Whether wearing the hat of Tennessee governor or the hat of a longtime University of Tennessee football follower, Bill Haslam recognizes that the Volunteers can't experience too much more of the same.
"They can't be average, and you hate to say it that way, but financially it just doesn't work," Haslam said Thursday afternoon. "They have to fill that stadium up. They get the benefit of being a part of the SEC and all the TV money that comes with that, but at the end of the day, if they can't fill that stadium up and sell concessions, then not just the football program but all the other sports that benefit from a strong football program suffer."
The Volunteers, who not long ago racked up 10-win seasons and New Year's Day bowl invitations with great regularity, are just 28-34 the past five years and 12-28 in league play. Tennessee has its fourth head coach since 2008, and a report this week in the SportsBusiness Journal detailed the athletic department's financial woes.
Tennessee is carrying more than $200 million of debt, according to the article, which is not unlike recent debt figures at Alabama and LSU. Yet Tennessee's reserves are just $1.95 million, whereas most every other SEC institution has reserves between $50 million and $100 million.
The SportsBusiness Journal reported that Tennessee's athletic department spends $21 million annually on debt payments, $13.5 million of which comes from the university's stressed $99.5 million athletic budget and the rest from donations. Athletic director Dave Hart was quoted as saying, "We've got to get football healthy."
"If you want to be bottom line about it, it shows why UT-Knoxville has to be good in football," Haslam said. "You have a whole program that's set up with a 100,000-seat Neyland Stadium, and it's a program that supports all the other sports other than basketball and provides scholarships back to the university."
This past football season, the Vols lost their first seven conference games for the first time in program history, which included a third consecutive 31-point setback against longtime rival Alabama. Attendance dropped sharply after the loss to the Crimson Tide, and the Vols wound up averaging 89,965 fans per home game.
It was the lowest season average for Tennessee since 1979, when Neyland had a capacity of 80,250. The Vols averaged 107,593 as recently as 2005, and the challenge now is to refill the mammoth facility amid a struggling economy and at a time when the in-home experience of viewing athletics has never been better.
"The NFL has the same issue in terms of game attendance," Haslam said. "More people are saying they can watch it from the comfort of home. Attendance is a huge issue for sports, period. That is being made up for in that the TV side of that has gone up so much. TV contracts keep increasing whether it's college football, NFL or the NBA.
"There is a benefit to that, but you still have to get people in that stadium for it to work, and people are going to come to the stadium when they win."
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...