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UCF Working with Tight Economics Before Big 12 Admission

With the Knights switching conferences, dollars are at a premium

Gus Malzahn Terry Mohajir Marc Daniels UCF Press Conference
UCF Athletic Direct Terry Mohajir
Image Courtesy: UCF Athletics

It’s all too common in life where we need more money to do the things we want to do. The UCF Knights athletic department is no different. Right now, the Knights have a cash problem.

Despite what some trash-talking fans believe, UCF isn’t a poverty program — far from it. But the Knights also have some really big expenses coming up and are trying to pull in money from every direction possible.

Let’s turn back the clock to 2020.

#ChargeOn Charges

With the spring sports seasons canceled due to COVID-19 and a full football stadium looking unlikely, then-athletic director Danny White and his team needed to work on adjusting their budget for far fewer dollars coming in.

The ChargeOn Fund was created as a way to help raise money for a department set to suffer heavy losses. The fund was promoted and used to offset those losses. White’s team used the smart idea of 10% of the head coaches’ salary being “donated” to the fund.

With other schools forcing pay cuts, it was a genius way to do the same without calling it a cut. Good PR move. UCF raised around $10.6 million that year.

The Knights were still short, however, but they got a bump into the black from the University of Tennessee hiring Danny White away and bringing football coach Josh Heupel with him, and paying substantial buyouts for the both of them.

Movin’ On Up

SPORTS-FBC-BIANCHI-COLUMN-OS Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Fast forward to the fall of 2021 and UCF got its long-awaited invite to the Big 12 Conference.

After the euphoria of the invite itself wore off, it was time to get to work. UCF has to get money for two things: Get out of the American Athletic Conference and get into the Big 12. Neither is free.

The American has a $10M buyout with a 27-month waiting period. That would leave UCF joining their new conference on July 1, 2024, which doesn’t totally fly with them. They’d rather join the Big 12 one year earlier, in 2023. As a result, they need to negotiate a different buyout with the conference.

Normally, The American would have all the leverage in this situation, and has reportedly been pushing for somewhere in the $30-35M range, double what UConn paid when they left a couple of years back.

However, what happened in Conference USA this year with Marshall, Southern Miss, and Old Dominion forcing their way out of the conference a year early could potentially change things.

Still, UCF needs cash. Regardless of how the AAC exit plays out, UCF will also need to put $2.5M in escrow to join the Big 12.

The athletic department has been doing things to raise money, or at least make more available. The first thing they did was raise their credit line with the UCF Foundation from $4 million to $10 million. This was presented and approved the same day the Board of Trustees agreed to join the Big 12. UCF also locked up their head coaches with new contract extensions to bridge to the new conference.

More recently, athletic director Terry Mohajir and his team started Mission XII. Mission XII is a pretty obvious thing: A fundraising plan for getting into the Big 12 and to help raise their budget to be competitive. UCF wants to be in the top half upon entry and eventually in the top three. That’s going to take a lot of work.

Mohajir was pretty straightforward regarding the short-term financial challenges UCF faces, as quoted in the Orlando Sentinel:

“The financial situation the next couple years is going to be a challenge moving into the Big 12,” Terry Mohajir recently told the Orlando Sentinel. “With the buyouts and the buy-ins while trying to raise your operating capital, build capital projects and your maintenance ... you’re going down three parallel tracks.”

Soliciting gifts and donations is a major part of UCF’s operational budget, and per UCF’s Mission XII website, the Knights are way behind their Big 12 peers.

While it didn’t make as much noise until Mohajir came on board, there is another funding initiative called the Shareholder’s Society, which is meant for larger scale gifts over longer periods of time. Donating $5,000 annually for five years (for a total of $25,000) is the baseline amount required to join. The number of members has quickly grown since UCF received the Big 12 invite, but the Knights are still way behind their soon-to-be new peers in fundraising.

Also, every year, UCF conducts their “Day of Giving”, which is one giant solicitation drive crammed into a single day. People donate to whatever department or program they see fit, which includes and isn’t limited to Athletics, the Marching Knights, College of Business, and the Burnett Honors College. This year, more than $1.3 million was raised for UCF Athletics.

Financial Blessing in Disguise

Sytia Messer Women’s Basketball Head Coach press conference
New UCF Women’s Basketball coach Sytia Messer
Photo: Jeff Sharon

The latest personnel move is Mohajir hiring Sytia Messer to replace Katie Abrahamson-Henderson, who was hired to run the women’s basketball program at Georgia. This might be viewed as an unpopular take, but economically, it was good that Coach Abe left.

UCF offered Coach Abe a significant increase to get her to stay, which was a bit beyond what they really wanted to spend at the moment. The hiring of Messer works out for both sides. UCF is paying Messer $625,000 a year (with a $25,000 annual increase), a bump up from the $350,000 Messer got while she was an assistant at LSU under Kim Mulkey. The Knights also received a little over $1.4 million in the form of a buyout from Georgia for hiring Coach Abe.

So while UCF continues to solicit outside dollars and negotiate with the AAC on a financial package, life goes on. The 2022 athletic season starts in a few months for what may be UCF’s swan song in The American.

But even when the A logos are replaced with XIIs, UCF Athletics’ financial issues will still take significant time to work out.