College football’s bowl problem
College football’s ever-expanding bowl system is best described as a labyrinth of money. It’s a system that helps put six-figure bonuses in the pockets of coaches and administrators. It’s a system that funnels millions of dollars to the bowls in the form of naming rights’ fees, ticket sales, and television contracts. And it’s a system that pays the CEOs of the sport’s most powerful bowl games salaries of $500,000 or more.
So why do many think the system is broken? The reason is simple: Schools are losing money — a lot of money — by going to these bowl games. The “allowances” permitted by their parent conferences typically are dwarfed by the expenses brought about by transporting, housing, and feeding a party that can sometimes stretch more than 900 people deep. The difference is absorbed by athletic department budgets, many of which require state funding to remain afloat.
And it’s not just the East Carolinas and Syracuses of the world that find themselves financially burdened by the bowl system. Behemoths such as Ohio State, Auburn, and Virginia Tech have all been buried in recent years by bowl deficits, some topping a million dollars.
Big Ten powerhouse Ohio State upset Oregon in the 2010 Rose Bowl, but lost $80,000 on the trip. Virginia Tech incurred a $2.2 million loss on its trip to the 2009 Orange Bowl, and when invited back to Miami this season, the Hokies again came out in the red — this time by $1.6 million. Even the 2010 national champion, Auburn, spent nearly $3 million on their trip to Glendale, Ariz., losing $614,106 in the process, according to documents released by the school.
ICONTom Osborne predicted Nebraska would lose money on the Holiday Bowl.
By now, the deficits are expected: Former Nebraska football coach and current Cornhusker athletic director Tom Osborne readily admitted his program would lose money on its trip to the 2010 Holiday Bowl two weeks before the team left for the game.
Something with college football’s bowl system is amiss. The payouts are too low. The ticket allotments are incomprehensible burdens for the schools. And everything that should be celebrated during college football’s postseason — the games and players, the memorable plays and unforgettable upsets — all becomes secondary to keeping afloat an enterprise worth hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.
This needs to change. The majority of college football fans know this needs to change. And maybe Mark Shurtleff is the guy to make that change happen. Shurtleff, Utah’s attorney general, told USA Today this week he’s filing an anti-trust suit against the BCS, claiming it’s “an illegal monopoly.”
This is the first step toward disbanding the BCS and putting in a playoff system that Yahoo! Sports columnist Dan Wetzel said could be worth $900 million in revenue. According to Michael Smith of the Sports Business Journal, the BCS distributed $174 million in total payouts in 2011 — $145.2 million of which (83.4 percent) went to the six AQ conferences. TCU received the largest sum ($12.75 million) because it automatically qualified for a BCS game by finishing in the top-four of the BCS standings. If they had been apart of the Big East in 2010, however, the Horned Frogs would have generated the $21.2 million payout paid to AQ conferences.
In college football, a clear delineation between the haves and have-nots exists. The likes of Utah and TCU have thwarted the system by joining the party instead of fighting it. Meanwhile, Boise State —who went from the non-AQ WAC to the non-AQ Mountain West — remains on the outside looking in.
For one, Dr. Richard Evans — an assistant professor for economics at Brigham Young University who has previously studied the economics of the bowl system — doesn’t see the BCS in violation of anti-trust law. He told me, “It’s not because [with] an anti-trust issue, there have to be some barriers to entry. If I’m in the Mountain West conference and I don’t like the BCS system, I just don’t take the money that they give me and I make my own system. … Everyone else is free to make their own system. There are no barriers to entry.”
Still, the bowl system is far from perfect.
ICONAuburn lost money on its 2011 bowl trip.
The Fiesta Bowl, for example, is allowed to net millions of dollars in profit annually — and since it’s a registered charity, it doesn’t have to pay federal taxes on any of it — but Connecticut incurs a $1.7 million loss just by playing in the game. Bowl-game CEOs make six-figure salaries, coaches get six-figure bonuses, and television executives sell commercial airtime for millions — all while ticket allotments and travel costs and hotel prices engulf any bowl-related revenue schools receive.
How does this make any sense?
But if you’re looking for change — for the bowl-game CEOs to make less, for the schools’ expenses to decrease, for the system itself to become more profitable — you’re looking in the wrong place. The bowl system isn’t about celebrating amateur athletics. It’s not about making sure athletic departments walk away profitable. And it’s certainly not about change.
College football’s postseason is all about making the Powers That Be happy. That means the majority of the money will go where it has always gone: To everyone else except the schools.
Scott Miller is a senior at The University of Iowa and a contributor to the National Football Post. Follow him on Twitter: @stmillr.