As the worst recession since the Great Depression beat down the S&P 500 Index 41 percent between July 2, 2007, and July 1, 2009, and caused more than 8 million job losses, athletic departments such as Texas and LSU used their on-field success to drive increases in operating revenue.
Among the largest schools -- the nine with at least $90 million in operating revenue -- the biggest winners were Texas, up 32 percent to $138.5 million; LSU, up 32 percent to $100.9 million; and Texas A&M, up 33 percent to $98.1 million, according to a review of athletic department financial records.
"Good grief, who is in charge down there?" asked Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds, making a joke on his own behalf. "He needs a raise."
Dodds, 72, said the school`s annual debt payment from the football stadium construction is about $14 million, while revenue from the renovation is about $24 million a year. He said placing the money in endowments would have produced a 30 percent drop.
Texas played for the national football championship twice in the past five years, winning in 2005, and has sold out 59 straight home football games dating to Sept. 9, 2000.
Bloomberg News received financial statements for the fiscal years ending in 2007 through 2009 from 51 public universities in the Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Southeastern and Pacific 10 conferences after filing open-records requests.
The average increase in operating revenue -- money from things like tickets, concessions and program sales, but excluding items such as interest on investments -- was 11 percent.
Jim Isch, interim president of the NCAA, said the significance of revenue gains at schools such as Texas and LSU will become more apparent when this year`s data is available this fall. All but the most successful athletic departments probably will show declines in ticket revenue, contributions and endowment income, he said.
"These schools are the anomalies," Isch said in a telephone interview. "They are playing for national football championships, they have tradition, people know if they don`t keep their tickets, someone else is standing in line to get them.
"But the average programs are going to see declines."
In Austin, the Longhorns renovated their football stadium in stages between 2006 and 2009, adding 13,000 seats priced from $65 to $95 depending on the game; 2,200 club seats starting at a minimum $2,000 annual donation, plus the cost of the ticket; 2,450 chairback seats priced at a minimum $750 annual donation, plus the ticket; 47 suites priced from $62,000 to $75,000 plus the tickets and catering; an $8 million, 55- foot-by-134-foot video scoreboard; and ribbon scoreboards that offer more opportunities for advertisers.
At their baseball field, they added 19 suites priced from $32,000 to $40,000 plus catering; 400 club seats at field level priced at a minimum $750 annual donation, plus the tickets; and a video board.
The bricks-and-mortar investment paid off, according to Texas`s athletic director.
"Had we gone with endowments, we`d be down 30 percent," Dodds said. "This is a huge success."
Michigan increased its sponsorship and licensing revenue by 43 percent to $17.3 million after exiting an apparel sponsorship with Nike for a new agreement with Adidas in June 2007.
Isch said schools may begin showing the recession`s effects when financial results are calculated for the fiscal year ending in 2010. Some schools close their books in June, others wait until August.
"I believe you will see that intercollegiate athletics is not recession-proof," Isch said.
Nineteen of the 51 schools in the Bloomberg survey showed declines in operating revenue in the final year of the three-year survey.
Schools that had drops in operating revenue between fiscal 2007 and 2009 include the University of Florida, down 11 percent to $96.8 million; Arizona State, down 5 percent to $51.9 million; and the University of Washington, down 9 percent to $54 million.
A separate Bloomberg survey in November showed that 45 of the largest U.S. college athletic programs lost a combined $209 million in their investment portfolios between June 30, 2007, and June 30, 2009, with North Carolina experiencing the biggest loss -- $52 million, dropping the market value of its endowment fund to $148 million, according to the school.
Meanwhile, in Austin, the athletic department`s finances promise even greater success in the future.
"I`ve just spent 20 minutes with the (Longhorns) Foundation to check on donor levels, and they tell me we are going to be up this year on donations," said Dodds. "It`s our football success. It`s the passion people have for football in Texas."