According to numbers compiled by USA Today and the Indiana University Sports Journalism Center, no school in the Southland Conference made more money in ticket sales and private donations. But even with the advantage of those traditional revenue streams, no athletic department in the league faced a greater budgetary shortfall last year.
McNeese’s total revenues were $602,854 short of its expenses, meaning the school lost more money on sports than any other school in its conference.
“We’re not closing our eyes and throwing a dart and hoping to hit the wall,” said McNeese Athletic Director Bruce Hemphill, who took over for Louisiana Tech-bound Tommy McClelland in August. “We’ve talked to other schools (that face these issues). We’ve got great tradition, but we can’t continue doing the same thing because of the slide we’ve got.”
McNeese ranked 204th in the nation with a total revenue of $9,704,926 while spending $10,307,780, according to the report.
Such deficits are not unusual throughout Louisiana.
Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, Northwestern State and Grambling State all finished well in the red, with Grambling falling more than $1.5 million short of its budget.
LSU, Southern University, Louisiana Tech, Nicholls State and New Orleans all finished in the black, ranging from LSU’s surplus of $12,145,380 to UNO’s almost comical $1.
The figures are only available for public institutions.
LSU had the eighth-most profitable athletic department in the nation, with a surplus so large that it could cover the debts of the state’s smaller athletic programs with $10 million to spare. The Tigers generated $117,457,398 in total revenue.
In the SLC, Stephen F. Austin was the only school, aside from McNeese and Northwestern State, to register a financial loss with university subsidies factored in.
Lamar was the league-leader in total revenue at $15,414,996 while Sam Houston State took home the largest surplus by finishing in the black by $1.8 million.
No program in the conference is more reliant on ticket sales as a percentage of its overall revenue than McNeese, and that is where the program has taken its biggest hit over the past two years.
McNeese’s 2013 ticket revenue totaled $935,369 last year, the first time it has dipped below $1 million since 2007. McNeese took in $77,876 less in ticket sales than in 2012, and $306,458 less than in 2011, according to the report.
The decrease in ticket revenue began its pronounced dip when McClelland introduced a personal seat licensing program, The Traditions Fund, for football season-ticket holders in ’11.
That has not gone unnoticed by Hemphill. And with McNeese needing the money, he’s not getting rid of the program started by his predecessor. But he said he hopes the renamed, retweaked McNeese Athletic Foundation is more palatable to the fan base.
The MAF features 10 levels of giving for donors that range from $25 to $10,000 per year and offers incentives ranging from window decals to dinner at the McNeese president’s house at each increased threshold of giving.
“People looked at it as a tax,” Hemphill said. “We’re going to give our season-ticket holders a packet of McNeese goodies in exchange for that … we started to look at ways to help our season tickets because we depend so much on it.”
Hemphill made another adjustment he said will be fan friendly by moving kickoff times up from 7 p.m. to 6 p.m. this season.
“First, we’re hoping fans will stay for the whole game because it will end earlier now. Two is to look at people who live out of town being able to come in and get home earlier,” Hemphill said. “The other is looking at young families that can bring their kids to the game earlier and get them home at a reasonable hour at night.”
The last point is particularly pertinent to McNeese’s long-term health as building a younger generation of fans becomes more difficult in a saturated entertainment market.
“We have to market the experience that it’s the place to be on Saturdays,” Hemphill said. “You have to look at what has changed — the product is still good, but the competition for the entertainment dollar is much tougher than before. Years ago we didn’t have the casinos. There’s 40 games you can watch on satellite or cable, sit inside at 72 degrees and prop your feet up. We’re competing against that also.”
Even with the dip, McNeese remains by far the most popular program in the SLC in terms of ticket sales. Lamar was the next-best supported program in the league, drawing in $661,119 in ticket revenue.
McNeese is also doing better from its ticket sales than Louisiana-Monroe. Despite playing in the upper-level Football Bowl Subdivision, ULM finished well behind McNeese with $785,715 in ticket revenue.
“(Football Championship Subdivision) is viable. A lot of the reason for it is we have a lot of great tradition here. Our loyal fan base is good,” Hemphill said. “But because of increased expenses, we have to try to increase that fan base. We don’t look at how we compare, but what can we do to better McNeese. We cannot just sit on our laurels and expect people to come.”
A common complaint among that fan base is the quality of McNeese’s home slate has deteriorated in recent years. Nonconference games against other top-level FCS opponents were once commonplace, but as programs throughout the country become more reliant on scheduling pay days against FBS opponents, Hemphill said those games have become tougher to find.
Then there’s the ever-changing nature of the FCS itself — a home-and-home series between McNeese, Appalachian State and Montana was lost when ASU moved up to the Sun Belt and the Southland elected to move to a nine-game league schedule beginning in 2015.
With the odd number of conference games in the future, McNeese will alternate between four and five league home games each year. And in years with four Southland home games, odds are a lower-level FCS program or Division II team will be coming to Lake Charles.
“After this year we go to 11 games. That leaves only two nonconference games, and one of them is going to be a FBS opponent,” Hemphill said. “These top FCS schools want a home game also. In years you have four out of nine at home, that 11th game has to be a home game. That makes it not easy to always get who you want to get in here.”
McNeese’s decrease in ticket revenue would be a less significant issue if it weren’t also combating a constant increase in expenses, including tuition.
Despite having the same number of scholarships, McNeese paid $424,696 more in scholarship money in 2013 than the previous year.
“We’re all battling the same concerns in the state of Louisiana,” Hemphill said.
Tuition increases have made it tougher for McNeese to pursue the stream of revenue other Southland schools have exploited far more successfully — student fees.
The biggest difference between McNeese and its conference rivals is the percentage of its athletic budget derived from student fees.
McNeese collected $600,038 in student fees last year, according to the report. That number is largely dwarfed by other schools in the conference. Sam Houston State pulled in $7.3 million in student fees. Lamar collected nearly $4.6 million in student fees.
Both schools have a larger student population to collect from than McNeese.
Fellow Louisiana schools are perhaps a better comparison for McNeese than its Texas peers, but they also brought in more dollars from their student bodies.
Southeastern Louisiana ($1.4 million), Nicholls ($1.2 million) and Northwestern State ($771,081) all exceeded McNeese in that category, the USA Today report stated.
A campus-wide ballot measure to increase student fees at McNeese was defeated by students in the spring.
“It was disappointing,” Hemphill admitted. “We’re going to come back and take it to our students again. We want our students to take ownership in our athletic department. We need them want to be a part of it, to be seen. We want them to be part of a winner.”
He’s also not blind to the fact that a constituency without much disposable income is going to need some quality salesmanship to be won over.
“That’s a hard sell, and we know that,” Hemphill said.
For now he’s simply trying to get the student body — the future alumni — more involved as a fan base.
“We’re looking at moving student tailgating closer to the stadium,” he said. “We need to encourage getting them out. Once they see that we have competitive teams, good coaches, good people playing for us — once they watch, they’ll hope to come back.”
Realistically, Hemphill knows he can’t count on getting as much money from students as his counterparts. And he will look high and low under every proverbial couch cushion to find it.
“We’ll have to depend more on corporations,” Hemphill said. “The influx of those expanding and new ones coming in, we’ll be talking to them and hopefully becoming partners.
“We’ve got different ideas on the possibility of fundraisers. So not only with raising money with private donations, but fundraisers partnering up in the community. Some of those we are hoping to become annual.”
Despite the multitude of monetary challenges, Hemphill said McNeese has planned a balanced budget going into the coming school year. The trick will be keeping it that way when unexpected circumstances crop up, such as covering the medical costs for injured players.
“We face increasing expenses from not only scholarships to travel to ever-rising healthcare costs,” Hemphill said. “Our goal is to not only have a balanced budget each year, but have a memorable experience for our student-athletes, university and the people of the community.”