Here's what small college athletic department contracts look like
What do coaching contracts look like in D-II? D-III? What about shoe deals?
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Beyond reporting and writing the newsletter, producing discussion questions for D1.classroom, and updating Athletic Director Simulator 3000, I’ve also been working to update and grow our FOIA Database. All of these features are available to our D1.classroom and Premium subscribers.
Previously, I’ve requested hundreds of contracts from D-I institutions large and small, from athletic director contracts to shoe deals, MMR sales agreements to coaching contracts, NIL consulting agreements to future game contracts, and much more.
But those were all for D-I institutions. Lately, I’ve been working to expand the FOIA Directory to include similar documents for D-II and D-III institutions. It’s a slow process, but I’ve now obtained dozens of these documents.
How do those contracts differ from the D-I peers? Do they differ at all?
Here’s what I’ve learned so far.
For one, not everybody has contracts at all
Everybody knows there are massive differences between the Haves and Have Nots at the D-I level. Ohio State and Saint Peter’s are both D-I schools, sure, but don’t have the same institutional goals, resources, structures, etc. Their budgets are expectations are night and day different.
There aren’t resource gaps in the hundred million dollar range at the D-II and D-III level, but there are still significant gaps between athletic departments. At the higher end of D-II, and even in some places, D-III, an athletic department won’t look that different from a smaller D-I institution. At the lower end, the school itself may be in jeopardy of closing down. We’ve seen it happen a few times over the last few years.
Almost every coach and AD has a traditional contract at the D-I level, even for the smallest and most resourced-challenged institutions. Those contracts may only be year-to-year agreements, but they’re still contracts. They often have incentive opportunities, have buyouts, regulate outside income opportunities, etc etc.
But in D-II and D-III, not every school has contracts at all.
Officials at schools like Michigan Tech, West Florida, West Liberty, Concord, and several others, told me that they do not have responsive coach or athletic director contracts because those employees are at-will. Some other coach contracts, such as some at Bridgewater State or Albany State, are part-time, and thus won’t have the same structure as a D-I, full-time agreement.
Speaking of contracts, a few documents that I inspected from the University of Maine - Farmington and the University of Maine-Presque Island, suggested that some coaches/admins would actually be members of the bargaining unit of a union (the University of Maine Professional Staff Association), something that I don’t think I’ve ever seen at the D-I level for a coach or staffer. My understanding is that athletic graduate assistants are typically not part of graduate student unions at places like Columbia or Michigan.
How much money are we talking about here?
Before I answer this, there are two things I think folks should know about D-II and D-III.
It’s pretty hard to get a truly representative sample of contracts from this group. The overwhelming majority of D-III institutions are private schools, and thus outside the reach of open records requests from nosy reporters like me. Many of the D-II institutions are in states like Pennsylvania (whose universities don’t have to respond to public records requests for some reason), or in states like Arkansas, Alabama, or Virginia…states with either residency requirements or particularly slow open records laws. We’ll get there, but it will take time.
The other thing that’s important to understand, again, is that there are huge differences between the Haves and Have Nots at both levels. There are D-II programs like Grand Valley State, West Texas A&M, or Pittsburg State, that are structurally not very different from low major D-I programs. Others are more explicitly running their athletic departments are tuition and student retention programs, and thus do not resource their staff the same way.
At the high end, I’ve seen plenty of football and basketball coaches in D-II still make north of six figures, although you’re not going to see anybody pulling in north of $400,000 or anything. According to records I’ve inspected, Nebraska-Kearney pays $150,000, Central Missouri pays $140,000 for their football coach, Albany State pays $112,000, and Black Hills State pays $87,637. For full-timers at the D-III level, $65-$90,000ish is about what I’ve seen. It has been uncommon for me to see contracts paying above $200,000.
It is also less common to see any coaching contract with fully fleshed-out incentives and bonuses as we see in most D-I contracts. Emporia State has incentives for high academic achievement, community service hours, Coach of the Year awards, and postseason achievements, but most D-II and D-III deals I’ve seen so far just specify salary and term length.
When you get to less-resourced D-II and D-III programs, it isn’t uncommon for coaches to technically have two jobs (head sport coach and assistant of another sport, or head sport coach and administrative job XYZ, etc.) to come out to a full-time salary. It’s also not uncommon for D-II and D-III head coaching gigs for non-FB and BB to be part-time.
I’ve had coaches in multiple sports tell me that when you factor in location, hours, and quality of life, many D-II and D-III coaching jobs are “better jobs” than some D-I opportunities. But it’s also generally not a gig you take if you’re just trying to maximize personal income, as plenty of high school coaching/teaching jobs will pay more than university positions in D-II and D-III, especially outside of football and basketball.
What about vendors or other financial reports?
D-I and D-II schools file something every fiscal year that is often called an FRS report. This report is supposed to represent a standardized, itemized athletic department budget. It breaks down major revenue sources (ticket revenue, conference distribution, game guarantees, donations) and major expenses (salaries, scholarships, travel, etc.) by sport. If you use the USA TODAY Athletic Department Financial database, the Sportico Athletic Database, or the Knight-Newhouse Database, they’re usually pulling numbers from these reports.
In practice, they’re not actually standardized, and trying to make school-to-school comparisons using the data won’t give you the most accurate results. Still, they’re very useful forms for anybody studying college athletics finances.
For example, these reports could tell us how much the University of Alaska Fairbanks earned from ticket revenue in FY 22 ($239,918), or how much they reported earning in media rights ($15,000), or how much they spent on athletic travel ($1,145,181). We have several of these reports currently saved in our FOIA Directory and add more every week.
I did not realize this until I started filing requests, but apparently, D-III schools do not have to file these reports! If you’re looking for itemized D-III athletic department financial data, your best option is the EADA database, which is not as detailed.
What about shoe deals and media rights?
Despite my best efforts, I haven’t been able to get my hands on many D-I media deals. With few exceptions (like a handful of CAA and Summit League schools), the exclusive broadcast and streaming rights for colleges are held by their conferences, which then do deals with media companies. I can’t FOIA the Big Ten or the AAC for their media deal, because it’s through the league, not the public schools.
(As an aside, if you happen to have access to a D-I media rights deal, even if it’s a very old one, I’d love to see it, if for no other reason than book research. The tip line is [email protected]).
Now, there are some D-II and D-III leagues with media rights contracts. The Landmark Conference in D-III (all private schools) recently signed a deal with Flosports, as did the SAC and GLIAC in D-II. The MIAA created the ‘MIAA Sports Network’ back in 2017. There are a few other examples I’m probably forgetting as well.
But it’s more common for schools to be able to sign individual broadcasting or streaming deals, should they have an interested partner and sufficient fan interest.
For example, Michigan Tech shared an agreement they brokered with local stations WLUC-TV6 (NBC) and FOX-UP (FOX) to broadcast Michigan Tech-Northern Michigan contests in multiple sports, from football to hockey to volleyball.
Nebraska-Kearney reported linear deals with News Channel Nebraska and the Nebraska Rural Radio Association. West Florida has a football agreement with Cox Communications. The Vermont State University system (which includes schools like Vermont State-Castleton and Vermont State-Lyndon, reported streaming contracts, and there are a handful of other examples.
None of the documents I’ve inspected so far include any media rights guarantees in cash, although they may include promotional value commitments, broadcast quality commitments, and control over advertising types. For example, from West Florida’s TV contract:
As you might expect, these one-off agreements are generally more about exposure and marketing than they are about purely maximizing revenue.
The athletic apparel contracts I’ve inspected so far generally have much in common with the small school D1 contracts I’ve obtained. Overwhelmingly, D-II and D-III apparel deals are with third-party wholesalers (like a BSN), rather than directly with a Nike or adidas. Nobody is shelling out major cash advances or extensive incentive programs, and I can’t imagine more than a handful of D-II/D-III schools are trying to sell officially licensed jerseys or high-end apparel to consumers.
These deals are about providing discounted products for the institution. I.e the school gets 10-40% once they commit to buying X amount of stuff each year, and the two sides agree to certain promotional guarantees. Language like the following is pretty common:
These deals generally aren’t about locking down recruiting pipelines, impressing #croots, or generating revenue. It’s about cost control…just like it is for the low-majors.
Where can I find these documents?
I update our FOIA directory multiple times a week and typically file at least a half-dozen small school records requests each business day. You can find every document we have for D-I, D-II, and D-III in our FOIA Directory. If you’re a researcher, administrator, student, or a huge dork like myself…I think you’ll find it an interesting resource.
And hey, if you have a document that should go in that directory, send it my way (it’ll save me a FOIA!) and I’ll make sure you have Directory access for free.
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