 2022, to more than $53 million, the subsidy to over $46 million.

With that one-time cost behind UConn, and added revenue from substantially increased ticket prices and attendance, especially for basketball, and added fund raising, the athletic department was able to self-generate 60 percent of its own revenues. Ticket revenues rose 32.8 percent, from $9.7 to $12.9 million, and contributions 30.3 percent, from $13.7 to $17.7 million.

UConn raising season ticket prices for men’s and women’s basketball over next three years

“We can’t control much of our expenses related to travel, to the cost of our equipment,” Benedict said. “I really don’t have a significant control of personnel costs, so there is very little I can control on the expense side of the ledger. Where I can have a significant impact is on revenues. The area we have to focus on and continue to make strides is in the area of producing revenue.”

The bump from the men’s basketball championship last April is not significantly reflected in the numbers, with the 2023 fiscal year ending June 30. That should help bridge the gap next year, though coach Dan Hurley got a new contract (six years, $32 million) and a significant raise as a result of the title.

UConn has been frustrated in its decade-long aspiration to join a power conference, most recently by the Big 12 and ACC last summer. Still, UConn, an independent FBS football school, a member of the Big East Conference in most sports and Hockey East in men’s and women’s ice hockey, raised more than $93 million in revenue which, Benedict noted, is more than any Group of Five conference school and more than some of the remaining power conference schools (sans the enormous football TV revenue).

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The university has successful programs in a wide array of sports, though men’s and women’s basketball are the signature and have been selling out both Gampel Pavilion and the XL Center regularly. UConn’s athletes have achieved a 94 percent graduation success rate, and more than two-thirds had grade-point averages of 3.0 or better during the spring semester.

The football program, which reached the Myrtle Beach Bowl during the fiscal year 2023, but just completed a 3-9 season, has been a sore spot, both financially and competitively. But one might argue football is where there is revenue upside, the potential to sell more tickets, bring in more money if there is improvement on the field or the right conference affiliation can be secured. Revenue is essentially maxed out elsewhere, though more could be driven by “premium opportunities,” such as luxury suites in a renovated XL Center.

Hartford’s XL Center closer to major renovation than in last decade. Here’s why.

“I feel very positive about the trendline,” Benedict said. “… We’re raising more money than we ever have as an athletic program, that’s going to continue to grow. We’re generating more ticket revenue, that’s going to continue to grow. We’re going to continue to win at an elite level. We feel we’re very good stewards of the university’s investment. There is a return, and we’re going to continue to do our absolute best to manage expenses and increase revenues.”

The costs of doing business in this marketplace will frustrate those who don’t believe in large investment in athletics, and be met with a shrug by fans who only care about winning. But they line up with what was mandated.

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UConn women: Getting the gang back together?

This core of the UConn women’s basketball program that has been so dogged by injuries and other disruptions could have the chance for a “Last Dance” of its own.

Aubrey Griffin, who is lost for the season with a torn ACL, could return for a sixth year with the program.

“The first thing someone asked me, and actually that’s what Aubrey asked me after the fact, ‘does she have another year?'” Geno Auriemma said. “Yeah, believe it or not, she still gets a COVID year.”

Paige Bueckers backs strength coach as UConn women’s basketball searches for answers to injury woes

UConn’s seniors, Paige Bueckers, Aaliyah Edwards and Nika Muhl, are part of the last class with a COVID year, so they could come back, too. And Azzi Fudd, recovering from her torn ACL, would be a senior next season.

It may not be likely, but the Huskies could get the gang back together for one more run at a championship, if they don’t win it this season.

“It’s not about teams in the draft, who’s got what pick,” Bueckers said. “It’s about me loving playing here and me loving my teammates and wanting to get more experiences and more time with them and more time in the program. And so that’s, I think, the deciding factor: just wanting to be here longer and not anything necessarily that’s already picked and chosen in the draft.”

Bueckers would be a very high pick in the WNBA Draft in 2024, but being a year older probably wouldn’t affect her the way it would an NBA draftee. The difference in money from one draft slot to another would not be that big a deal, and Bueckers’ would make it up with name-image-likeness money at UConn. Muhl, from Croatia, and Edwards, from Canada, don’t have the same NIL opportunities, so going pro and playing overseas and/or The W, could be the play for them. Griffin certainly has pro potential, to be enhanced once she’s healthy again.

In the wake of Griffin’s injury, it’s an exciting thought to hold on to, at least.

Sunday short takes*The UConn men haven’t been No.1 in the AP Poll in 15 years. That should end if the Huskies beat Georgetown on Sunday. In the other poll, the UConn women may be 13th, but they are No.4 in NetRankings.

* SNY reports off-the-charts ratings for UConn women’s games this year. Through its first six telecasts, viewership is up 37 percent in households, 96 percent in the 18 to 34 age group in the Hartford-New Haven market. In New York, ratings are up three percent, to the highest ever tracked. The pregame show’s viewership is up 96 percent over last year, the postgame up six percent. The UConn-Georgetown game Jan 7 delivered a season high 51,410 households in Connecticut.

* Hartford Athletic will be unveiling its roster this week. It will include 16 new players.

* UConn men’s hockey goalie Ethan Haider has been added to the Mike Richter Award watch list. Haider has a 2.55 goals-against average and .912 save percentage and two shutouts, though Friday night’s 5-3 loss at Maine was a tough one.

* CCSU, with some notable nonconference wins, could be ready to compete for an NEC title in men’s basketball. The Blue Devils play at home vs. Merrimack, a key test, at 4 p.m. on Monday.

Last wordFor three coaches with the stature of Nick Saban, Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll to leave their posts in a 24-hour stretch made for a dizzying news cycle in which it was hard to give all three their due on a national scale. Saban got out of Alabama on top, more or less, the others didn’t get out on their own terms, it would appear.

Belichick, 71, who needs 20 wins to tie Don Shula, will probably coach some more in the NFL, but landing in a place where he has a chance to get those wins in two or three years will be the key. You know he wants to prove he can win with another quarterback.

As for their successors, beware. History shows that following coaches like these, especially in coach-in-waiting scenarios like the Patriots and Jerod Mayo, can be hard to pull off. It’s much easier to be the one who follows after that.