UNC administrators express concerns about the athletics budget and funding

North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham talks with ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips before UNC’s game against South Carolina in the Duke’s Mayo Classic at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, September 2, 2023.

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Amelia Island, Florida.

North Carolina athletics director Bubba Cunningham largely declined to comment Monday on the scathing complaints university officials leveled against him and his department earlier in the day, amid a time of heightened economic turmoil in college athletics and the ACC. However, Cunningham said he would be prepared to meet with them later this week.

During a special meeting of the UNC Board of Trustees on Monday, the board approved an internal university audit of the UNC athletics department and criticized Cunningham for delays in providing financial information. One expressed “significant frustration that we have not been able to get the information we need from the athletic department.”

Another, Jennifer Halsey Evans, said the department is projected to face a $17 million deficit this year, and a cumulative $100 million deficit in coming years, “with no plans to address that, to alleviate that.”

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“So I don’t want anyone to think we’re talking in code,” she said. “There are real issues here, a real concern that one of our most valuable assets, and something that really generates revenue, is not being managed properly.”

Cunningham, who has been UNC athletics director since 2011, was traveling to Florida for the ACC’s annual spring meetings when the trustees met Monday morning. The purpose of the meeting was to work toward the approval of a total university budget of approximately $4 billion.

The athletics department is only a small percentage of that, and most of the budget comes from private funding and revenue generated by UNC’s teams or from benefits from the ACC. Cunningham did not address the board’s criticism in depth on Monday evening.

“I don’t really have any reaction,” he said. “I haven’t spoken to anyone. You know I’ve been here the whole time.”

The ACC’s spring meetings end Wednesday and he said he would meet with administrators on Thursday.

“I’m going to prepare for Thursday,” he said.

During Cunningham’s tenure, UNC’s athletic department has not lacked funding — at least not publicly, or in a way that would suggest it has struggled more than its peers. UNC has built new facilities for its track and field, football, hockey and lacrosse programs over the past decade. It opened a $40 million indoor soccer practice facility in 2018.

The university sponsors 28 varsity teams, a broad-based program that Cunningham and other university administrators are proud of. UNC did not cut any of these teams during the pandemic — a point that Ralph Meekins, another trustee, made in Cunningham’s defense.

“While other schools dropped their programs,” UNC did not, said Meekins, who as a UNC student managed the Tar Heels’ 1982 national championship basketball team. Meekins was the only administrator at Monday’s meeting to defend Cunningham after others matches. Trustees criticized him over his department’s finances and his ability to produce the requested data.

“I don’t think people understand the issue,” John Preyer, the chairman of the trustees, said of the lack of desired information on athletics revenues and projections. “I don’t think they understand how much bad data has been provided.”

Evans criticized Cunningham for not being available for a trustees meeting in March, when Cunningham was traveling during the NCAA Tournament. Cunningham is the chairman of the 2025 NCAA Tournament Selection Committee and as vice chairman, his presence during the tournament was mandatory. Meekins said Cunningham had been available to meet virtually anyway.

“I do not appreciate the comments and the inferences that the athletic director is not open and available,” said Meekins, who voted against the board’s proposal to have the athletic department audited. However, the rest of the board approved that measure and will direct UNC Chief Audit Officer Dean Weber to review the athletics department.

The trustees’ criticism of Cunningham and his department comes at a particularly fraught time in college athletics and the ACC. The conference is involved in five lawsuits and two member schools, Florida State and Clemson, have sued the league over the licensing in an attempt to find an exit from the league.

The ACC continues to set revenue records, but continues to lag behind the Big Ten and SEC in financial terms. These two conferences, backed by massive television rights deals, are expected to pay out between $20 and $40 million more to their members in the coming years than the ACC will pay out to their members.

The growing financial inequality and the pressure it has created on schools that want to compete at the highest level of college football prompted Florida State and Clemson to file lawsuits. Both schools have dominated the ACC in football in recent years, and FSU has won 16 league championships in its 32 seasons in the conference. UNC’s last ACC football title, meanwhile, came in 1980.

The school has spent tens of millions upgrading football facilities over the past decade and transformed the locker rooms and other parts of the Kenan Football Center when Mack Brown returned as head coach in 2018. The trustees repeatedly referenced a projected UNC athletic department budget of $125 million in the coming year during their meeting Monday.

Later, a trustee corrected the forecast: The correct number was actually $134.97 million, he said.

It was unclear how that correction affected the expected deficits the trustees claimed.

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Andrew Carter has covered major college athletics for a decade, including six years for The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer for the University of North Carolina. He is now a member of the statewide enterprise and investigative reporting team at The N&O’s and Observer. He attended NC State and grew up in Raleigh dreaming of becoming a journalist.