Denver-Notre Dame: the fish that ate the whale

On paper, it’s not even a fair contest. Notre Dame is a financial powerhouse while the University of Denver with a solid 25 consecutive years of operating profits still falls deeply in the financial shadow of the South Bend behemoth. Yet, in lacrosse Denver has won 5 straight against games against the Fighting Irish, four by 1-goal margins, three in overtime, and the hockey team throttled the Irish 6-1 at the Frozen Four.

How can Denver compete?

While the undergraduate class sizes for each school are relatively close (ND 8,462  vs. DU 5,758), that is where the similarities end. Notre Dame has a $1.2 billion dollar operating budget while DU operates with a university budget nearly one-third of that. And the endowments for each school? Notre Dame has a 10.6 billion dollar endowment while DU’s is estimated at $600 million. In one year alone, 2015-2016, Notre Dame took in $389 million in cash and gifts, more than half of DU’s entire current endowment.

Athletics is the same story. The storied Fighting Irish football program rakes in $81 million in revenue and nets $48 million in profits alone. The Irish have one of the few athletic departments in the land that actually make a net profit. In fact, the Irish annual athletics profit is double the total operating budget of University of Denver athletics department. And DU loses money on their DI athletic programs – not unusual in this era when nearly all athletic departments hemorrhage cash.

Yet, the University of Denver uses DI athletics to build the University’s brand both regionally and nationally. A successful athletics department builds brand value and generates public engagement and visibility. Said Peg Bradley-Doppes to the Denver Post “We are part of the educational mission of our university. I don’t think our financial picture is much different than any Division I athletic institutions in this area of the country,” she said. “The university as a whole made a commitment to go to Division I because athletics is a wonderful way, and a very visible way, to brand your university.”

The University of Denver is likely saved by several factors that help level the playing field. NCAA scholarship limits and regulations are intended to create fair competition among various institutions. The University of Denver has solid facilities and an excellent location which allow the University to compete for student-athletes based on the overall college experience. Excellent head coaches and staff are often willing to come to Denver at a discount in exchange for the lifestyle of living in the rocky mountain region. Selectivity also plays a factor – especially for Notre Dame. Notre Dame has a 20% acceptance rate compared to DU’s 76.5% acceptance rate – yet another factor that benefits Denver’s ability to draw from a larger pool of athletes for hockey and lacrosse. Finally, since football is such a prime focus for Notre Dame, some would argue that the status of their non-football sports programs are diminished and, in some cases overlooked.

These factors help explain the unlikely lacrosse pairing of these two private universities taking place on Long Island this Saturday with a trip to the Men’s Lacrosse Championships weekend at stake.

Can the fish eat the whale?

Of course it can. It’s already happened many times before.