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BCS Bowl Games Bad Business for Colleges

It might surprise you to know that the winner and loser of tonight’s BCS title game was determined well before kickoff.

Notre Dame won. Easily. Alabama lost. Badly.

And no, this has nothing to do with the scoreboard.

This is about the bottom line number involved in playing in Bowl Championship Series games that are money losers for almost all the teams involved, despite guaranteed payouts of $18 million per team.

Huh? How do you lose money playing a bowl game?


The payout for a BCS bowl game is $18 million – $28.4 million if you make the title game – but you don’t get it all.  In fact, you get a really small share. That’s Factor #1.

Factor #2 is that the invitation you get to come to a BCS bowl game includes a ticket-selling caveat that is deadly for nearly every school involved.

Let’s start with explaining Factor #1. The payout for bowl games goes to the conference the team represents, not the school itself. The conference then splits it with all its members. That means Vanderbilt and Mississippi State take home the same paycheck from the BCS title game as Alabama.

That’s one of the ways Alabama comes home a loser.

Notre Dame doesn’t play in a conference, but because of that, the Fighting Irish don’t get the full $28.4 million payout for being in a title game. They only get $6.4 million, but being an independent means they don’t share with anyone else.

That’s why the Irish will go home winners.

Notre Dame will bank about $2 million, after expenses. Alabama will owe the bank about $2 million, after expenses. The $4 million swing is example number 7,814 of what a polluted place college sports is these days.

Not that anybody cares.

Even Winners are Losers in Bowl Games

Colleges across the nation are willing to swallow million-dollar losses for the opportunity to send their football teams to games nobody, including their own alumni, care about.

The schools range from the obvious – Alabama, Oklahoma, Florida and Florida State – to the oblivious – Northern Illinois, West Virginia, Connecticut. They’ve all taken a bath going bowling in the big-money BCS games, losing anywhere from $1 million to $4 million, yet not one school president or Board of Trustees has bothered to raise the question about fiscal irresponsibility.

Florida, for example, lost $2 million this year playing in the worst-attended Sugar Bowl game since 1934. Northern Illinois easily topped that, losing $4 million as a participant in the equally-uninspired Orange Bowl game.

Which brings us to Factor #2: The million-dollar losses were because neither Florida nor Northern Illinois could sell anywhere close to the number of tickets required.

The Gators were asked to sell 17,500 seats to the Sugar Bowl. They sold 7,000, and plenty of those were giveaways. Florida was in a $2 million hole before the team boarded its chartered flight to New Orleans.

Northern Illinois also had to sell 17,500 seats to the Orange Bowl, which presented an immediate dilemma for the Huskies, since they only averaged 15,700 fans at home games. Even if they could have convinced every one of those fans to get a flight to Miami, rent a car and hotel room (minimum stay: four nights), buy their own meals and spend up to $225 for a ticket, they still couldn’t break even.

Northern Illinois did sell 3,000 tickets, gave another 12,000 away free to students, some veterans and members of Big Brothers/Big Sisters. The other 2,500? Apparently they couldn’t even give them away, which meant NIU and the Mid American Conference were on the hook for an estimated $4 million for unsold seats.

Florida State made an effort, but its fans weren’t interested any more than the folks in Illinois. FSU cut the price in half for all 17,500 tickets, but even at 50 percent off, it could only sell 6,000 seats. The Seminoles and ACC ate the rest.

Alabama is No. 1 at Paying Bonuses

It doesn’t seem possible that the people running those schools could possibly turn their backs on such wasteful spending, but it happens and nobody knows it more than the folks in charge at the University of Alabama.

The Crimson Tide needed $3.9 million to cover expenses for playing in last year’s BCS title game, but the revenue side of the ledger showed only $1.9 million, meaning ‘Bama was a $2 million loser for sending its team to New Orleans.

The Tide’s expense sheet included more than $1 million in bonuses for its coaching staff. Nick Saban, who already makes $5.4 million as the head coach, got a $400,000 bonus for getting the school in a position to lose $2 million by going to a BCS game. His assistants, the second-highest paid staff in the nation, got 15 percent more tacked on to their salaries for putting the school in position to lose $2 mil.

I wager professors in the biology department find that amazing. I have no doubt the guys teaching history could have used a $1 million bonus to improve salaries in their department.

For people in the athletic department, it’s the cost of doing business.

That’s where we are in college sports. Losing money in order to win football games makes sense. Fiscal responsibility is somebody else’s problem.

I’ll bet when these guys graduate, they’ll head directly to Capitol Hill.

Bill “No Pay” Fay has lived a meager financial existence his entire life. He started writing/bragging about it in 2012, helping birth into existence as the site’s original “Frugal Man.” Prior to that, he spent more than 30 years covering the high finance world of college and professional sports for major publications, including the Associated Press, New York Times and Sports Illustrated. His interest in sports has waned some, but he is as passionate as ever about not reaching for his wallet. Bill can be reached at [email protected].

BCS games cost colleges

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