To kick off Stony Brook’s arrival on the NCAA Tournament stage a year ago, the basketball team enjoyed a meal together at The Cheesecake Factory.
Hours after landing in Des Moines, Iowa, players, coaches and staffers toasted the Seawolves’ first March Madness experience over burgers, chicken and spaghetti. The bill for the party of 37 totaled $1,497.96, including 31 cheesecake slices to go.
That same night, Stony Brook’s opponent — the nationally ranked University of Kentucky Wildcats — dined across town at Splash Seafood Bar and Grill, a restaurant that bills itself as “Iowa’s first and only oyster bar.”
There, records show, 26 Kentucky players, coaches and staffers spared little expense — $126 on calamari, $180 on crabcakes and $450 on lobster tails. Entrees of steaks, salmon, chicken and sea bass cost $58. Each. In the end, Kentucky’s dinner cost $3,173.94, or an average of $122.07 per person, while Stony Brook’s bill averaged $40.40 per person.
Twelve miles separate the two Des Moines restaurants, but in the landscape of college sports, these two teams were worlds apart.
The NCAA men’s basketball tournament, the premier event in all of collegiate sports, will be set into motion today with Selection Sunday, as teams from 68 schools learn where they are seeded and who stands in their path to the championship. Millions of Americans will fill out brackets to predict this year’s Cinderella team.
What’s made the tournament so popular — more specifically, what’s led networks to pay nearly $800 million each year for the rights to televise games — is its aura of unpredictability.
Could a team like Stony Brook upset a perennial power such as Kentucky? Though it happens occasionally, it wasn’t in the stars for Stony Brook, which fell, 85-57, in its NCAA Tournament debut. The Seawolves (18-13) missed their chance to return this year, losing to Albany in the second round of the America East Tournament.
Experts say Kentucky and Stony Brook do a good job of illustrating how the fiscal divide that exists in collegiate sports has never been wider.
“Kentucky and Stony Brook are not competitors,” said ESPN college basketball commentator Jay Bilas, formerly a commercial litigation attorney. “They’re not really in the same universe when it comes to competition.”
The major difference is revenue streams.
Through public records requests, Newsday obtained the most recent annual financial report submitted by Kentucky and Stony Brook to the NCAA, as they are required to do.
In 2015, Kentucky reported $116.5 million in athletic revenue, including $34.3 million from media rights and $31.7 million from ticket sales. Its basketball team generated $24.7 million. This is why Kentucky landed an established professional coach in John Calipari eight years ago and then, when the threat of him leaving to the NBA arised, Kentucky responded by giving him a seven-year, $54-million extension in 2015.
Meanwhile, in 2015 Stony Brook reported $29.1 million in athletic revenue. But that figure includes $10.4 million in “direct institutional support” — money provided by the university to subsidize athletics — and $8.3 million in student fees. Stony Brook’s men’s basketball team generated $1.7 million.
This is why Stony Brook hired a first-year head coach in Jeff Boals last year, signing him to a five-year, $1.875-million contract after his predecessor, Steve Pikiell, took the head coaching job at Rutgers.
Stony Brook athletic director Shawn Heilbron said he’s trying to rely less on university money by increasing fundraising efforts and is not bothered by the financial divide that exists between them and a school such as Kentucky.
“There’s a definite disparity, but I think that’s in a lot of ways what we aspire to be,” Heilbron said of Kentucky. “Not just so we can spend the money to eat at the high-end seafood restaurant, but really to provide our student-athletes with those resources so they can get to the tournament every year and have that experience and bring that spotlight to Stony Brook.”
In an effort to quantify the effects of the financial disparity that exists between schools such as Stony Brook and Kentucky, Newsday obtained, via public records requests, each school’s expense reports from their NCAA Tournament trips last year.
They provide a window into how drastically different each school’s financial situation is.
Kentucky’s traveling party spent $135,107 in Des Moines compared with Stony Brook’s total of $57,858, according to Newsday’s tabulations. Neither school disputed Newsday’s findings.
While Kentucky’s traveling party spent an additional day in Des Moines because of its first-round victory, the disparity in the schools’ spending illustrates just how much more financial freedom Kentucky had.
Kentucky’s stay at the Renaissance Des Moines Savory Hotel cost $87,755. That’s nearly four times what Stony Brook paid during its stay at Quality Inn & Suites, which cost $23,199.
The NCAA said it assigns hotels to schools based on how teams are seeded in the tournament. The top seed at each site, as Kentucky was, gets the best hotel and the lowest seed, in this case Stony Brook, gets the lowest-rated lodging.
But that’s not the reason for the vast disparity in hotel bills. Instead, Kentucky had a litany of other charges, such as:
- Multiple catered meals each day at a hotel conference room, including a chef-catered omelet station during breakfast ($600 for 40 people per meal), a dinner buffet ($3,640 for 40 people per meal) and other add-ons such as $735 worth of to-go boxes ($15 per box) from their eight meals. Four catered breakfasts cost $11,441 and four catered dinners cost $16,447.
- Kentucky also hosted team meetings in a conference room, paying daily add-ons such as $120 for two flip charts with Post-it pads and markers, $100 for a presenter’s screen and $40 for each extension cord and power strip.
- Kentucky also paid $900 to have a treadmill in a hotel room.
In a statement, Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said its team “is among the highest profile programs in America, expected annually to contend for a national championship.”
“We strive to provide our players and coaches the resources to match those expectations,” Barnhart said, “while following NCAA guidelines for team travel and maintaining the financial responsibility that allows us to be one of the few departments in the country that balances its budget without the help of any state or university funds.”
As for Stony Brook, “we made use of the facilities that were available to us at the Quality Inn,” Heilbron said.
Heilbron said team meetings were held wherever space was available, meaning hotel rooms or the dining room when it wasn’t being used. He said players worked out at the hotel gym.
For meals, Stony Brook had food delivered to the hotel from restaurants, totaling about $11,000. He called dining at The Cheesecake Factory “a thoughtful and prudent” choice for an athletic department that’s not self sufficient.
Stony Brook also collected nearly $10,000 in reimbursements from coaches and staffers, who brought their families, and from guests, such as Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, to pay for their seats on the flight and for their hotel rooms.
Heilbron said that is school policy.
There is no record of any reimbursements paid to Kentucky in the documents obtained by Newsday. DeWayne Peevy, deputy athletic director, said he did not think there were guests.
Stony Brook players were not bothered when they learned the extent of Kentucky’s perks. If anything, they were impressed.
“They’ve earned the right to have those benefits,” said Lucas Woodhouse, a senior who was part of the NCAA Tournament team. “They’re a storied program. They’ve been successful for so long. I just feel they deserve it.”
Carson Puriefoy III, said as the airplane carrying the SBU team landed, he saw from his window Kentucky’s team bus waiting on the runway. He was taken aback that the bus looked so official, with Kentucky’s name and logo on it.
“I don’t want to say it was intimidating, but it was pretty cool,” said Puriefoy, who is rehabbing from an ACL injury suffered while playing professionally in Latvia this season. “Like that’s Kentucky right there.”
Woodhouse got a closer look at Kentucky’s bus at the arena before the game. He said he saw players reclining on seats, a luxury not present on Stony Brook’s standard coach bus.
“You see them on TV all the time, but when you see them in person, you see they have better shoes, through their deal with Nike, and they had nicer gear,” said Jameel Warney, the star of the 2016 team, now playing for the Dallas Mavericks’ Texas Legends developmental league team. “The money a major program like them has is crazy, but at the same time they deserve it. They’re on ESPN all the time.”
Heilbron said he’s “working very hard” to one day put Stony Brook in the position that Kentucky is today.
DISCREPANCY IS WIDENING
Brit Kirwan, former president of the University of Maryland and Ohio State University, said too many schools are engaging in a financial arms race trying to become the next Kentucky. He thinks the financial divide between established major athletic programs and aspiring ones is getting worse, and he expects it to lead to the “collapse of Division I as we know it today.”
“We’re headed for a train wreck,” Kirwan said. “I don’t know when exactly it’s going to occur. But the trajectory we’re on is surely not sustainable.”
While he acknowledges that the current system “definitely allows” for the major power schools to have more financial freedom, he is confident Stony Brook is growing at a pace within its means.
“It’s not discouraging,” he said of the divide between Stony Brook and Kentucky. “It’s something that is a reality of the college athletic landscape today and we’re moving in the right direction within that landscape.”