Expansion Project Vol I
Expansion Project Vol II
The University of Cincinnati (UC) is an old university, much older than many of us probably realize. Founded in 1819, it predates Ohio State by over 50 years, but was still second to Ohio University in the state, which was founded in 1787.
Within that time it has also seen quite a bit of success within its athletics. Like most metro colleges up the Ohio River Valley, Cincinnati’s basketball program has the most cache, winning two national titles in the 60s with Oscar Robinson on the floor and are in the Top 20 of all-time winningest basketball programs. Their football program hasn’t followed suit, which is why they haven’t been an expansion candidate in the last round of movement.
However, outside football, the numbers show that the Bearcats have a lot more benefits than most give them credit.
Cincinnati boasts very strong enrollment numbers and alumni base. Unlike most metro colleges they have over 43,000 students, which would make them second in the Big 12, just behind Texas and just above Iowa State.
This helps give them a Brand and Culture score well above the FBS average and just below the Big 12 average. Overall their score would have placed them 7th in the Big 12, ahead of both TCU and Baylor.
If anything was holding them back, it was their licensing numbers. They’d be 9th in the Big 12 in licensing, just ahead of TCU, but also 4th in the AAC. At $16-19 million they don’t do poorly for a non-Power Five team, but they’re not doing as strongly as you’d like to see as a brand to join the conference, especially not one with that large of enrollment.
Can that number increase with inclusion? Yes, but the University would need to do a lot of work not only to build up their image, but also to compete against Ohio State, which has one of the largest brands in the nation, let alone Ohio.
The good news is, unlike other populous states, there really isn’t anyone else in Ohio positioned to be a solid number two to Ohio State, so UC definitely has room to grow if they wish.
As mentioned in the analysis of Memphis, Cincinnati was tied with Kentucky (and some MAC schools who I’ve removed from further consideration) for the second highest location score out of all of the FBS programs. There are very few programs, especially ones wanting to be invited to the Big 12, who are located as perfectly for the Big 12 than Cincinnati.
First, they are only 307 miles from Morgantown, or less than half of any other Big 12 program. This provides the Big 12 something West Virginia desperately needs – some relief from travel. Secondly, they are only 590 miles from the geographic center of the Big 12. That is 250 miles closer to the middle of the Big 12 than Texas Tech. This means every other school in the Big 12 won’t have to do much to add Cincinnati to their schedule.
When talking about location we need to factor the local market into the equation as well. It is not reflected in these numbers, but Cincinnati resides right smack dab in the middle of the #36 DMA in the country, at 868,000 homes, or about the size of Kansas City, Salt Lake, or Milwaukee. The main difference between those markets and Cincinnati for UC, however, is that Ohio is the 7th largest state in the US, with 11.6 million people.
Now, like the conversation on brand, Ohio State dominates the Ohio market collegiately, much like The University of Tennessee dominates that state for Memphis. Additionally with the Browns and Bengals in Ohio there is even more eyeballs going to the NFL. The question is can the University of Cincinnati generate the fan support necessary, which includes non-alumni, to firmly entrench themselves behind Ohio State? The only answer I have for that currently is what I already stated; there isn’t really a lot of competition for second place, but Ohio State is a beast.
On a side note for market in Ohio is that it is also one of the prime recruiting grounds in the nation, coming in just behind Georgia for fifth place, depending on what year you look. Ohio State can only take about 25 players a year and not all of them will come from Ohio. That leaves a lot of top talent that is currently going to other Big Ten schools. Due to this, the UC could market itself as the only option to play Big 12 football in Ohio for kids who want another option. That could be quite enticing as opposed to playing for the Big Ten or the AAC. Additionally, it would likely open up Ohio for recruiting for other Big 12 schools. West Virginia and Iowa State already recruit heavily in Ohio, they’d likely see a benefit to their efforts with more local recognition.
The University of Cincinnati is not a small organization. It has a $1.2 billion endowment and a yearly budget of the same size. It clearly has money. Its athletic department, however, is not quite as robust as the rest of the university.
UC has a respectable amount of revenue, but would still rank last in the Big 12 by around $10 million. Increased media rights from a Power Five deal should assist with this, but they’ll need to raise revenues about $20 million to match the bulk of Big 12. Iowa State, who has one of the lowest budget in the Big 12, should be at $80 million in no time, the price for college sports is not decreasing any time soon.
What hurts Cincinnati’s score most though, is that of that their profit after subsidy (P.A.S.) was a negative $23 million, the worst in the AAC. By contrast the worst P.A.S. score within the Big 12 was West Virginia at a negative $3.4 million and that was due to finishing off the buyout to the Big East. Nearly all Big 12 schools either operate at a profit or hover just around the break even line. Very few rely on subsidies at all to fund athletics.
This will make it a bit more challenging for the University of Cincinnati, because in order to compete within the middle of the Big 12, they’ll need revenues of around $85 million. That means they’ll either need to make around $25 million more per year or increase revenues around $50 million a year if they don’t want to subsidize the program. The university may choose to just pump more money into athletics to increase the image of the university as a whole and call it a marketing expense. However, if they are hoping to have the athletic department pay for itself it will take a lot more than increased media deals, they’ll need to sell more tickets.
Currently, UC isn’t filling out the seats they have, let alone getting ready to expand in any sport. They’ve seen an increase in football of about 6,000 seats, but that still came in at 37,000, which would be the lowest in the Big 12, even with TCU and Baylor, who have a third of the students as UC, only having stadiums that hold 45,000. Nippert Stadium, while being one of the oldest on campus stadiums in the country, only seats 40,000 people and it was just recently expanded to that number this past year. It is great if UC can keep Nippert filled, but 40k is not going to raise revenues to the level discussed prior. That will require the kind of investment Louisville made in its facilities, getting closer to 60k than 40. There needs to be a plan to replace Nippert sooner than later.
Basketball is surprising to me. This is a university with a historic basketball program and its attendance is still under 9,000 a year in an arena that holds 13,000. Considering the Bearcats are 357-74 in Fifth Third that is a staggeringly low number. Currently UC’s averages would put it right at the middle of the pack in the Big 12. That’s enough to compete, but it is also wasted revenue.
I’m not sure if I should be surprised or not, but Fifth Third is also in the process of being upgraded to add new amenities and skyboxes. It shouldn’t add too much more seating, but the upgrades are being done specifically to join a Power Five conference. Basketball is probably the one area where Cinci can burst on the scene the fastest in the Big 12 and it will need as much support as possible.
Over all though, Cinci has the tools and enrollment in place to sell out their facilities and the university and board of regents has shown the desire expand and update them to increase revenue. Whether they can leverage that or not to compete should the Big 12 provide an invite is what will decide if they develop into a Power Five program or become a perennial cellar dweller.
The stigma of being a metro college, or city college, isn’t quite as great as it used to be. Universities like Boston College, Pitt, Miami, Syracuse, and Louisville have shown that they can perform at the highest levels. They can, at least, if the university invests wisely.
Along the lines of investment, the university, much like with Memphis, has a very close relationship with the major businesses in Cincinnati, which are plentiful. Nippert Stadium is actually named for James Gamble Nippert, who died due to an injury received while playing. If you recognize his middle name it is because he was the grandson of James Gamble, the founder of Proctor and Gamble. Other major Fortune 500 companies to call Cincinnati home include Kroger foods, Cardinal Health, Macy’s, Fifth Third Bank, AK Steel, American Financial Group, Ashland Inc., Western & Southern Financial Group, and Cincinnati Financial. Cintas also calls Cincinnati home and Omnicare still has a major presence in the city after being acquired by CVS Health Corp. The opportunities to leverage corporate partnerships definitely increases with a footprint in the Queen City.
The most notable intangible for the University of Cincinnati, however, and the one that I believe will matter the most to the presidents in the Big 12, is that UC is a research powerhouse within the academic world. With nearly a half billion in research expenditures the University of Cincinnati has more R&D than most Power Five programs and would rank second in the Big 12. It is also being considered as a future member of the prestigious AAU organization of the top research universities in the nation.
This is something that is rare and a significant feather in UC’s cap when it comes to expansion. The Big 12 is also looking at the academic fit of a particular expansion candidate and, in this regard, the University of Cincinnati has everything the Big 12 is looking for. If UC already had that AAU designation it would be a slam dunk, but they are closer to joining Iowa State, Kansas, and Texas in that group than any current Big 12 team.
No better intangible than that.
Even with the lower scores in financial strength and attendance and not quantifying academic strength, the University of Cincinnati scores higher than the Power Five average and is one of the gems of the AAC. If they already had an athletic department like Louisville they would have been taken long ago. Louisville doesn’t hold a candle to UC academically.
Matter a fact, it is likely far easier for the University of Cincinnati to invest heavily in their athletics to match that level than the other way around. If they can do that, within a setting that provides a much higher level of exposure, they are located in precisely the right area to take advantage of that potential. It may take five to ten years of constant investment by the university, but it is not impossible. Louisville recreated itself with the help of corporate partnerships from a middle of the road non-Power Five program to a $100 million a year athletic department in state of the art facilities that rises the prominence of Louisville as a whole. UC is the largest employer in Cincinnati and there are many more corporate headquarters than in Louisville who rely on the students it trains, that means there are a lot of stakeholders with an interest in elevating the city’s reputation through its local university. The only challenge they have that Louisville didn’t is the Bengals.
Considering this, their ability to ease travel with West Virginia, their market and access to Ohio for the conference, and the university’s status as a world class research institution, I would be completely surprised if the Big 12 expands with non-Power Five candidates and Cincinnati isn’t on the top of their list. That is where they reside in the Expansion Project’s point totals as well.
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