Every year around this time, there's a flurry of articles complaining about the number of bowl games. Usually these pieces start off with something along the lines of "Who cares about [7-5 CUSA team] versus [7-5 MAC team] in [place no one would ever go]?"
The answer, obviously, is no one. Last week, Mike Tunison linked to a piece that highlighted schools that had incurred some huge losses after bowl games, what with transportation and conference splits eating up supposedly huge bowl payouts. A lot of smaller bowls are basically money sinks at this point.
How is that possible when the NCAA mandates a minimum payout of $750,000? 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.
Sure, some of the pain suffered by bigger programs is self-inflicted. When West Virginia ends up a million dollars in the red but drags 400 band members to the Fiesta Bowl at a cost of 700k, that's largely on West Virginia. When Florida makes a trip to the national championship game and pays for over 500 band members, cheerleaders and "VIPs" to go and takes a -- surpise! -- loss, that is 100% on Florida. Any time you see a big name school go to a big bowl and come home with a big red number, the reason is that the university is using the trip as a junket for a cast of thousands. The bowls shouldn't have any shame about that.
Tiny bowls that cater to the Western Michigans of the world, on the other hand, appear to be skirting the NCAA's regulations with these ticket guarantees. Hell, some bowls have the audacity to charge the schools considerably more than the market will bear:
Last year, Virginia Tech earned a berth in the Orange Bowl and was required to buy 17,500 tickets at $125 each. It only sold 3,342 of them, leading to a loss of $1.77 million for the university and the Atlantic Coast Conference, records show.
A Hokies athletics official speculated the reason for the weak sales was the weak economy, the expensive trip to Miami and cheaper tickets available to fans on the Internet. "Many Hokie fans bought that way rather than through our ticket office," Assistant Athletic Director Lisa Rudd said.
The Orange Bowl still has a major television deal and put more into the ACC's kitty than it took out; the Texas Bowl almost certainly can't say the same.
So if you're a small school with a tenuous budget and you get to 7-5, you've got a nasty choice. You can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to send your team to a bowl that will be on ESPN on December 23rd, or you can kill your program. Imagine trying to recruit against other members of your conference if you said thanks-but-no-thanks to a bowl. You'd get killed.
Since a sizable cut of their guarantee is being fed right back to the bowl in the form of ticket guarantees that aren't coming close to being met even for BCS games, the result is a net loss for everyone except the bowl operators. (One reason you'll never see this story on ESPN: the network now operates a half-dozen bowl games of little repute.) The MAC received a $2.1 million kickback from the BCS last year; bowl games the conference actually played in lost more money than they brought in. This is a familiar story: programs unable to actually pay players spend money in a thousand other ways, competing against each other on the margins and introducing a cottage industry of middlemen taking a cut.
I'm not making an argument that they should actually pay the kids here, but the NCAA might want to step in and make these guarantees a thing of the past. A half-dozen bowls would wither and die, but that would be a relief to the athletic directors that had to prop them up.
This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.