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Tuesday, September 26, 2023


AD Chris Pezman details how UH plans to grow into Big 12

Athletic Director Chris Pezman said that UH athletics will spend the next three years maximizing its financial and competitive growth into the Big 12 before assessing where the school is in relation to other schools in the conference. Anh Le/The Cougar

When Houston’s entrance into the Big 12 Conference was announced in the fall of 2021, the school’s 25-year-long desire to become a power conference school was finally fulfilled.

In the two years since then, that desire to be on the same platform as the big boys of college sports has now morphed into an even stronger need to compete with and even surpass its new Big 12 counterparts.

But, in a new world where money rules all and Big 12 operating budgets venture well into nine figures, athletic director Chris Pezman knows UH has a lot of catching up to do.

“Last year, we had about $75 million operating budget. The average of the Big 12 is between about $112-$115 million,” Pezman said in an interview with The Cougar. “We’ve got to basically immediately figure out a way to close that gap.”

Making up decades’ worth of financial ground in the span of a few years is a daunting task. An immediate jump up to a $96 million operating budget this coming year will help, but until Houston gets its full revenue share from the Big 12 in year three, the school will need to focus on getting up to speed internally with attendance, revenue and competition.

“We can’t get there right away,” Pezman said. “It’s going to take about three years for us to grow into.”

The first step, according to Pezman, is to make sure game days are as accessible and enjoyable for fans as possible in order to maximize the financial benefits of the incoming increase in interest.

“We (as a University) are spending a lot of time on how do we deliver our game day experience,” Pezman said. “What’s that environment? Who are we bringing into the fold? What’s the excitement like on game day?”

With Big 12 opponents like National Championship runner-up TCU and in-state rivals Texas Longhorns coming to town, much of that excitement will come on its own, but the onus is still on UH to cultivate ongoing attendance for all eight of Houston’s home games.

Pezman highlighted the potential of pushing out the Cullen-side gates in TDECU Stadium to create extra space in the arena, as well as the importance that the Cougars’ first three home games will be played at 6 p.m. or later to help in UH’s ability to fill TDECU’s 40,000 seats.

“The byproduct of that is how we get people in the venue quicker,” Pezman said. “Getting those night games really matters, because you’re probably conservatively talking about a 15 to 20-degree variance between a day game and a night game.”

Those improvements in attendance and fan engagement will yield a massive increase in revenue, which will allow for more investments into Houston’s marquee sports as well as a growth in total staff count across the board.

“We’re looking at probably close to a 250 to 300% increase across the board in every one of those revenue streams,” Pezman said. “What that affords us the ability to do (is focus resources on) our revenue sports: football, basketball. Because we have to have them be successful financially.

“They represent 90% of our revenue opportunities, period,” Pezman said. “So we need to make sure they’re on solid footing, and they’re close to everybody else (in the Big 12) as far as budget in the way that they’re funded.”

Some of those investments are already being made. A new $140 million football operations facility, which has $50 million raised for it so far, will begin construction the day after the Cougars’ final home game against Oklahoma State and is projected to be occupied by the fall of 2025, and some renovations on the Guy V. Lewis Development Facility have already started.

What this entire plan of growth hinges on, though, is competitive success. Pezman stressed the importance of Houston’s sports to at least get into the postseason in order to maintain the school’s growth into the Big 12 and allow for more resources to go into catching up with other lower-funded sports.

“Focus on getting the postseason and have that success and then we’ll build off of that,” Pezman said. “At the same time, we’re backfilling to continue to grow to get us to where everybody else is and then figure out a way to get ahead of it.”

In getting to that point, Pezman has looked to previous schools — namely Utah in 2011 and TCU in 2012 — that have made the jump into a Power 5 conference as both examples and reminders of patience in Houston’s move. The Utes have gone back-to-back as Pac-12 Conference champions in football, while TCU battled all the way to the College Football Playoff Championship in 2022 and has found success in men’s basketball and baseball.

“Utah is the best example (for us). It’s a public institution. And was probably in some ways we feel like was most we’re we feel more like them,” Pezman said. “Utah was as good as anybody at that point in football and basketball, (but) it took them five years before they were competing for a conference championship in football”

“Talking to colleagues that worked at TCU, from what we look like today versus what they looked like going in, we look very, very similar,” Pezman said. “That has kind of helped me just relax a little bit.”

Though the mix of urgency and patience has been a tough balance inside the UH athletics program, the most prominent feeling has been an excitement for the rebirth of an era of competition and relevance that was taken away with the Southwestern Conference’s disbandment in 1996.

“It’s palpable, you can feel it, it’s hard to put your finger on what that one thing is,” Pezman said. “It’s the excitement of renewing a lot of regional rivalries that carried over from the Southwest Conference that really gets people. It means something.”

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