Maybe it doesn’t matter all that much if the University of Houston will play its home football games in front of acres of empty seats again this season. It may be embarrassing to school officials, but live attendance is also largely irrelevant in the shifting landscape of college sports.

If the true purpose of intercollegiate athletics is to elevate a school’s brand and enhance its reputation, then maybe empty seats don’t matter. As long as the team wins enough to get national TV exposure, most everyone will go home happy.

And the Cougars appear poised to do a lot of winning over the next nine months. UH’s football team begins the new season ranked twenty-fourth in the Associated Press poll, and if it survives season-opening road games against UTSA and Texas Tech, the program could have a nice encore to last season’s 12–2 record and number seventeen ranking. Cougars basketball is in an even better spot, with the team advancing to the Final Four and Elite Eight in the last two seasons. Both football coach Dana Holgorsen and basketball coach Kelvin Sampson say they’re committed to the school for the long run.

It’s hard to estimate a dollar amount that the exposure these teams generate for the school, but considering that UH has poured more than $250 million into athletic facilities and coaching hires, university administrators obviously believe it’s significant. The strategic value of the school’s sports programs is a frequent talking point for UH president and system chancellor Renu Khator. “Between the NCAA Final Four, bowl game and so much more, the Athletics Division’s continued success will build a nationally competitive athletics program and help elevate UH’s reputation and brand,” she wrote last December in an end-of-semester update for faculty.

Few schools have spent more to achieve that goal. Since 2018, UH athletics has gotten $170 million in institutional support and student fees, according to the Knight Commission, which compiles data from revenue and expense reports filed to the NCAA. Knight Commission data was first reported by the Houston Chronicle.

Houston’s athletics department received almost $50 million in university general fund contributions and student fees in the fiscal year 2021. UH’s $41 million in general fund contributions was the third-highest among public universities, trailing only Arizona State ($62.2 million) and Connecticut ($42.6 million), according to information compiled by the website Sportico.

UH officials are hoping next summer’s move to the Big 12 will result in increased attendance and better television deals to reduce the sports subsidies. “We certainly hope that we don’t have to support and subsidize it to the level we do now,” Khator told the Chronicle. “People understand why we have been subsidizing to that level, because the revenue we have received from the conference has been very, very different.”

This is the issue for dozens of schools in Division I. According to Sportico, five of the Big 12’s public universities required to make their financials public—Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Iowa State, and Kansas State—did not receive subsidies. Of the three that did—Texas Tech ($189,438), Kansas ($3.86 million), and West Virginia ($8.98 million)—all received far less than Houston.

UH has poured money into facilities to put Cougars athletics on a level that, if not even with Texas and Texas A&M, is as close as the school can get to the standards in Austin and College Station. But even though the Cougars are frequently just as successful as the Longhorns and Aggies on the court and field, UH lags way behind in attendance.

UT and A&M will draw around 100,000 fans for every football home game. Meanwhile, UH seems forever stuck in the 25,000 range, which is what the school has averaged in the two most recent non-pandemic-interrupted seasons (2019 and 2021). Houston hasn’t hit 30,000 in attendance for a home game since 2018 and hasn’t gotten to 40,000 since 2016. 

For years, school officials blamed the same factors for the school’s football attendance woes: too few students living on campus, a lack of Texas schools on the schedule, and the lousy condition of its former home field, Robertson Stadium. Now, with eight thousand students living on campus and the 40,000-seat TDECU Stadium open since 2014, UH administrators hope the school’s impending move to the Big 12 will inspire more fans to show up than a home schedule packed with the likes of East Carolina, Memphis, and Tulane.

Considering that UH has an undergraduate enrollment of almost 40,000 students with 224,000 living alumni, 63 percent of them in the Houston area, the football team shouldn’t have so much trouble filling a stadium. Houston’s problem may be that, for whatever reason, its students simply aren’t all that interested in attending Cougars games.

Houston will receive additional revenue when it joins the Big 12 next summer. Problem is, with Texas and Oklahoma planning to leave the conference no later than 2025 and probably earlier, the Big 12’s television-rights revenues are expected to fall off a cliff.

On the other hand, fan interest should grow once UH is back in the same conference as historically familiar opponents such as Texas Tech, Baylor, and TCU. By some estimates, the Big 12’s snub of UH in 1995 cost the school as much as half a billion dollars in TV-rights money. But the setback left UH officials determined to get back into a Power Five conference, and they spent big over the years to get the Big 12’s attention. After Texas and OU announced they’d be leaving for the SEC, UH’s invitation finally arrived.

Among those sports-related expenditures: $128 million for TDECU Stadium, $60 million for a basketball arena in the Fertitta Center, $25 million for a basketball practice facility, and $20 million for an indoor football practice arena.

Now UH is raising money for a football operations center. In addition to football coach Dana Holgorsen’s new deal, basketball coach Kelvin Sampson is making more than $3 million a season and is signed through 2027.

Almost everyone familiar with sports at the University of Houston has a memory that captures how awful things were in the post–Southwest Conference years. To view UH’s transformation through this lens is to appreciate even more the array of new facilities on campus, the Big 12 membership, and the nationally ranked football and men’s basketball teams.

For me, the nightmare memory is of rats scurrying around the old Hofheinz Pavilion. If you attended a basketball game in the building’s final two decades before it was refurbished and reborn as the Fertitta Center, you may have seen the rodents in the concourses, seating areas, or even around the court. Although they harmed no one and minded their own business while living well on discarded hot dogs, burgers, and pizza, the rats did not add to the building’s charm.

These happy rodents became an awkward home-court advantage. When an opposing player slips into his uniform with one eye on the posse of rats milling about, the athlete’s focus can’t help but shift ever so slightly from winning to getting the heck out of Dodge.

Even some of the most optimistic administrators and alums could not have dreamed up all the good that has come to Cougars athletics in recent years. After two decades of relentless apathy, combined with rage about being consigned to second-tier status in the wake of the 1995 dissolution of the Southwest Conference, UH seems positioned to compete with pretty much anyone.

Perhaps the single smartest move UH made was luring Sampson away from the Houston Rockets in 2014 to coach the men’s basketball team. He’s a master program-builder and proven winner, and best of all, he has fallen in love with Houston. Sampson had the force of personality—and the results—to shake donors from a decades-long stupor and persuade them to pony up for what would be a sea change for the school. He showed everyone connected with UH that the Cougars could still be relevant.

School officials were bitterly disappointed when Big 12 expansion bypassed UH in 2016. Now amid a changing landscape and with a conference that may just survive the loss of its anchor schools, Texas and Oklahoma, UH could be perfectly positioned for the future.

“We’ve been planning for at least the last ten years, making investments in athletics, and knowing where and how we need to be competitively nationally,” Khator told the Chronicle. “The timing is great. We are enjoying such great success with basketball, and football isn’t that far behind. People expect more from us. We are so happy to see it come to this point. This isn’t a one-day thing or a one-year thing.”