Michigan Has the Wins, But Ohio State Has the Money

J.J. McCarthy, former starting quarterback for the national champion Michigan Wolverines

Getty Images J.J. McCarthy, former starting quarterback for the national champion Michigan Wolverines

The Michigan Wolverines are the college football national champions. The Wolverines have the most wins all-time. The Wolverines have now won three straight over archrival Ohio State. But it is the Ohio State Buckeyes that are generating the most cash. Yet it’s Michigan and Ohio State, with Nebraska and Penn State trailing just behind, that reveal the shocking financial gap in big-time college athletics.

Michigan & Ohio State Are the Big Ten Rich Kids, Still

According to Knight Commission numbers for fiscal year 2023 for the Big Ten, Ohio State earned $209 million in revenue. That’s more than $40 million more than Michigan, the next highest, earned — with $166 million. Nebraska was next, with $144 million, followed by Penn State, at $143 million. Most shocking, these numbers are before the $64 million payout that each Big Ten school receives as part of the conference’s media package. Thus, Ohio State finished fiscal 2023 with about $273 million, and Michigan with approximately $230 million.

Breaking out earned revenue prior to media payments helps illustrate why the Big Ten chose only select schools from the Pac 12 to join. It’s not about geography. For example, before media payments are factored in, for fiscal 2023, Oregon earned $113 million and Washington, $100 million. This places them both squarely in the middle of the new Big Ten. Shockingly, UCLA earned only $60 million — just $21 million more than Big Ten basement dweller, Rutgers. Note: USC is private and does not disclose its earned revenue from athletics.

Big 10 & SEC Dominate College Athletics Money

In the 2024 Rose Bowl, the Michigan Wolverines defeated the Alabama Crimson Tide in overtime. A thrilling game, as both storied programs were pursuing yet another national championship. For all their success, both programs, Michigan in the Big Ten and Alabama in the SEC, also reveal the current haves versus have-nots status in college athletics, particularly for football.

Conference realignment and new media deals mean the revenue numbers going forward will change somewhat. But it’s clear that the Big Ten and SEC dominate and will continue to dominate when it comes to college athletics revenues. For example, for the 2022 fiscal year end, that’s just prior to the announcements of Texas and Oklahoma leaving to join the SEC, and UCLA, USC, Oregon and Washington leaving to join the Big Ten, the Big Ten reported $845.6 million in revenues. The SEC reported $802 million. The ACC was a distant third, at $617 million. The Pac 12 took in $581 million and the Big 12 earned $481 million.

But this conference financial gap is only getting bigger. As CBS Sports noted, “the gap between two top earners (Big Ten and SEC) and the remainder of the Power Five is expected to grow with lucrative new media deals on the horizon.” It’s true. In 2020, the SEC signed an exclusive 10-year, $3 billion deal with ESPN, running from 2024-2034. The Big Ten signed a 7-year, $7 billion deal, that runs from 2023-2030, and includes agreements with FOX, NBC, and CBS. CBS Sports claims the deal is “believed to be the most lucrative in college sports history. ” No other conference media deal comes close.

Of course, it’s not just about how much money a conference makes, but how much the conference distributes to each school. Not every school in a conference gets the same amount. For example, Rutgers, Maryland, and Nebraska all get less money than the historic Big Ten schools. Texas and Oklahoma will not receive the same payment as Alabama, for example, as they are just joining the SEC. These payouts matter, and it’s why so many schools are looking to leave a poorer conference and join a richer one. To put this in perspective, in 2023, Indiana reported total athletics revenues of $166.8 million. Florida State, a much more high-profile and successful team, but part of the poorer ACC conference, brought in just $161 million.

UCLA versus Rutgers, in a Big Ten match-up? Washington versus Maryland? It makes perfect sense when the guiding principal is money. A 2024 Business Insider report found that 23 schools — out of 1,062 — make $125 million or more from college athletics. SEC and the Big Ten dominate, with Ohio State earning the most and Texas — soon to play in the SEC — close on their heels. But where does all this money go to? The Knight Commission database breaks down the numbers. Of the $10.6 billion earned in 2023 by the Football Bowl Subdivision grouping, 19% went to coaches, 22% to facilities, and 18% to athletics staff. The database includes breakdowns by institution, as well. It’s no wonder “student athletes” are banging down the door to get more than a scholarship.