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HOOVER, Ala. — Alabama hasn’t lost a Southeastern Conference football game in 22 months.

Nick Saban’s boys have won those 17 games by an average of three touchdowns, and they have claimed the past three conference championships and four of five.

The parity once so strong in the conference — six  teams won the title from 1998-2004 — is gone.

So, naturally, the most consistent question to coaches this year at the four day-long SEC media days was regarding this situation: How do you close the gap against the Tide?

“They're right now at the top,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said, “and, you know, it's up to the rest of us to go get them.”

There’s another gap in this league: cash flow.

Like any other walk of life, SEC football has haves and have-nots. Programs are separated by as much as a whopping $70 million in revenue.

Don’t get it wrong — no SEC football team is scrapping to get by. In fact, Mississippi State’s $13.1 million profit in football in the 2015-16 academic year is the smallest among the 13 public conference members (Vanderbilt is private).

However, it pales in comparison to the big boys. Tennessee football turned a profit of $80 million, and seven other conference teams made more than $40 million. The top seven teams in the league combined last year to produce more than $654 million in revenue. The bottom seven made less than $350 million.

You don’t have to explain these numbers to the coaches of the bottom half, said SEC commissioner Greg Sankey.

“First of all, they know,” he said in Hoover earlier this week from media days. “The New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys sit atop those revenue numbers yet they don’t win every championship. So there’s something else that has to happen. Finances are a resource, but it doesn’t determine the final outcome of a game.”

They help tremendously, though.

Five of the seven teams in the top half in revenue have a winning conference record over the previous five years. The top half includes Tennessee, Alabama, Texas A&M, Georgia, LSU, Florida and Auburn. All seven of the bottom teams in revenue have losing or .500 league records in that span, including Arkansas, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Missouri and Vanderbilt.

The figures in this story are only from the 2015-16 academic year (2015 football season) and were obtained from a detailed report that each school sends to the NCAA every year. Schools are not regulated in how they categorize revenues and expenses. Each school may report numbers in a different method. The documents were acquired by The Advocate through public records requests.

Figures show giant gaps among the 13 public football programs in total revenue and expenses and profits, as noted above, but they also paint a picture of a league loaded with cash.

Overall, the 13 SEC public schools made a combined profit in football of $544 million last year.

“Football is the bell cow for the university,” said Rick Neuheisel, the former major college coach-turned-radio personality. “That’s where the money comes from.”

In every other sport, mostly, money is lost.

Just one SEC school, Missouri, turns a profit ($2.6 million) when removing football revenue. LSU, Georgia, Tennessee and Auburn all lose at least $30 million when eliminating football cash from their budgets. The Vols had an SEC-high $68.1 million in losses in other sports.

In football, the cash comes from an assortment of places.

Ticket sales make up the biggest chunk, bringing in more than $334 million. That’s 35 percent of the league’s total football revenue of $948 million. Media rights, conference distribution and “contributions” supply the bulk, too.

The gaps among schools in certain categories are wide.

Texas A&M and LSU ranked first and second in ticket sales last season, making $41 million and $38 million. Missouri and Mississippi State sat at the bottom of the conference, bringing in about $13 million each. The Tide made $51 million in media rights/SEC distribution, while 10 other conference teams pulled in less than $25 million.

Profits from ticket sales and other avenues morph, eventually, into shiny new facilities — a primary factor in recruiting.

“At the end of the day, we don't believe in bells and whistles, but recruits do. That’s a fact,” South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said. “And they want to see new. They want to see shiny. They want to see progress.”

Barry Odom is in charge of a Missouri football program that produces the least amount of revenue in the conference ($34.6 million) and spends the least amount ($21.1 million).

“Everywhere you go in our league is going to have a great weight room, great dining hall, head coach’s office. Everything is going to be really nice,” he said. “For me, it’s about putting the right people inside those nice buildings. The decisions I want kids to make are about who’s in those buildings.”

Budgets numbers got a boost recently with the revenue from the SEC Network, now in its third year. However, cash flow should start leveling off, said former Mississippi State athletic director and current SEC consultant Larry Templeton.

The gap between the haves and have-nots is closing, Templeton said.

“The thing that’s the benefit of the Mississippi States and Missouris right now is that even though we’re in the bottom of the SEC,” he said, “we’re in the top 25-30 of the country. How much do you need to stay competitive is a big question.”

Templeton has concerns about soaring budgets.

Cuts to academics are sweeping the nation, even at these profit-turning football schools. For example, in Louisiana, LSU has needed to double tuition and fees to make up for cuts to state higher education funding.

That said, six SEC schools, including LSU, transferred a significant amount of athletic revenue — much of it produced via football — back to the academic side in 2015-16, according to documents. Florida sent its academic side the most ($22 million), followed by LSU ($11 million), South Carolina ($5.1 million), Kentucky ($4.4 million), Georgia ($4 million) and Mississippi State ($2.9 million).

Athletic departments at five SEC schools receive some kind of school support, from Ole Miss’ $2.9 million, the high, to Auburn’s $546,000.

“I have a real concern about how much we’re spending on the number of people, particularly with our institutions having so much problem on the academic side,” Templeton said. “When you start looking at the other side of campus and they’re cutting programs and professors, we’ve got to be careful we don’t lose the perspective that we’re part of the university.”

Football programs spend more on their staffs than anything.

The 13 public schools doled out a jaw-dropping $160 million to its staff members last year — or 40 percent of the league’s spending for the sport. That includes head coaches, nine full-time assistants and the unlimited number of support staff members.


Nick Saban has won four national titles and played for a fifth in his decade at Alabama.

The gaps among schools in spending are wide.

For instance, Georgia led the league last year with a recruiting budget of $2.1 million. Mississippi State’s recruiting budget was last in the league at $369,459, about $100,000 lower than the next team.

State’s recruiting budget has never been very high, Templeton said.

“I always felt like we could do things a little less because of where we were located and things we needed,” he said. “We were fortunate we were in the state of Mississippi with great talent. We didn’t have to spend a lot of money to recruit.”

State does, however, plop down cash for equipment. The Bulldogs spend $1.7 million on equipment, ranking it fourth in the league. Florida spends the least, around $900,000, with Ole Miss and Georgia leading the conference with equipment spending of more than $2 million.

Kentucky is the oddball in this league.

Most football programs in the conference far outdistance their other sports — except in Lexington, Kentucky. The Wildcats’ men’s basketball revenue of $27 million was only $12 million short of what the football team made. That was the closest gap of any program in the league in 2015-16.

UK’s basketball revenue was 31 percent more than the second-highest team, Tennessee, and $20 million more than Mississippi State’s SEC-low $7.3 million.

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops is well aware of his program’s spending and revenue, as well as the shadow UK’s basketball program casts across his football stadium.

“It's an arms’ race that is very important, but I pick and choose our battles and what's important,” he said.

That arms’ race is something that Templeton struggled with during his time atop State’s athletic department. Keeping up with the “Joneses,” he said, was the toughest part of operating with one of the conference’s smaller budgets.

Things have changed now.

“When we got ready to build a facility, we’d never start construction without having 75 percent of the money on hand,” he said. “Now with the cash flow what it is, you’ve got a little more opportunity to jump out there and build bigger, fancier stuff.”

It’s happening all across the conference. Budget bottom dwellers are building sprawling new facilities.

State opened a $25 million 80,000-square-foot football training and office building in 2013. Two years ago, Kentucky completed a $120 million project renovating its football stadium, and Arkansas is planning $160 million worth of renovations to Razorback Stadium.

Is the gap closing? Maybe.

It might have to change competitively first before the finances follow.

For example, Alabama led the conference last year in bowl revenue at $5.3 million, more than doubling the next highest team in postseason pay.

Why? Because Alabama played in two “bowl” games as part of the College Football Playoff.

“I don’t think we’re trying to catch up to the (SEC) West,” Muschamp said. “I think we’re trying to catch up to Alabama.”

Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter, @RossDellenger.