Expansion Project Vol I
Expansion Project Vol II
Not many expansion candidates for the Big 12 are as young as the University of Central Florida, who was founded in 1963 to support the growing US Space program and was known as Florida Tech until the seventies. Due to this lack of history it sometimes gets the incorrect moniker of being a “commuter school”. However, the bulk of its students reside on a massive campus that has was ranked as one of the most beautiful in the country.
Niceties aside, the Knights have several challenges to overcome to move into the Big 12 and a lot of competition knocking at the door. Let’s see how they stack up.
As mentioned in the articles detailing Brand and Culture, there are a lot of levers that adjust the score. Some of it targets merchandising, to see how much value a fan base brings to a university and some measures enrollment to see the maximum potential a school may have.
It is not just pure size that wins out however, as some universities have inflated enrollment through satellite campuses, so a normalizer is in effect to boost smaller schools who have a lot of activity within their fan base.
The University of Central Florida (UCF) is a bit of an anomaly within this category. Their licensing numbers are respectable for a non-Power Five school, but nothing striking. They are equivalent to schools like BYU, TCU, or Cincinnati, but quite a distance behind the top of the Big 12, let alone non-powers like Texas Tech or Iowa State. However, their enrollment is out of this world.
At over 60,000 students UCF has the most undergraduates on campus than any university in the nation and they are second in the nation for total students over all. From 1990 to 2010 they added 35,000 students and added nearly 10,000 more in the six years since then. At that pace they’ll be over 70,000 students by the time the Big 12 starts a new media contract. With that growth they already have over 250,000 alumni, which is a large number for a school that has had generations of fans, let alone one that just turned fifty not long ago.
With that size it is hard to imagine that the Knights don’t have a reservoir of latent fan frenzy built up within its alumni base just wanting for the opportunity to explode. Or, perhaps, most of the alumni follow many of the other in-state schools.
Like their branding scores, UCF has a lot of benefits and negatives when it comes to their location. We just talked about the immense size of the student population, but the make-up of the UCF enrollment is staggering. A whopping 92% of UCF’s enrollment, or 58,000 students per year currently are in-state students. That means the considerable size of UCF’s alumni are not only concentrated within Florida, but also centered right in the middle of the state.
Being right in the middle of Orlando means UCF’s DMA is the #19th largest in the US with 1.49 million households, within a state that is the third most populous in the nation at 20 million people. Obviously this market is a large one, even if they have to share it with Florida, Florida State, and Miami. Those are some sizable brands, but if they could capture 20% of that market it is still four million people. Currently each Florida Power Five School has about 6.67 million people each if you divide evenly (it doesn’t divide evenly, but stick with it for a moment). In Texas the Power Five programs have 5.4 million a piece and all are rather successful. There is definitely space for a fourth Power Five program in the state since it is still growing.
The problem, for the Big 12, however, is that getting to UCF is quite a jaunt. It may not feel like it when looking at a map, but the Knights are over 1,100 miles from the center of the Big 12 and 900 miles from Morgantown. Instead of bridging the gap between the Big 12 and West Virginia, UCF creates a square with a new island. Texas Tech is closer to both Los Angeles and Chicago than it is to Orlando. Without a school to bridge the gap between the Big 12 and Florida means travel will definitely be an issue for all of the schools and UCF will likely face the same challenges West Virginia deals with in having long travel for every away meeting. Expenses will definitely increase to offset at least some of the revenue growth.
The Knights are one of those schools that are currently hemorrhaging money to keep up with their Power Five brethren. At only $50 million in revenue UCF would be the lowest earning school within the Big 12. It is hard enough to support big time football, let alone the rest of the sports that don’t make any money, on those sorts of numbers.
Additionally, UCF earned this revenue with a profit after subsidy figure of negative $18 million. The shows the university is already pouring a lot of money into the athletic department due to the marketing it brings the school. Perhaps it wishes to continue to do that, but since UCF is run by the same board that handles Florida and Florida State, it is unlikely the state government would fund that for long, especially if they were in a Power Five conference, so any media gain is really just paying off debt. Debt that should be paid through ticket sales.
However, for all the benefits the Knights have in enrollment, that doesn’t boil over into attendance. UCF is currently in the bottom half of the FBS in sports attendance.
Averaging around 37,000 in football two years ago and 30,000 last year would be the lowest in the Big 12, even behind the two private universities with five times less students. Granted, they’ve been in a losing streak, but even when they were at the top of their game they were only at max capacity (45,000) for the entire season in 2007 when the Longhorns came to town. If they want to increase revenue, they’re going to need to expand their stadium and fill it consistently to make up the revenue gap they currently are facing . The nice thing is the stadium was built with the intention to expand to 65,000 at some point. With Frost’s blur offence being implemented it is quite possible they could do just that.
Football isn’t the only issue with attendance, however. The men’s basketball team draws under 6,000 a season, no where near max capacity. Even with the Texas schools usually drawing poorly in basketball, this is lower than everyone but TCU, who, again, have over 40,000 less students.
No matter how you cut it, UCF has a lot of work to do with attendance and financial support. Could they do it with increased competition? It appears that way since they received a 15,000 bump in attendance when they jumped to FBS, but the university will need to invest heavily to turn it into a program that gets consistent support like Florida and Florida State and not become a Miami with section upon section of empty seats.
UCF has some positives and negatives in areas where I didn’t do a qualitative analysis that need to be addressed.
First, the negative. For all practical purposes, UCF is a new school and still has that “new school smell”. Some Big 12 schools were around for a century before UCF was even founded and UCF didn’t even move to the FBS in football until the Big 12 was formed. This isn’t a deal breaker, but it also means that the Knights are not really bringing a lot of public relations cache to the Big 12 either. Could the Big 12 add to it over time, like the Big Ten is trying to do with Rutgers and the Pac 12 is trying to do with Utah? Could the Big 12 teams benefit from playing in Florida more often than the post season? Sure, and UCF definitely has the forward momentum in enrollment to back it up. But it would take some time and a massive amount of marketing to do so. Florida State didn’t start playing football until 1947 and look how well that turned out.
On the positive side, since UCF was actually founded to support the technology needed for the US Space Program, it is already respected for its research. Currently it is the fourth largest research facility in Florida, 109th in the nation, and has as many R&D expenditures as schools like South Carolina, Kansas State, Notre Dame, Louisville and West Virginia. Its academic reputation has been swelling as well, so it doesn’t have the stigma as some of the expansion candidates have when looking at the school as a whole.
Adding all of the categories up, not just the featured ones we discussed, we get a glimpse of the value the University of Central Florida could provide the Big 12 currently.
While their attendance and financial scores are definitely not helping them, it is the location score which drops them further below the averages of the Power Five, AAC and FBS. Granted, they are not as far away as the Pac 12 schools or BYU, but UCF is still a solid distance away from the Big 12. Even with the Western schools counting, only 37 teams scored worse than UCF in location out of more than 120.
That being said, could UCF be a diamond in the rough the Big 12 can develop for a few decades to have a solid foothold in one of the fastest growing areas of the country? It is definitely possible, but it would take a lot of work from the Big 12 and UCF to get there and would likely need the support of other expansion schools to help bridge the gap to ensure there wasn’t another island being built.
©2016 Number Monkey Media