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The budget gap in big-time college basketball

The court most certainly will be level when the University at Buffalo Bulls tip off on Friday against the West Virginia Mountaineers in the opening round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Each team will use the same basketball, the rims will be set at the same height, and the three-point lines will measure the exact same distance from the hoops. ¶ But in the world of big-time college basketball, not everything is equal away from the court. ¶ West Virginia spent nearly $8 million on its men’s basketball program in 2013, according to the latest data available. That was more than four times the amount that UB committed to its team, $1.8 million.

And if UB wins, it will face either the University of Maryland or Valparaiso University. Both spent significantly more money on their basketball programs.

And should UB have the good fortune of advancing to the round of “Sweet Sixteen,” the Bulls most likely would play the undefeated University of Kentucky Wildcats, the highest-seeded team in the tournament. Kentucky spent $16.2 million on men’s basketball, second only to the University of Louisville.

All of those extra millions of dollars buy better facilities, fancier training equipment, bigger-name coaches, higher-end meals, nicer dormitories, and more comfortable travel for road games – amenities that help attract the best young basketball players. But do they buy victories?

Research suggests no. A 2005 study commissioned by the NCAA found no correlation between spending more on athletics and winning more.

“There’s no question, if you look hard enough and long enough, you’ll find a few programs that have succeeded in upgrading,” said Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College who studies the economics of athletics.

But by and large, colleges and universities don’t see more wins or more revenue by increasing their spending on sports. And while higher-spending teams likely will win more tournament games than their lower-spending opponents, “you can’t say the extra money they spend is what’s generating extra wins,” Zimbalist said.

A glance at the most recent NCAA Division I men’s basketball program budgets seems to confirm the NCAA’s findings in 2005. Four teams, including the Syracuse University Orange, spent more than $10 million and didn’t even get into the tournament this year. UB spent less 54 teams in the tournament.

Spending on UB’s men’s basketball, which includes paying tuition, room and board for most players, increased 53 percent over the past five years. It was fifth-highest of the 12 programs in the Mid-America Conference, where Ohio University spent the most, $3.2 million.

“Our operating budget is very competitive within the league,” said Danny White, UB athletics director.

He wasn’t concerned that West Virginia had $6 million more than UB to spend on its basketball program.

“They can have a budget that’s $6 million larger,” he said, “but that’s not changing the dimensions of the court or the size of the hoop.”

West Virginia is a member of the Big 12 Conference, where universities spent an average of $7.7 million on men’s basketball teams.

“One of the factors has to do with the conference you’re in. You generally spend commensurately with the teams in your conference,” Zimbalist said.

So what’s the biggest difference in spending between West Virginia and UB?

The coach, for one. UB’s Bobby Hurley makes an annual salary of $300,000, not including a negotiated perk that allows him to take 25 percent of net ticket revenue over $300,000.

West Virginia coach Bob Huggins reportedly made $3.1 million this year.

Another big disparity is in travel costs. UB players usually board the bus for road games.

West Virginia is “probably charter-flying every single game on the road,” White said. “We do that very sparingly.”

Among schools in Western New York with Division I athletics programs, St. Bonaventure spent the most on men’s basketball, $2.6 million, followed by UB, Canisius at $1.5 million and Niagara at $1.4 million.

Among SUNY schools with Division I Athletics, Stony Brook University spent $1.9 million, Albany $1.5 million and Binghamton $1.4 million.

What does spending millions of dollars on basketball games have to do with educating students?

It’s a question some academics wrestle with, especially because studies suggest that institutions see no significant benefit from athletic success.

Schools might see a bump in admission applications after a good football or basketball season, but the impact usually is short-lived, researchers Devin F. Pope and Jaren C. Poe found in their 2009 study. And donations don’t necessarily increase either.

Nonetheless, UB President Satish K. Tripathi views the athletics program as part of the “holistic” experience of American education. Anything the university does, including athletics, should been done with excellence, he said.

He compared faring consistently well within the MAC conference to the university’s ability to compete on a high level with the nation’s best research universities in academic and research quality.

“In academics, we are in AAU (the Association of American Universities, which consists of 62 leading research universities). We have to compete there. In sports, we are in the MAC conference. We have to compete there. So that’s how I look at it really,” he said.

Tripathi already sees some benefit in UB’s first March Madness appearance: It has galvanized alumni, students and Western New York.

It’s bound to increase the university’s visibility, and it could allow UB to show off its academic excellence, especially to young people who might not otherwise be familiar with the school, Tripathi said.

“The question is how do you get to the masses. How do you get to the 15- or 16-year-old kid?” he said. “This provides an opening to talk about the great programs we have.”