In this age of shrinking cereal boxes and contracting newspapers — our local paper is now the size of a DVD box, it seems — we read with wide eyes the three-part series on expenditures in college athletics by AOL Fanhouse’s Brett McMurphy, especially the third offering which detailed how much money Duke spends on men’s basketball and how it compares to the rest of the college basketball world (there are links there to the first two in the series, as well). According to McMurphy’s statistics, which come from the US Department of Education, Duke wasn’t just the top spender on men’s basketball during the 2008-09 season — they spent more money on men’s hoops than 22 programs in BCS conferences spent on football. The men’s basketball budget at Duke for that season totalled $13.87 million, with Marquette — which doesn’t have a football program — coming next at $10.3 million. If there’s some chance that you think that such spending doesn’t necessarily translate to success on the court, consider that ten of the 12 biggest spenders on men’s basketball have been to a Final Four since 2003. There’s a wealth (pun intended) of great stuff in the entire series of articles, not just in the third part linked above; we could pore over those revenue, expenditure, and money-based win/loss tables at the end of each installment for hours, and we suggest you check out all three articles for yourself. As we read, though, we kept wondering about Duke’s opponent in March’s title game, the Butler Bulldogs. More on that in a second.
When people talk about spending disparities in sports, the consensus favorite example is to compare the New York Yankees‘ payroll to…well, anybody. According to The Biz of Baseball, at the start of the season, the Yanks had the highest payroll of any MLB team — no surprise there — with a total layout of $206,333,389. Even though most people assume it’s the Royals, the team with the smallest payroll on Opening Day of 2010 was the Pittsburgh Pirates, who shell out $34,943,000. This results in a Yankees-to-Pirates spending ratio of just under 6-to-1.
According to Basketball State (which is a college basketball stat nerd’s paradise), the exact expenditure for men’s basketball at Duke for 2009 was $13,873,859. The expenses for Butler’s men’s basketball team totalled $1,729,754. This reveals a Duke-to-Butler expenditure ratio of slightly over 8-to-1. Understandably, the eyes go right to the amount that Duke spends, but we feel that 8-to-1 ratio is the real newsmaker. We’re certainly not taking anything away from Duke’s title or how deserving they were of it, but is there any sane person out there who would argue that Duke was eight times as skilled or deserving of that title than Butler? An 8-to-1 spending ratio is just a ridiculous figure, considering how close the Bulldogs were to winning the title last season, and it truly underscores the magnitude of how much they achieved. If you look at the charts from Mr. McMurphy’s third article in his series, you’ll notice that Butler doesn’t even appear on the top 20 list in terms of men’s hoops expenditures of non-BCS schools. In fact, not a single Horizon League team shows up there. “Cinderella” is a word that gets tossed around too much during NCAA Tournament time, but it certainly applies to Butler’s run — and near-victory — in the championship game a few months ago.
So, the next time you hear someone talk about spending disparities in sports while making a big market-vs-small market argument, let them roll out their Yankees-Royals or (if they’re particularly well-informed) Yankees-Pirates stats. You can then counter with the fact that, as wide as that gulf is, Duke’s spending ratio over the team that gave them all they could handle in the championship game was 33% larger than the biggest ratio that the Yankees enjoy over anyone. In that light, Butler’s exploits during the 2010 NCAA Tournament are even more remarkable than previously thought. Also makes you wonder what the Padres can do this year, since they’re next-to-last in terms of MLB payroll and currently sit first in the NL West…