College bowl payouts don't always add up
The bogus billing for Pitt-Cincinnati had nothing to do with the Big East championship on the line, yet everything to do with the automatic BCS bowl berth at stake.
Despite discussion to the contrary, Cincinnati's 45-44 victory over Pitt last Saturday at Heinz Field wasn't a winner-takes-all for the $18 million payout provided by the Sugar Bowl. Cincinnati will receive less than $2.2 million and Pitt slightly more than $1 million for their respective bowl trips, plus an eight-way cut of the conference share.
One of the major misconceptions in college football is that universities reap a financial windfall by earning a BCS bowl berth and risk losing tens of millions by failing to do so.
Instead, most BCS-affiliated conferences pool the payouts, staggering the allotment to cover expenses for bowl-bound schools while splitting the remainder of the revenue evenly to every member. Each of the eight Big East schools will receive roughly $1,898,000 on top of their bowl expenses, while all 11 Big Ten teams will receive about $2,215,000.
"In no conference is there any game where the winner makes $18 million and the loser makes $1 million. That's a bad business model," Big East associate commissioner Nick Carparelli said. "The bowl payout to conferences is really funny money. When you go to bowl games, you're going to more expensive destinations with a bigger travel party.
"The net result isn't a million dollars. It might even be zero."
When it comes to playing in bowl games, Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia athletic directors said major-college football programs aren't looking to make money but to avoid accruing losses.
"None of us view the expense money for going to a bowl game as profit, but we do figure it in our budget," Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson said. "The finances of all these games are tight, so there's no great windfall going to any one school. The way we're allocated expense money, you hope you cover your expenses."
Even earning a BCS bid doesn't guarantee covering the costs.
When West Virginia lost to Pitt, 13-9, in December 2007, it kept the Mountaineers out of the BCS national championship game but not the BCS bowl picture. Instead of playing in New Orleans, West Virginia headed 1,000 miles further west to the Fiesta Bowl.
"The real misconception is when somebody goes to a BCS bowl, people think you're getting $15 million," West Virginia senior associate athletic director Russ Sharp said. "You're getting a fraction of that - and it costs a fortune to go to the Fiesta Bowl."
Sharp said that the Big East's payout to West Virginia for its trip to the 2008 Fiesta Bowl was $2,425,600, but the school's expenses totaled $3,495,000 - for losses of $1,069,400. Taking the 400-member band alone cost West Virginia nearly $700,000, and the school had to swallow some of its 17,500 ticket obligation.
"We lost money on that trip," Sharp said. "It was an expensive deal."
Another misconception is that a conference receives an additional $18 million when it lands two teams in BCS bowls, like the Big Ten (Ohio State and Iowa) and Southeastern (Alabama and Florida) have. Actually, it receives $4.5 million for a BCS at-large berth.
Although Iowa earned the at-large berth instead of Penn State due largely to its 21-10 victory Sept. 26 in Happy Valley, the Hawkeyes get only $250,000 more for their trip to the Orange Bowl in Miami than the Nittany Lions do for the Capital One Bowl in Orlando.
"It's a constant, educational reminder to our fan base that, 'here are the financial realities,'" Penn State athletic director Tim Curley said. "You've got to manage it because you don't want to lose money on these trips. We try to be respectful of what it realistically costs to go on these bowl trips."
What helps Curley's cause is that the Capital One (formerly Citrus) Bowl alleviates a major cost by covering hotel expenses up to 1,000 room/nights, equal to 100 rooms a night for 10 nights, at four-star hotels for its participants.
"We may be the only one in the country that does that," said Florida Citrus Sports executive director Steve Hogan, who places the savings at "easily a $150,000-plus value."
The NCAA permits schools to take a "team party" that includes players and coaches and their spouses and children, athletic department staffs and guests of personnel with duties, and an "official party" that includes the university president or chancellor, the vice president responsible for athletics, the state governor, the governing board of the university and faculty representatives.
Curley said the school normally invites only those closely associated with the football program, including just a handful of the 48 members of its Board of Trustees, because of the costs involved. The band and cheerleaders won't head to Orlando until Dec. 29, although that requires an additional expense with airfare.
"Chartered planes," Curley said, "are very expensive."
In this economy, bowls realize schools are trying to minimize costs. Pederson said Pitt plans to take a "pretty skeletal crew," while Sharp said West Virginia will be "very mindful of expenses."
"I think each school has to decide how big their travel party is going to be," Gator Bowl president Rick Catlett said. "That's probably the easiest way to manage their expenses. Some schools will be lavish, others won't. Where the bowls have addressed the economic climate is to be more regional in their selections and get teams that travel well."
Where the Big East allocates expenses according to finish in conference standings and gives every bowl-bound team an additional $200 per mile from campus to the bowl site, the Big Ten has a higher payout intended to cover travel and hotel accommodations, as well as ticket obligations.
While West Virginia is responsible for 12,750 tickets for the sold-out Gator Bowl against Florida State, and Penn State has to sell 12,000 tickets for the Capital One Bowl against Louisiana State — both to be played on New Year's Day in Florida — Pitt has to sell 12,500 tickets for the Meineke Car Care Bowl against North Carolina the day after Christmas in Charlotte.
Both the date and destination can factor into a school's ticket sales, and Meineke executive director Will Webb said he expects Pitt to return some tickets after estimating that it brought 2,000 to 2,500 fans to the 2004 game. The Pitt athletic department announced Friday that it is giving free tickets to students making the trip.
"It's certainly important to play on Jan. 1 for a lot of reasons, and one of them is that Jan. 1 has traditionally been the date that college football fans turn on their TV sets and watch college football," Curley said. "We're going to be in a prime-time game, and our destination is No. 1 in the world for entertainment, so from that standpoint, it's very attractive. The great weather is a nice attraction for our alumni that live in the north."
When it comes to clinching a bowl berth, the difference between winning and losing has more to do with bowl destinations than financial considerations. Simply put, going somewhere sunny is more important than making money.
"Certainly the bowl system is one of the greatest traditions in all of sports," Carparelli said, "but unfortunately, it's never been a fair system."
Or an equitable one.
Bowling for Dollars
A comparison of the bowl payouts for the Big East and Big Ten and what the conferences allot for expenses to their bowl-bound members:
Bowl: School — Payout/Allotment
Rose: Ohio State — $18.3M/$2.2M
Orange: Iowa — $4.5M/$1.95M
Capital One: Penn State — $4.5M/$1.7M
Outback: Northwestern — $3.3M/$1.7M
Alamo: Michigan State — $2.25M/$1.5M
Champs: Sports Wisconsin — $2.25M/$1.5M
Insight: Minnesota — $1.35M/$1.35M
Source: Big Ten Conference
Bowl: School — Payout/Allotment
Sugar: Cincinnati — $18M/$2,161,600*
Gator: West Virginia — $2.75M/$1,651,000*
Meineke: Pitt — $1M/$1,090,000*
PapaJohns.com: Connecticut — $300K/$1,225,600*
St. Petersburg: Rutgers — $1M/$1,222,600*
International: South Florida — $750K/$1,267600*
*—Approximates; includes $200/mile travel expense
Source: Big East Conference