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Penn State investing in its basketball program doesn’t make dollars or sense

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Hiring a ringer (read: Hoiberg or Matta) to improve the program’s on-court performance wouldn’t add up

NCAA Football: Michigan at Penn State Chris Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

Things could be going a lot better, yes?

In the midst of year eight with Pat Chambers at the helm, Penn State basketball finds itself sitting at 7-12 (not to mention winless in conference) in what was supposed to be a make-or-break year for the program.

And facing an absolute murderers’ row of a Big Ten with no pushovers to be found (whaddup improved Rutgers!) things look likely to go from bad to worse rather quickly.

With that in mind, the small but passionate fan base of Nittany Lion basketball would be justified in wondering what the future holds for Pat Chambers and his program.

As stated previously, Penn State is in year eight under Chambers, and despite landing seven of the 10 highest rated recruits in program history, his turn in charge doesn’t look all that different than that of his two predecessors.

Now I’ll allow you to draw your own conclusions about the state of the program from those statistics, but I do want to make one thing clear before continuing – I am in no way advocating or calling for the removal of Chambers from his head coaching position.

Ultimately, that’ll be up to much smarter (read: higher paid) people within the athletic department to figure out.

What I do know is that in my time following the program as a fan, along with my year-plus of covering the team for BTP, Chambers has been the epitome of a good guy (queue the One Shining Pod cliché alert). He’s been an easy coach to root for and is the type of person you really want to see succeed.

Remember, shortly after he arrived in State College, Penn State football was rocked with the biggest scandal in collegiate sports history, with ripples absolutely being felt across the university and athletic department. Chambers could have easily cut bait and run for the hills, but he didn’t. And for that, people should remain grateful.

Even more so, plenty of my colleagues on the Penn State basketball beat have recently made eloquent appeals for why it makes sense to stay with Chambers moving forward, and I echo, more or less, the sentiment they’ve shared.

That said, at a certain point, the results on the court need to match the quality of the man (unless you’re Louisville, in which case you hold on to the man through scandal after scandal). And with a .500 record and the prospects of landing an elusive NCAA Tournament berth looking bleaker by the day, it’s at least fair to consider what a post-Chambers program would look like.

But for anyone frothing at the mouth for Fred Hoiberg, or Thad Matta, or Eric Musselman (and judging by what I’ve read on Twitter, there are plenty of you), I’ve got some bad news – it’s never, ever going to happen.

Why is that, you say?

I’ll show my work.

For starters and looking big picture, Penn State’s athletic department, as its currently constructed, makes money – like A LOT of money.

According to USA Today’s compiled 2016-’17 NCAA finance report, the Nittany Lions had the 14th healthiest athletic department in the country, pulling in $144 million in revenue against a $138 million budget.

In the Big Ten, that $144 million figure is good enough to rank Penn State third in revenue, behind only Ohio State and Michigan, and fifth in total profit with a surplus of $5.293 million.

And while you’d be correct in attributing a large amount of those revenue dollars to James Franklin and the football program, Penn State basketball – despite its ho-hum, so-so existence, more than carries its own weight.

According to the university’s 2016-’17 fiscal report, the basketball program produced more than $11 million dollars in revenue against a paltry $6 million budget. That meant Penn State men’s hoops earned more for the university than the more successful men’s ice hockey, women’s volleyball, and wrestling programs combined.

Right about now, you might be thinking “Aha! This in proves the point. Basketball has a built-in advantage. Invest more money, make the program more successful and its revenue and profits will surely rise”.

Ehhhhhhhhh. Maybe. But probably not.

Taking a quick look at Big Ten basketball’s financial numbers from 2015-’16, Penn State is actually one of the more fiscally sound programs in the conference.

While it had the fifth-lowest revenue (beating only Iowa, Nebraska, Rutgers, and Purdue), the Nittany Lions had the fifth-highest return on investment, thanks to its limited spending on basketball.

A big reason Penn State is able to keep its basketball costs down (the program was dead last among all 14 Big Ten programs in expenses during the 2015-’16 season), is due to the amount it pays its head basketball coach.

While the exact number remains unclear, Chambers was more than likely making under $1 million prior to his extension at the end of last season. And even with his new contract and NIT win, I wouldn’t be shocked to find Chambers to still be the lowest paid coach in the Big Ten.

As a public institution, Penn State is required by law to release the base salaries of its top 25 earners. On its 2017 report, you’ll find head football coach James Franklin ($1.5 million), athletic director Sandy Barbour ($720,996), and football defensive coordinator Brent Pry ($603,643). One name you won’t find, however, is Pat Chambers, meaning that his base salary would be below the lowest earner on the list – neurosurgeon Christopher Zacko, M.D. ($580,779).

Don’t get that twisted though, Chambers absolutely earns more than $580,000 a year, but does so through incentives and add-ons. That said, not landing on the top 25 earners list as the school’s head basketball coach is at least a little uninspiring.

So, why does all this matter?

Well, if Penn State was to move on from Chambers, it would need to make sure any new hire would make sense financially. The only way for the university and athletic department to justify spending big bucks on its head basketball coach would be if it felt the increased investment would result in higher revenue.

But is there any evidence that would be the case?

For the most part, the basketball program makes a majority of its money through conference ties and television contracts, or things that aren’t tied to how well the team performs. That means the only real wiggle room for revenue gains would be making big strides at increasing attendance at home games and the financial windfalls that would create.

Yet for all that’s been said about Penn State basketball attendance, or lack thereof, it’s not a problem that’ll simply be fixed by fielding a more competitive team. I’ve written at length about the issues with the Bryce Jordan Center, but the Lions biggest problem with getting butts into seats is more a logistics one than anything else.

While State College is a beautiful little town in central Pennsylvania, it’s not quite a bustling metropolis, ranking second to last (only ahead of College Park) in terms of population for Big Ten university cities or towns.

Furthermore, State College isn’t really all that close to any major city or large market. It’s closest population center of over 100,000 people is Pittsburgh – a city located over 136 miles from State College.

By the shear construction of a collegiate basketball schedule, the Lions are at a severe disadvantage when compared to any of its conference peers.

Football, wrestling, and ice hockey can easily attract the large commuter-based fans of Penn State to its respected events because the schedule allows it. All of those sports schedule events primarily on the weekend, proving Penn State fans will travel – just not during the week.

All of that is to say, even if Penn State had a national ranked team or one competing for an NCAA berth would it be able to fill the 15,261-seat Bryce Jordan Center on a regular basis? History says maybe, but it’s far from a safe bet.

It’s that uncertainty that makes making a major investment in Penn State basketball a difficult one for the university. In the status quo, the program makes money that is key to the athletic department and supports the non-revenue generating sports. Changing that formula, even in the slightest, could have big ramifications across Penn State athletics.

As a fan, it’s easy to sit back and say “pay up to get (insert coach de jour) to Penn State” but when you dive into things, it’s not exactly as easy as writing a check and making that happen. Unlike professional sports, Penn State basketball is part of a larger university ecosystem and you can’t just make a major financial change without either a generous donation or near-certain proof that said-investment will equal more revenue.

I know “it’s complicated” is rarely a rationale anyone wants to hear as a defense for something near and dear to the heart. But when it comes to Penn State basketball and the state of the program, things kinda, sorta are.

So while it’s justified to be upset about how this season, if not the past 24 years, has played out, it’s not as easy as moving on to a new coach and hoping things improve.

It’s a little more challenging than that. In fact, you could say it’s complicated.