My phone lit up last night as it became clear that Kentucky was going to hire Memphis coach John Calipari and pay him the most money in college basketball history. This after they fired Billy Gillespie at what might be a cost of $6 million.
This during the Great Recession?
How is this possible?
Well, it's actually pretty simple. Let's start with boosters.
While it seems like the world is down to half the wealth they had last year, there are some people who still have plenty of money. There's no doubt that Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart found that out when he made a couple calls to his well-heeled friends over the past couple days.
And while the contract is worth $31.6 million, that's peanuts in the scheme of things. For those scoring at home, $4 million a year is equivalent to .002 of the annual budget of the school. Throw in Gillespie's money somewhere and it still doesn't make a dent.
Now, let's get down to the key issue: Kentucky basketball is profitable. Even though the team didn't make it into March Madness this year for the first time since 1991, the Wildcats still made money. How much? I don't know. But last year, the school's athletic department reported to the government that it took in $14.9 million in revenue from men's basketball and spent only $8.6 million. Rough profit? $6.3 million.
Then factor in that there's a lot at stake if Kentucky basketball slides. In other words, the question isn't whether Kentucky could have afforded Calipari, perhaps it's whether they could afford not to take him. Consider that Rupp Arena needs to be renovated and has no premium suites. We'll presumably be out of this rough economy by the time something is ready, but if the team's winning tradition goes away, there's a risk that those boxes won't be filled.
John Calipari might be the highest paid basketball coach, but there's an argument to be made that even in this economy, he just might be worth it. There's simply too much on the line, too much to lose. Kentucky obviously thought so. Only time will tell.
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