Southern Miss

Southern Miss can improve its case for AAC by closing budget gap

TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALD 
 Southern Miss quarterback Nick Mullens led the Golden Eagles to a 56-31 win over Old Dominion in Hattiesburg on Nov. 21, 2015. ODU may be USM's toughest contender in pursuit of a bid to the American Athletic Conference in the event that it looks to expand.
TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALD Southern Miss quarterback Nick Mullens led the Golden Eagles to a 56-31 win over Old Dominion in Hattiesburg on Nov. 21, 2015. ODU may be USM's toughest contender in pursuit of a bid to the American Athletic Conference in the event that it looks to expand. SUN HERALD

Southern Miss fans point to the lack of a large TV market as the main reason that the school has yet to move on to a larger conference, but the situation is more complex and the athletic department's finances play a major role.

There's chatter that USM could be in the running for the American Athletic Conference if the league needs to replace one program, but a look at the budget numbers reveals a gap between the Golden Eagles and the AAC's current members.

A lack of resources has been a hindrance for USM in its pursuit of a conference upgrade, and it would again be an obstacle to overcome.

According to a USA Today database, the Southern Miss athletic budget sits at $23.5 million.

East Carolina checks in as the smallest AAC athletic budget at $38.7 million, but a pair of the AAC's private schools that aren't included in the database likely come in short of that.

Tulsa has an athletic operating budget of $30 million, according to the athletic department's web site.

There's no solid number on Tulane's athletic budget, but it's likely a little bigger than Tulsa. The last Tulane budget reported by the Times-Picayune was about $30 million for the 2012-13 school year.

UConn has the biggest athletic budget in the AAC at $71.3 million.

Budget crunch

USM already lags behind much of Conference USA in terms of finances with only Louisiana Tech ($19.3 million) ranking behind the Eagles.

Old Dominion has the largest athletic budget in C-USA at $41.1 million.

Considering ODU has a significantly larger athletic budget and it's located in a top 50 media market (Norfolk, Va.), the AAC would likely see it as an attractive addition if the Big 12 grabs one of its programs.

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The issue for Old Dominion is that its football program is still in the early stages. However, a new stadium is in the works and the Monarchs already have a nice basketball arena.

ODU's athletic budget in 2013-14 was subsidized by $26.7 million in student fees. That same year, the USM athletic department pulled in $9.4 million in student fees.

Other potential targets for the AAC like Texas-San Antonio and Florida Atlantic also rely heavily on student fees. UTSA has a $27.1 million budget that includes $14.8 million in student fees while FAU's $24.3 million budget is subsidized heavily by $16.4 million in student fees.

C-USA schools agreed to offer cost-of-attendance scholarships to student-athletes in 2015, putting USM in an even tougher place financially.

Making the case

For USM to earn a spot in the AAC over programs like ODU, UTSA and FAU, it will have to make a strong case to conference officials.

USM has always managed to punch above its weight and the football brand its built over the last three decades could make it an intriguing option for the AAC, but USM athletic director Bill McGillis recently stressed the importance of bolstering the program's finances to help take that next step.

"If people want to be in another conference and have the best program in Conference USA, we've got to marshal more resources to do it," McGillis said in one of his sit downs with veteran USM radio man John Cox. "Budgets in the AAC are beyond our budget and in the (Power 5 conferences) and other places. We've always outperformed our resources and we're always going to be lean."

McGillis pointed to the obvious solutions for making the USM athletic department more robust in the coming years.

"We've got to build our season ticket base," he said. "We've got to take it to 15-20,000. We'll probably set an all-time record this year. We'll probably get over 12,000, but we've got to take to 15 and then 20. That's what we've got to do to be great.

"We've got to double membership in the Eagle Club (which raises money for athletic scholarships). If you're not in the Eagle Club and not a season ticket holder, but you want greatness for Southern Miss, it's the single more important thing you can do for us. You as an individual can make a difference."

The gap is significant between USM and schools like Tulane and Tulsa, but it's not insurmountable.

McGillis traveled to the AAC basketball tournament in Orlando earlier this month and he's quietly campaigning for USM to be the AAC's next member in the event that it loses a school.

"I am telling the story in the right way, proactively, to the right people at the right time and in a professional way, in an innovative way at times," McGillis said. "We'll keep doing that. But first and foremost, lets win some championships here in the league we're in."

Contact Patrick Magee at pmagee@sunherald.com and follow him on Twitter @Patrick_Magee. Also, keep up with his work on facebook at facebook.com/mageeonsports.

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