Subsidizing St. Petersburg

Submitted by Brian on March 8th, 2011 at 11:59 AM


fat man in suit takes the money.

Back in the day when the Sporting News was running its own blog and I was writing for it there was a flurry of articles about teams losing absurd amounts of money by participating in bowl games. I compiled them and pointed a finger at the culprit:

The bowls are robbing Peter to pay Peter in the form of ticket guarantees:

To make the bowl berth official, all [Western Michigan] had to do was buy 11,000 tickets to the game against Rice. The Broncos did so, paying $450,000 to the bowl for the tickets.

Go ahead and guess how many tickets Western Michigan sold to last year's Texas Bowl. Too high, too high, too high: 548. Western ended up eating over 400k in ticket expenses and the Texas Bowl got away with a functional payout of less than half of the NCAA's minimum.

As of 2009, MAC bowl games were actually costing the league more money than they brought in. A $2.1 million don't-sue-us payment from the BCS was the only thing keeping them slightly in the black.The problems weren't just on the low end. A couple years ago Virginia Tech, which was going to the Orange Bowl, also ate a spectacular number of overpriced, terrible tickets.

It's March again and FOIA requests have been out for 90 days so it's time for another flurry of articles on the topic. The headliner: Auburn and Oregon lost money on the biggest game of the year. Exclamations. It won't be much of a surprise to find out that UConn took a bath, losing $1.8 million on their Fiesta Bowl trip. They would have turned a significant profit if not for ticket guarantees:

By far the largest expense the university incurred came from absorbed ticket sales. The university sold only 2,771 out of an allotment of 17,500 tickets, resulting in the university absorbing 14,729 tickets worth $2,924,385.

The official figure of 2,771 tickets sold is substantially lower than the previously reported amount of 4,600 tickets sold.

The Fiesta Bowl sold those 17500 tickets at a higher price than the public could get them, and that's not all they were on the hook for:

UConn also has a hotel obligation — a total of 550 rooms at three different hotels ranging in price from $125-225 a night, not including tax, with blocks reserved for either three or seven nights. Additional expenses include a chartered flight and meals for the team, staff and 300-member band, as well as a $100,000 bonus to coach Randy Edsall, and smaller bonuses for assistants, per their contracts, for getting the team to a BCS bowl.

In my previous article on the topic I cited some other schools that had taken losses after hauling around a shogun-worthy entourage, but apparently that's not even WVU's (for example) fault. Once you've got 550 rooms you have to pay for, you might as well bring the band along.

Between the ticket guarantee and the hotel obligation, UConn was doomed to lose a ton of money as soon as they accepted the Fiesta Bowl bid. The Big East as a whole did not, however—that travel allocation from the Big East is only a tiny sliver of the $17.7 million the conference got from the worst playoff on earth. Most of the articles on this topic overlook that. While it's weird that for a lot of schools getting a BCS bid is an invitation to set money on fire, those schools are the sort that get a BCS bid once in a blue moon. The rest of the time they're getting money for nothing and chicks for free. Their net from the system is positive.

So that's annoying but I guess tolerable. Not so much on the lower end where getting your terrible bowl bid is a net loss for you and the conference. While the most recent article flurry focuses on the fake losses at the top of the ladder, it's the bottom where the problem is. There's a point on the bowl ladder at which the game turns from a contributor to college football to a parasite on it. I'm not sure where it is but it's well above the Beef O'Brady's Bowl in St. Petersburg.

The NCAA needs to limit the obligations a bowl can foist on the teams that will host them. This will cause a half-dozen minor bowls to shutter their doors, but everything that goes by the wayside was sucking money out of college football and giving it to the East Nowhere chamber of commerce. They won't be missed even by the schools that used to go to them.



March 8th, 2011 at 12:50 PM ^

are, for the most part, part of programs that can ill afford to throw out that kind of money on any bowl game, and the ones in programs who can afford it aren't likely to miss those bowls ... they'd rather be going to the bowls that actually have some kind of history or are located in places where you'd want to play outdoor football in December.

It isn't (yet) to the point where playing in a bowl game could push a school into I-AA, but I would guess a good percentage of MAC schools (and probably most, if not all, of the Sun Belt schools) aren't exactly solidly in I-A in the first place.


March 8th, 2011 at 1:23 PM ^

For the past few years, I've been thinking that my Alma Mater (Eastern) should go down to I-AA.  The last time they've had a winning season in Football was 1995 and it's been a while since they've been competitive in Basketball (I think last year was the most competitive at 500).  I didn't realize that teams can actually lose money on bowl games.  I knew that it was expensive to go to a bowl, but I thought the TV payout would mean they would actually break even.


March 8th, 2011 at 12:52 PM ^

isnt that what it is all about?  We (at Michigan) have the luxury of understanding what bowl games are designed to do, since we invented bowl games.

For those who dont know, Yost wanted to reward his team for doing so well.  He telegraphed  the Stanford Coach and asked him if he wanted to play a game.  Yost thought it would be a nice break for he and the boys to get "outta dodge for a few weeks" over Christmas break, to warm and sunny Southern California.

So holding true to Yost's ideals, current bowls are supposed to be for teams (and the band, students and Alumni) to travel to a warm location for the Christmas Break to watch their team play in a bowl game.  Now there are many more bowl games and not-so-warm locations.  However, the ideal is the same, "get outta dodge".

The bowls serve another purpose as well........promotion: both athlete and student recruiting.  So the net affect may never be known because there are hidden advantages.  

Although I do believe conferences needs to step it up and hold the "big-bad-bowl committees" accountable.  Bowls needs to understand what the real purpose of bowls are.  If some of the smaller bowls drop (Detroit included) then so be it.  We have to keep this in mind: its always about the kids that doesnt break the schools.


March 8th, 2011 at 1:38 PM ^

While every school would prefer to make money on the trip, I think that going to a bowl is more important to them than making money. Under Brian's scenario, if indeed the bottom 6 or so bowls went out of business, I think there would be 12 or so unsatisfied schools that wish they still existed, regardless of whether they made money or not.  Bowls are not only rewards for player and coaches, they are bragging rights for the football program, along with recruiting tools ("we've been to 6 straight bowl games"). The intangible rewards of going surpass the financial for many schools, IME.


March 8th, 2011 at 6:36 PM ^

players dont care about what you call the "real" purpose of bowls, they don't care about the financial situation they put the university in, they just want to play.  I wrote a simple one sentence comment and you were obviously too stupid to get it.  and ok, yost created bowl games because he wanted to reward his team for doing well.  we didnt do so well last year, did we really deserve to go to a bowl game?  the score of the bowl game points to no, we should have not been there.  but god forbid michigan didnt make a bowl game at 7-5 or even 6-6 while other smaller school who go 7-5 don't get to go yet would probably put on a better game.  your logic is stupid


March 8th, 2011 at 12:24 PM ^

could the conferences themselves impose such restrictions? for instance the MAC could require that all schools planning on going to a bowl game must present a reasonable business case or else it cannot accept the bid? this would also create pressure for the bowls to ease up on the ticket/hotel obligations. this might also result in the eventual collapse of some of the lesser bowl games once the financial burden is shifted from the school to the bowl sponsors.


March 8th, 2011 at 12:26 PM ^

Despite these issues, it would only take a majority vote of 61 of the 120 FBS schools to cause the bowl system to instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.

But it never happens.  We still have the bowl system.  Why would the college presidents accept a system where they are guaranteed to lose money?  I suspect there is a reason.  It would be best to address this, rather than take the approach of the authors of "Death to the BCS" and claim that the presidents are acting against their own schools' best interests.



March 8th, 2011 at 12:54 PM ^

The Haves, who are the ones in power, the ones who can afford to take a bath in a big-ticket bowl game because the conference as a whole will make money. These are the ones who can effectively prevent any kind of democratic change to the system, assuming that there's even a voting process in place. Keep this in mind from the article:

While it's weird that for a lot of schools getting a BCS bid is an invitation to set money on fire, those schools are the sort that get a BCS bid once in a blue moon. The rest of the time they're getting money for nothing and chicks for free. Their net from the system is positive.

The Have-Nots are the ones who are guaranteed to lose money, and as you may have read, they do not exactly accept this system. They're just powerless to replace it.

AQ schools have few incentives to change the current system: the only ones who do are the schools like Michigan who've had teams that could legitimately contend for a championship but weren't allowed to play for one. Non-AQ schools have little ability to change the system, and even what they gain through legal threats has done them little to no good.


March 8th, 2011 at 1:44 PM ^

Do you think that even if the have-nots voted, you would find a majority in favor of eliminating the current system?  I don't.  Right now, there are 66 "haves" (BCS Schools) and 54 "have nots" (non-BCS schools in FBS).  If we put it to a vote to eliminate the current system, how many "yes" votes do you think there are among college presidents right now?  My guess would be 5 to 10, and that may be over-optimistic.  Somebody's making money here, and it's not just General O'Brady's descendants.

The problem is that everybody hates the bowl system except for the people who have the power to change it.



March 8th, 2011 at 12:44 PM ^

It is a picture of General Collis "Beef" O'Brady, a civil war hero who later served as military governor of Florida before becoming the President of the Jackson, Mobile & St Petersburg Railroad.  He later became entangled in the forgotten Mobile Amalgamation scandal and was dismissed by the trustees of the railroad in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid political repraisals.

He was a great benefactor, establishing libraries throughout Southern Florida and also establishing Lakeland College and Normal School, which later folded.  The land is currently the site of the Detroit Tigers' spring training complex.


Zone Left

March 8th, 2011 at 12:32 PM ^

The NCAA doesn't need to do anything. The Big 10 and SEC could basically fix the problem by themselves. With the exception of a few teams, those two conferences have the most marketable and best travelling fan bases. The next time they negotiate bowl tie-ins, they could just refuse to accept the required ticket allotments and hotel packages. What would the bowl's response be? To walk on the Big 10 and SEC to schedule a Big East or an ACC team? Their fans don't travel and don't command TV audiences like the big boys do. Conferences hold all the power here.


March 8th, 2011 at 12:34 PM ^

Sounds like an emo-pop-punk band from the late 90s or early 2000s. I think they had a hit called "My Win Column's Full (but my pockets are empty)" or something.


March 8th, 2011 at 1:08 PM ^

Yes, it's true that Auburn and Oregon lost money on the game but, um, that's only because they had to divy up the money they got for the game for the rest of the conference. Of course the rest of the conference had to divy up the money they got as well so let's not act like they actually lost money as a whole. 


Maybe the MAC does lose money on the bowl games but the total $ going out is less than what's coming in even when you look at lost ticket sales for those big names you mentioned.


March 8th, 2011 at 1:14 PM ^

As it is, we are at the critical mass of bowl games where there are barely enough eligible teams to meet the number of slots.

Last year, only 2 schools (Temple and Western Michigan) were bowl eligible, but weren't invited to a game (Western, probably because of their poor attendance figures the previous year as Brian had mentioned).  All it would have taken would be for 3 schools to decline an invite based on financial considerations and these ridiculous ticket limits would have been front and center as one bowl would either have to back off on its ticket/hotel guarantees, or force the prospect of folding a few weeks before the game.

As Zone Left noted, the real issue is that the power conferences need to take a stand and prior to signing agreements with these games, they need to force a removal of these guarantees.  As expansion consolidates more power to a few major conferences, one would think that a greater degree of leverage would follow because the drawing power of Big Ten bowl slot #5 is far greater than most of what the ACC, Big East, etc. can bring to the table.


March 8th, 2011 at 1:15 PM ^

The presidents need to take control of the BCS back from the bowls.  It would take one vote to outlaw ticket guarantees.  Of course, if there was a hypothetical situation where bowl nabobs were paying presidents under the table to ensure their mutual financial benefit, then the vote would never happen.

Strictly hypothetical, of course.

El Jeffe

March 8th, 2011 at 1:27 PM ^

I would be shocked, SHOCKED if there were any, say, golf outings at which corporate and university bigwigs rubbed shoulders and discussed the events of the day. Topics might include:

  • Pepperoni or sausage: which is better? Or does it depend on the other toppings?
  • Ticket guarantees: good or bad?

That's not an exhaustive list, mind you.


March 8th, 2011 at 1:37 PM ^

Baesd on my limited research, it seems like roughly 25%-35% of teams in other D-1 sports get to play in an NCAA playoff.  If you make the analogy that bowl games are like the playoffs for D-1 football, it seems reasonable to think that this percentage should be generally consistent for FBS football.  In 2010, 70 of 120 teams played in a bowl game, or 58%.  If you ratchet that back to the 35% level, you would end up with 42 teams playing in 21 bowl games, elminating 14 bowls. 

I don't think may fans would miss 14 bowls and the players would have the same oportunity as their colleagues in other sports to participate in a post season.


March 8th, 2011 at 2:55 PM ^

If you ask me, the root root root problem is the overexpansion of D-I itself.  The requirements aren't that stringent.  The bowl explosion is because there are (or were) a ton of teams not going to bowls, and as long as the I-A ranks keep swelling, so will the bowl ranks.  It's the bottom-feeding hangers-on who are the real parasites.

I don't mind expanding the ranks of D-I but frankly the requirements should be a lot more stringent.  If the NCAA wants to put a stop to money parasites like the Beef Whatever Bowl, it should put a stop to letting just anyone join and stay D-I just because something called the New Jersey Institute of Technology wants more visibility.


March 8th, 2011 at 9:27 PM ^

Create a real playoff and keep the bowls.  Most of these bowls couldn't get any more meaningless anyways. If they can swing it financially to stay afloat, great. I love watching. It is college football and it's all good.  However, saving the bowls is simply not a valid excuse to keep avoiding the economic windfall of  a say 16-team playoff. Not when so many athletic departments are bleeding money, dipping into the school's general fund (taxpayer supported general fund) to keep the non-revenue sports going, or dropping non-revenue sports out right.

The BCS and the peon bowl system we currently have is an economic dinosaur. Just like the old bowl system became financially untenable back in the 90s.  Playoff fanatics, our day is coming.  It would be here already if not for big-conference greed.  Wait till Congress and state legislatures get involved wanting to know why public universities are pissing away money to hit the Pinstripe Bowl during these economic times.