When the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) announced matchups for its five games last December, the Fiesta Bowl was handed the biggest clunker of them all — Connecticut vs. Oklahoma.
But Fiesta officials never had to worry about monetary risk because they were handing off the financial burden to the Huskies and Sooners.
Each team, as part of the agreement to play in the Glendale, Ariz., game, had to purchase 17,500 tickets with a face value between $105 and $235.
Combined, Connecticut and Oklahoma sold only 8,338 of their allotted 35,000 tickets. That left the schools and their conferences on the hook for a jaw-dropping $5.14 million in "absorbed" tickets — or tickets that go unsold to the public or have to be purchased by the university for use by staff, families of players, coaches and even the band.
Last season marked a record 35 bowl games and nearly every game required teams to purchase a minimum number of tickets. Teams, in search of prestige, never hesitate to take on the financial burden.
It is a system that pays dividends not only for the bowls — seven of which are owned and operated by ESPN — but coaches and administrators who get bonuses because their teams played in the postseason. The losers are many, including athletic departments, students who help fund the program through fees, taxpayers, and fans who desire a Division I-A playoff.
The Wiz of Odds recently obtained expense reports for 56 of the 70 teams participating in bowl games last season. The data was obtained through public records requests. The 14 schools that did not provide information are either private or cited statutes allowing them to keep information off limits to the public.
Based on the average expense for 56 teams multiplied by 70, The Wiz of Odds is providing a profile for a bowl team:
- On average, a team spent $1.31 million on a bowl trip. Of that amount, $321,422 went to cover costs for absorbed tickets.
- The 70 teams combined to run up expenses of $92.09 million.
- Totaled, teams spent $22.49 million on absorbed tickets, nearly 25 percent of their overall expenses.
- The average number of people in an official travel party was 568. That encompasses the team, coaching staff, band, cheerleaders, faculty, and athletics department personnel.
This is the most comprehensive examination of bowl game expense reports to date. All of the data collected — expense reports for 56 teams and bowl surveys for 40 teams — will be posted on The Wiz of Odds in the coming days.
Supporters of the 35-game bowl system argue that the postseason turns a profit. Technically, this is correct, but only because of the BCS, which this season distributed a reported $174.07 million from its five games. Of that amount, 83.4 percent went to the automatic qualifier conferences — the Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific 10 and Southeastern conferences.
The 30 non-BCS bowl games are, at best, a break-even venture. Without the ticket guarantee, it is likely that half the bowls would not exist.
"[Division I-A] needs a football playoff, just like all other NCAA sports," said Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College in Mass.
"The bowl games are all a silly extravagance, and, save the BCS cartel, all significant money drains on athletic programs already in the red. The fact that a participating school has to buy up over 300k in tickets to its own game is as clear an indication as you can get that these competitions have no market justification."
Athletic departments could certainly use the money. A NCAA study revealed that in the 2008-2009 academic year, all but 14 of the 120 I-A programs were operating at a deficit. Of the 106 in the red, the median shortfall was $11 million.
But nobody seems intent on challenging the bowl system, even if the system requires a subsidy from teams in the form of ticket guarantees.
To make matters worse, how much money does a team forfeit by playing a neutral site bowl game? Ohio State, which traveled to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, reported the biggest "profit" — $288,876 — of all bowl teams last season. That total included $222,410 in absorbed tickets.
Compare that to Oklahoma, which played a 2009 regular season game against Brigham Young in Arlington, Texas, the first ever college game in Cowboys Stadium. The Sooners were paid $2.25 million for their appearance.
More teams like Oklahoma are eager to cash in on neutral site games. Boise State and Virginia Tech played last September in Landover, Md. Louisiana State and North Carolina opened 2010 in Atlanta. In 2007, Missouri and Kansas moved their annual game to Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium, which has a larger capacity (79,451) than either the Jayhawks' Memorial Stadium (50,000) or the Tigers' Faurot Field (71,004). The game was a smashing success and, four years later, appears to have found a permanent home at Arrowhead.
"Until we fill Memorial Stadium," Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger said, "we can’t really afford to pull it back. Until then, we need the revenue."
While athletic directors cite financial issues as the reason to play regular season games at a neutral site, they look the other way when it comes to a bowl game. Instead, the narrative is spun to accentuate the benefits of playing in the postseason — visibility for the program, an increase in alumni contributions and, in some cases, a boost in enrollment. Yet, all of these factors are nearly impossible to quantify.
Some teams are so desperate to play in the postseason they are willing to wave the listed payout for a game. The book, Death to the BCS by Dan Wetzel, Josh Peter and Jeff Passan chronicled how the Motor City Bowl bartered with several teams seeking an invitation to the 2008 game.
Florida Atlantic eventually was invited after agreeing to wave the Detroit bowl's listed payout of $750,000 in exchange for tickets it could never sell.
The bottom line is that everything is negotiable, including a bowl’s listed payout.
Not all the information on expense reports is reliable. One category that stood out was expense allowance from the conference. Utah did not list an allowance from the Mountain West. Georgia ($90,400), Mississippi State ($111,000) and Alabama ($113,000) had figures far below the norm for teams from the Southeastern Conference under the league's bowl revenue distribution policy.
Allowances also don't include what teams are paid once the league divides shares of revenue from bowl payouts. The Wiz of Odds' study did not involve expense allowances because of these factors. Instead, the decision was made to keep a focus on tickets absorbed and total expenses — categories that were reported accurately.
Nonetheless, the data had to be combed through painstakingly because some teams engaged in blatant deceitful accounting practices in reporting tickets absorbed.
Oklahoma, for example, did not include the cost of tickets absorbed by the Big 12 in total expenses, even though the NCAA asks all schools to do so. The difference was substantial — $1.88 million.
That changed Oklahoma’s total expenses from $1.84 million to $3.73 million.
Iowa reported data one way to the NCAA and told the public another story. Its report to the NCAA listed $442,525 in costs for absorbed tickets, including $361,171 that was picked up by the Big Ten.
But when the school released a final report on May 5, it failed to include the $361,171. So the school, which fell 6,745 short of selling its allotment of tickets to the Insight Bowl, magically reported a surplus of $382,500. The creative accounting seemingly made Iowa the most profitable team of the postseason, besting Ohio State’s $288,876 return on the Sugar Bowl.
When asked about the change, Iowa sent a detailed response that included this:
"The NCAA requests the number of unsold tickets absorbed by the conference and depicts the entire amount as an expense in their respective report. Every conference treats unsold tickets differently, and the byproduct is misleading reports when the NCAA enforces a universal reporting template."
But in the end, all of the money for the Big Ten comes into and out of the same pot because the league divides not only its bowl revenue, but expenses in 11 equal shares.
There were other not so subtle tweaks. Alabama, for example, included $1.10 million in staff bonuses, one of the reasons the Crimson Tide ran up a staggering $2.91 million in total expenses for the Capital One Bowl.
Teams like Iowa did not include bonuses, even though the Hawkeye coaching staff collected $494,861.
But teams, in an attempt to make the bottom line look better, generally didn’t include bonuses. Thus, the summary for total expenses is, in reality, less than what teams actually spent.
As for the taxpayers' role, consider that seven bowls received more than $21.6 million in government aid between 2001-05, according to Mark Yost, author of Varsity Green. In 2009, many of the financial institutions that sponsor bowl games, like Citigroup Inc., which presented the Rose Bowl and BCS title game, Capital One Financial Corp., and GMAC LLS were recipients of federal bailout money.
Over 80 percent of the teams that played in bowls were from public universities. Either directly or indirectly, taxpayers helped foot the bill for football. At Connecticut, over $92 million in public funds were used to build Rentschler Field, which opened in 2003.
Connecticut now faces a $3.2 billion budget shortfall and lawmakers are scrambling to balance the books. A recent round of austerity measures included a cut of $25 million and likely loss of 285 jobs at the University of Connecticut. Including the $25 million cut, the university is facing a deficit of $45 million.
In response, Connecticut announced a plan to hike tuition in the fall by 2.5 percent.
It makes subsidizing a bowl game in a state having no benefit to the team's local economy — something Connecticut did in January — seem crazy.
Starting Wednesday: A look at team expense reports.