It was almost under the cover of darkness last week when word leaked that nearly four months earlier the University of Kentucky had extended Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart’s contract through the year 2022, with hefty pay increases along the way.
According to the terms, the AD’s base salary will go from $730,000 to $840,000 in 2019 to $880,000 in 2020 and $925,000 in 2021. Also included are retention bonuses and delayed compensation pointed toward the 56-year-old’s retirement package.
We can argue the merits of such a deal. Yes, Barnhart hired Billy Gillispie, but he also hired Rich Brooks, John Cohen, Rachel Lawson and Edrick Floreal, among others. Power 5 conference schools are now employing ADs he trained — Scott Stricklin (Mississippi State), Greg Byrne (Arizona), Rob Mullens (Oregon) and Mark Coyle (Minnesota).
And here’s what cannot be argued about the new contract: Despite the eye-popping numbers, UK can afford it.
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Never mind that Gov. Matt Bevin cut state university budgets by 4.5 percent or that UK is raising tuition 5 percent to address the shortfall. From a financial standpoint, college athletics have little to do with colleges themselves. UK’s athletic department is almost entirely funded by its revenue and an annual payout from the Southeastern Conference, and those revenues have climbed at an astronomical rate.
Thanks to the lucrative launches of the College Football Playoff and the SEC Television Network, the SEC reported 2014-15 revenues of $527.4 million, a 62 percent increase from the year before. UK received $31.2 million from the league, a payout nearly $11 million more than the school received the year before.
Television is the goose that laid that golden egg. CBS is paying the SEC $55 million per year to basically televise one football game per Saturday through the year 2023-24. In 2008, ESPN signed a $2.25 billion deal to televise SEC sports for 15 years. Then before ESPN launched the SEC Network in 2014, the cable giant basically extended that deal (terms undisclosed) for 10 more years.
“There’s a lot of discussion about new competitors for ESPN, and I’m going to invite all my competitors to take out the actuarial tables and look at the year 2034,” ESPN president John Skipper said at the news conference announcing the SEC Network. “I believe it’s the longest agreement in all of sports.”
What are schools doing with all this cash? They’re spending it. They see it as a necessity to compete in what has become one continuous arms race.
For example, the newest trend in college football is expanding support staffs. Last January, Alabama defeated Clemson 45-40 in college football’s national championship game. Clemson spent $2.5 million on its football support staff. Alabama spent $2.7 million, including $600,000 in salary for its strength coach.
UK football’s website shows the program now employs three quality control coaches, one director of performance, one head strength coach, one assistant director of performance, one director of football operations, one impact leadership director, one director of football recruiting, one assistant director of football recruiting operations, one football coaching video coordinator and one registered dietitian. It’s the price you pay.
What about the price for a competitive athletic director? In 2013, the last time Barnhart’s contract was amended, a USA Today study showed the UK athletics director ranked 24th nationally and ninth in the SEC in base pay (then $650,000). When Florida’s Jeremy Foley retires Oct. 1, however, Barnhart will become the longest-tenured AD (14 years at one school) in the conference.
There’s a reason for that. According to a Washington Post report last year, the combined athletic revenues of 48 schools in the wealthiest conferences went from $2.7 billion in 2004 to $4.5 billion in 2014. Despite that, many of those schools operate in the red. Kentucky isn’t one, however. UK’s revenues went from $66.7 million to $95.8 million over that period, and the department remained in the black.
At the end of the day, that’s what matters to school presidents and university trustees. While the number of championships is important, the number on the bottom line is more important. In a big-money business, Mitch Barnhart has proven he knows how to handle the money.
SEC athletic directors
a-Foley is retiring Oct. 1
b-Rhoades announced July 13 he will be the new AD at Baylor