At the height of the Jim Tressel affair, Ohio State President Gordon Gee made a shabby attempt at humor:
“We’re trying to build a university that our football team can be proud of,” he said.
No one would ever consider enunciating that sort of jest as it pertains to the University of Illinois. It’s the opposite here. The UI is an academic blockbuster. Whatever negative football-related publicity the UI absorbs — which is considerable — doesn’t diminish the 20-plus Nobel laureates and 21 Pulitzer Prize winners, nor detract from the elite performances described by U.S. News & World Report:
— The UI Graduate School of Library and Information Sciences program is tied for first in the nation.
— The College of Engineering is No. 5 nationally with its graduate and undergraduate programs.
— Ph.D chemistry and computer science programs are Nos. 6 and 5, respectively.
The list goes on and on. USN&WR ranks Illinois among the nation’s top 15 public universities ... behind Michigan and Wisconsin but ahead of Ohio State and Big Ten neighbors Indiana, Purdue and Iowa. The Shanghai academic ranking of the world’s universities puts it No. 25 in the world, ahead of Northwestern and trailing only Michigan in the Big Ten.
Nor, despite ever-weakening state support, is the UI lacking in financial backing. The three campuses just shared in $2.43 billion raised by the UI Foundation from 242,000 donors. And while UI endowments don’t compare with Michigan’s $7 billion-plus, the school still ranks No. 20 among public institutions.
Face it, this campus is a powerhouse. It has the brand, the physical plant, the talent and the financial support.
What is it worth?
The preamble above is designed to get your mind right for a much-discussed and highly negative report on football by Ryan Brewer, professor of finance at the Indiana-Purdue campus in Columbus, Ind.
Brewer concludes that Illini football does not meet the campus standard in terms of talent, facilities, revenue and reputation. Brewer used an economic study to conclude that the UI football program, taken by itself, is last in the Big Ten in terms of value. In other words, if the team was put up for sale like an NFL franchise, it would fetch a mere $117.3 million, dead last in the Big Ten and No. 48 in the country.
Brewer’s list begins with Texas showing a sale value of $761.7 million, just ahead of Michigan at $731.9. Other Big Ten schools: Ohio State fifth at $586.6, Iowa 11th at $384.4, Nebraska 13th at $360.1, Penn State 16th at $300.8, Wisconsin 17th at $296.1, Michigan State 21st at $224.8, Northwestern 35th at $148.8, Purdue 38th at $145.1, Indiana 40th at $142.7 and Minnesota 42nd at $139.7.
Way down the list at No. 67 is Missouri (valued at $56.4 million), a rival that Illinois couldn’t solve in St. Louis meetings. That’s a bigger puzzle to me than the UI’s rating.
Brewer based his numbers on calculated intrinsic valuations, long-term revenues and expenses, cash-flow adjustments, risk assessments, growth projections and national brand. Attendance obviously figures in there somewhere, as does the ability to attract talent.
As coach, Tim Beckman faces a difficult combination of (1) geographical disadvantages and (2) the necessity of going long distances for talent and (3) a disillusioned fandom based on a half-century of sporadic performances (29 losers since 1963).
Many factors involved
“I’m sorry Illinois fell so low, but this is how the numbers came out,” Brewer said this week. “I used the same cutting-edge methodology that I’ve used for hundreds of private businesses and equities.”
Brewer acknowledged the (financial) condition of the state figured in. He views the UI and IU as similar even though the population in Chicago changes the nature of the two states. The closer proximity of Indiana and Purdue to Indianapolis is more favorable to them for attendance and corporate support.
“There is a correlation between performance and value,” Brewer said. “The Illinois football program could move up the list if it began to generate more revenue and sponsors. But it would take long-term performance over several years, not short term. People would still question the legitimacy if the Illini started 7-0 (Illinois opened 6-0 in 2011, then lost the next six). It takes time to build in terms of TV interest, donations and the rest.
“At the end of the day, Illinois is a well-respected university, and nothing about football affects its status. And I’d point out that if the football program was put up for auction, there might be buyers who would send the market price through the roof.”
Indiana’s traditional basketball success — five NCAA titles and a current Top 5 ranking — has little bearing on the football side of things.
“Football is four or five times more powerful than basketball,” Brewer said. “Duke’s basketball success might influence football fans to buy Duke apparel, but that success wouldn’t impact football TV contracts.
“What we see, as we move south, is an increase in football interest. For example, Auburn is in the middle of nowhere and yet has enormous cash flow. College football can be very strong in small towns and is a bigger draw in the Breadbasket and Deep South than in the Northeast. It is the cultural preference in the Southeast and Texas.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Illinois won’t be last when Maryland and Rutgers enter the league in 2014. They rank 56th and 63rd, respectively, on Brewer’s list, confirming my opinion that they need the Big Ten more than the Big Ten needs them.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.