KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The University of Tennessee athletic department is clawing its way back into elite financial territory, much faster than AD Danny White anticipated.
As in, the five-year goal he set just got eclipsed, in the first year of the five-year plan.
“The numbers are insane,” White told The Athletic.
Welcome to the $200 million club, Tennessee. Specifically, White said, the 2022-23 fiscal year that ended on June 30 will finish with about $202 million in revenue. The precise number down to the cent will be available in a couple weeks, but White and his Vols cohorts know they’ve crossed the $200 million line. That club for the 2021-22 fiscal year, as reported by the Knight Commission, was exclusive — Ohio State ($251.62 million), Texas ($239.29 million), Alabama ($214.37 million), Michigan ($210.65) and Georgia ($203.05).
So, departments representing three of the four teams in the most recent College Football Playoff, plus the greatest dynasty in the sport’s history, plus the “other” UT, which has essentially been printing money for a long time and should be good in football. Any year now.
That’s great company. It’s also just a bunch of numbers, and it’s always important to keep in mind that different places have different accounting practices. Money-printing, burnt-orange UT, for example, has counted general university licensing revenue as athletics revenue, unlike many schools.
But the leap the original and official UT took, without conditions that usually lead to one-year leaps, is telling of a monstrous and starving fanbase. And of why it’s so critical to have a CEO with a plan at AD. And of past inadequacies in that post. And of the value of a little bit of good football.
Tennessee was at an all-time high of $154.57 million in revenue for the 2021-22 fiscal year, good for 18th in the nation and seventh in the SEC (ninth if you want to count incoming members Oklahoma and Other UT). That represented a jump of nearly $22 million from the previous year’s COVID-19-affected budget.
As White assessed his department’s financial situation in January 2022, a year after taking over, he told The Athletic: “The fact that Tennessee is not what it was 20 years ago is what attracted me to the job. The opportunity to rebuild it and get it back to what it was is what made it an exciting proposition. … To be one of the top budgets in the SEC like we were in the early 2000s, when we were our best version of ourselves, is in the $200 million range.”
A few weeks later, that was written into a strategic plan crafted by White and his primary team — deputy AD/COO Ryan Alpert, deputy AD for championship resources Monica Lebron and deputy AD of competitive excellence Cameron Walker. By fiscal year 2026-27, the group believed, Tennessee should be across the $200 million threshold and closer to the most resourced and successful organizations in college athletics.
That the Vols are there already had White calling family members — athletic director-ing is the family business — and other colleagues after he heard the projections a few weeks ago. These weren’t boastful calls. These were more like “I just saw Bigfoot” calls.
“I was shocked,” White said of the increase of about $48 million, which is one of the largest on record in college athletics not related to COVID-19 — when many budgets saw massive dips and rebounds — and not involving an enormous gift from one prominent donor.
The Knight Commission, an organization created in 1989 to help reform college athletics, has a database of all athletic department budgets dating back to the 2004-05 fiscal year. Back then, $48 million would have been a very good budget — the SEC median was $57.4 million. As a Knight Commission spokesperson pointed out, huge leaps typically involve one large gift related to a particular giving campaign, with the budget in question returning to a much smaller number in the ensuing fiscal year.
For example, Oklahoma State jumped to a then-record budget of $241.36 million in the 2005-06 fiscal year, thanks to a $165 million donation from booster and oilman T. Boone Pickens. Revenues went back to $57.52 million in the next fiscal year. Oregon went from a $115.24 million budget in 2012-13 to $196.03 million in 2013-14, because booster and Nike founder Phil Knight chipped in $95 million for a new football building.
In SEC history, since those databases started, only Texas A&M has had a larger non-COVID increase than Tennessee just had, of $73.13 million in 2014-15 and mostly because of a renovation of Kyle Field.
Tennessee has a lot of projects going on, carving out new premium areas at Neyland Stadium and revamping the baseball team’s Lindsey Nelson Stadium. Changes at Thompson-Boling Arena are coming, and White’s idea for a mixed-use entertainment district on the Tennessee River near the stadium has big potential.
But there isn’t one single person or project anchoring UT’s past year. There are a ton of people clamoring to help in a variety of ways, which would seem to make sustainability more likely. Tennessee reached a record 18,860 donors in 2021-22. The school now reports that number at 28,127.
The fundraising total for 2022-23 was a record $131.45 million, which includes per-seat donations for the basketball teams, baseball and softball. When White arrived, Tennessee only had that program for football, which is part of why Tennessee has fallen behind the competition.
“The major gift program has just exploded,” White said, and that counts anything from $5,000 a year over five years to the donors who give seven figures annually.
All of those donors are part of Tennessee’s “Shareholders Society,” a group of people who give a lot and in return get a lot of access and some say in things. The number of UT donors qualifying when White arrived was 127. It has nearly quadrupled to a society of 500 people.
So, to be clear: There are now 500 people who give Tennessee athletics at least $25,000 each.
White has created a giving group like this at all of his prior stops, starting with Ole Miss when he was a senior associate AD from 2009 to 2012. He recalls taking a trip to UT in 2009 to check out what were then best-in-class facilities.
Tennessee was tops in financial health, too, No. 1 in the SEC with a budget of $102.8 million (though Other UT would have led the way at $138.46 million). The only other SEC athletic departments in the $100 million club at the time were LSU ($100.88 million) and Alabama ($100.3 million). This gives you an idea of how the money in general in college athletics has exploded. And how important football can be — it helped LSU and Alabama leave UT in the dust in the decade that followed.
Not that it always has to lead the way. White helped get things going at Ole Miss without football success, the athletic budget more than doubling from $34.8 million the year before he arrived to $73.39 million the year after he left. Lebron was there with him as assistant AD for development.
“A lot of this is about changing a mindset,” Lebron said. “We want to be the best athletic department in the country, and we aren’t flinching when we say it. When we started the (shareholders) society at Ole Miss, some people laughed and said, ‘Why? We’re terrible.’ ‘Well, we want you to help us not be terrible.’”
Tennessee football was in a terrible position when White arrived from UCF and quickly hired Josh Heupel away from the same school to join him, but it’s all momentum now after an 11-2, Orange Bowl-winning second season. All premium Neyland Stadium offerings — including suites at field level that were makeshift last season but will be fully decked out this fall — have long waiting lists, Alpert said.
White arrived assuming, as any modern AD would, that Neyland’s capacity of 101,915 would be reduced over time. Now he’s looking at 9,000 new season tickets for a maxed-out total of 70,500 and asking himself: “Do we need to figure out how to make it bigger?”
The Vols don’t play in a cozy college town. They play in a city with a metro population of about 900,000 people, and they’re the only game in town. That’s part of the story here.
A big part of it is athletes earning money off their names, images and likenesses. Spyre Sports, the NIL collective that cuts financial deals with UT athletes, has been out front, aggressive and successful. As with any AD, White isn’t sure how giving will be impacted over the long haul with donors also encouraged to fund the local collective.
“In the backdrop of this story, it’s even more shocking we’ve broken basically every season-ticket number and fund-raising number that UT athletics has ever had, when there’s competition with NIL,” White said. “Does it water down giving to an athletic department? I’m sure it does, and I’m sure it does everywhere in the country. And some folks are probably more concerned about it than others. We keep a pretty clean separation of church and state with the university and the (Spyre Sports) collective, so I don’t know the exact numbers, but I know they’ve been incredibly successful. I’m sure some of it is the same (donors) and some are different people.”
They’re helping UT athletics — which just won its second straight SEC All-Sports title — in different ways. Tennessee this year was the only school to win a New Year’s Six/BCS bowl, reach the men’s and women’s College World Series and make men’s and women’s Sweet 16 advances in the same school year.
But this is mostly about football. Funding it as well as any program is funded. And getting enough good football in return to make the past year a typical Tennessee year.
Tennessee AD Danny White after one year: ‘Everybody knows we need to get back’
(Top photo: Donald Page / Getty Images)