UNC, Duke and NC State among Forbes' most valuable teams

Highway I-40, known as Tobacco Road, connects the universities of North Carolina, Duke and North Carolina State. These schools sit within a 25 mile radius of each other in a region where college basketball is religion. The passion that their students, alumni and sponsors have for college basketball translates into an abundance of riches for these universities, making their men's basketball programs extremely valuable, according to Forbes' first ranking of college hoops teams. Just how much are these "amateur" basketball teams worth?

The North Carolina Tar Heels basketball team is the most valuable in the country, worth $26 million. We base our valuations on what the basketball programs contribute to four important beneficiaries: their university (money generated by basketball that goes to the institution for academic purposes, including scholarship payments for basketball players); athletic department (the net profit generated by the basketball program retained by the department); conference (the distribution of tournament revenue); and local communities (incremental spending by visitors to the county during the regular season that's attributable to the program).

Last season the Tar Heels posted a $16.9 million profit and, thanks in part to a lucrative merchandising agreement with Nike, contributed $800,000 to the university for academics. With Michael Jordan's jersey hanging from the Dean Smith Center's rafters and the basketball team a perennial contender for the national championship, basketball is the cornerstone of the university's athletic department.

Duke is the fifth most valuable team, worth $22.6 million. The Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau estimates total spending by visitors to Duke Blue Devils men's home games last season topped $11.2 million--more than any other basketball program in the country. Duke's success (three national titles during the past 17 years) has enabled head coach Mike Krzyzewski to become a brand unto himself, appearing in commercials for American Express and Chevrolet, a division of General Motors. Rivals complain Coach K's commercial success is an unfair recruiting advantage.

NC State's basketball program, ranked 13th, is worth $13.6 million. With expenses of only $3.1 million, the lowest of any team on our list, the NC State Wolfpack earned a profit of $7.9 million last season. In his first year with the Wolfpack, former NBA head coach Sidney Lowe led his alma mater to victories over Duke, North Carolina and Wake Forest University, marking the first time in four years that NC State beat all three in-state opponents during the same season.

Captured in our valuations are mandatory donations required by some athletic departments in order to be eligible to purchase season tickets (often hidden within athletic department accounting). These "gifts" add up: the University of Louisville's basketball team, the most profitable in the country, raked in $10.5 million last season from contributions directly tied to premium seating. Valued at $24.4 million, Louisville's basketball team is ranked third on our list. State rival University of Kentucky generated $7 million through 7,000 premium seats at Rupp Arena before a single ticket was even sold. Placing second, the Kentucky program is worth $24.9 million.

There is less wealth disparity among the top college basketball teams than the top football teams mainly because television money is more evenly distributed in basketball. The 20 most valuable teams span seven conferences, and include one team from the mid-major Atlantic 10. Xavier University, a private institution in Cincinnati with only 3,360 undergraduate students, can boast having a basketball team worth $10.7 million -- largely as a result of personal seat licenses reaping almost $4 million in annual revenue. Compare that with football, where teams from the SEC, Big Ten and Big 12 dominate our list.