Every penny counts! Budgeting Basics for High School and College Athletic Departments

With the new year, athletic administrators everywhere internally ponder that nasty B-word: Budget. Schools in general and athletic departments specifically are in a tough spot. Price of goods and services rarely, if ever, go down and yet demands of administrators, parents and coaches continually rise.

Asked to do more with less compared to institutions with budgets that could be two to three or more times their own, athletic administrators may be harshly judged when — for whatever reason — they cannot produce at the highest levels. And attempting to explain the idea of the haves and the have-nots when it comes to the budgetary constraints of the athletic world is not acceptable.

Athletic departments are constantly asked to stretch things just that much further. That may mean using uniforms one more year, purchasing inferior equipment to outfit our teams or going without training tools. Perhaps the biggest issue to overcome is trying to hire elite-level, culture-changing coaches with limited payroll resources to entice them.

At the collegiate level, according to the NCAA, fewer than 30 FBS athletic departments generate excess revenue, meaning more than 100 have to rely on the school to pick up their budgetary shortfall. Colleges and universities, generally speaking, subsidize the athletic budget, either in whole or in part, just as high schools nationwide must do.

Departments and schools are under scrutiny for how much is spent on athletics without a direct return on investment. One can argue athletics exists for the betterment of the institution, to advance the university brand within the community, to enhance student recruitment and the student experience, among other reasons, but the bottom line is that in the vast majority of institutions, the athletics department operates at a net-negative. Athletic administrators, then, are put in a position to defend their departments, justify spending and work to build successful programs.

Of course, success is defined differently depending on the institution and department. If upper-level administrators or members of the coaching staff have not come up with a definition of success, they should work on that. It’s incredibly important and frames everything from a top-down vision perspective, so one can then work on alignment and execution through things such as budget construction and proper utilization. To paraphrase Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll, if you do not know where you are going, how will you know if you get there?

There are no easy answers or one-size fits all solution, but in my experience, we can roughly break it down into the following questions: