Football Writers Association of America 2001 BEST WRITING CONTEST
COLUMN | ENTERPRISE | FEATURE | GAME | LOOSE DEADLINE

FIRST PLACE: ENTERPRISE
Bowl games can be costly win or lose
Erik Brady & Steve Wieberg, USA Today

Arizona State and Boston College played Christmas Day amid the palms and leis in Honolulu, stamping their season a success by getting to the Aloha Bowl. Another 42 college football teams will hit similarly sun-soaked fields in the next eight days, topped by the championship game at the Orange Bowl.

Part I: Bowl games can be costly win or lose
Part II: Bowling for dollars
Part III: Wisconsin cuts costs for rosier financial line

But what players, coaches and their fans celebrate, accountants often must tolerate. Financial filings with the NCAA show nearly half the schools that participated in bowls last season lost money just by showing up to play.

Eighteen of 38 schools that provided copies of those reports to USA TODAY showed losses, their balance sheets sagging beneath the costs of travel, lodging, meals and tickets. Twelve schools had deficits of more than $100,000. For three, the shortfall exceeded $300,000.

"Everybody wants to talk about the big money the bowls pay out," says Brigham Young athletic director Val Hale, pointing to a projected $149.8 million in revenues from this season's 25 bowls. "But if you don't sell all your tickets and you have to travel a long way, that money gets eaten up very quickly."

Travel alone cost Tennessee $824,964 a year ago. Nebraska spent $644,384 to house and feed its team and the remainder of the Huskers' official entourage. BYU, burned by minimum-purchase requirements common to all bowls, was left holding nearly 13,000 unsold tickets valued at $413,536.

In this era of the big-money Bowl Championship Series and conference revenue sharing, few schools show a bottom-line deficit from postseason football. Leagues typically spread their profits from higher-end bowls among their member institutions, covering any losses incurred in lower-tier games. Nine of those lower-echelon games pay $750,000 per team -- a minimum payout set by the NCAA. Another bumps up that amount by only $50,000.

Still, money lost is money lost. For example, Indiana, which didn't make it to a bowl last season, collected $1.5 million from Big Ten Conference revenue sharing. Illinois got that same share but saw its bottom line reduced by $200,000 lost in the Micronpc.com Bowl.

Finances tighten considerably in middle- and lower-echelon leagues, which aren't assured of landing teams in a high-paying BCS bowl and can't provide the same kind of revenue-sharing fallback.

BYU got more than a $100,000 subsidy and help covering a sizable ticket commitment from the Mountain West Conference and still couldn't make ends meet in last year's Motor City Bowl. "If it costs you a half-million dollars to go to a bowl game -- and that's on the low end -- and you tack on a $600,000-$800,000 ticket and sponsorship requirement, you've got to come up with $1.3 million simply to come out even," Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson says. "You do the math: $1.3 million in expenses and a $750,000 payout. It doesn't work. ... When you frame that against (pressures to achieve) gender equity, schools having to drop sports, that half-million dollars is very needed."

Big schools get bulk of profits

Bowl payouts actually go to the conferences. They, in turn, slice varying amounts off the top to cover teams' expenses, frequently absorb some or all of the teams' unused tickets, then pool the profits and divide them among their member schools.

Under the Big East Conference's plan, Boston College drew a flat $1.2 million to cover the substantial cost of playing this Christmas Day in Honolulu and later will collect another $2 million or so in shared revenue.

"The way we split the money, you can go to these games and stay solvent," says BC athletic director Gene DeFilippo, alluding to the Aloha's $750,000 payout. "If we were a non-BCS league," he concedes, "it would be difficult."

The six conferences that run the Bowl Championship Series have, in its three years of existence, filled all but one of its berths, worth $11 million to $13 million a team. The one that got away was this season's Fiesta claimed by Notre Dame, which is independent of the conferences but is a partner in the BCS.

Including other bowls, the BCS conferences take 94% of postseason profits.

The BCS shares nominal amounts of its largesse, ranging from $300,000 to $800,000 per non-BCS conference. But that averages out to less than $74,000 for each of those leagues' member schools, and their bowl tie-ins and payouts are far more modest.

In several cases, those lower-tier leagues help sustain affiliated bowls to ensure their top teams have a postseason place to play. The Western Athletic Conference says it is able to ensure that its schools don't lose money. The Mountain West tries to do the same, though BYU's losses were too steep to make up.

As the Cougars' Hale points out, "Every one of us is faced with the prospect of going to a bowl game and losing money."

Much as he and everybody else at Brigham Young pulled for coach LaVell Edwards to retire in style at the end of this year, there's an all-too-obvious upside to the Cougars' disappointing 6-6 record and quiet postseason at home. No bowl means no risk of financial hit. Not coincidentally, Hale projects a surplus.

"I think we always want to be in a bowl," he says. "But wearing my athletic director's hat, balancing the budget, my job is a little easier when we don't. That's the irony of the whole thing."

He is disturbed enough to call for the NCAA to address the issue as part of a pending in-depth examination of the entire sport. As yet, the agenda for that study is not set. The disparity also feeds calls, predominantly in less wealthy conferences, for a major college playoff, valued in a recent proposal at more than $3 billion over eight years.

"How do we fix something that's really not fixable?" says Utah athletic director Chris Hill, one of those playoff proponents. "Sometimes you level the old piece of property and build a new building because it's better."

Daniel Fulks, who oversees the accounting program at Transylvania (Ky.) University and conducts a biennial study of college athletic finances for the NCAA, downplays bowl losses. "It doesn't matter to me that BYU lost a quarter of million dollars," Fulks says. "You have to look beyond the bottom line of the athletic department. Look at the institution's overall budget. A quarter of a million dollars to BYU is unimportant."

Put that quarter-million loss in the context of BYU's athletic budget of approximately $15 million, however, and the bite is more noticeable.

And Fulks acknowledges the monetary disparity "between the haves and the have-nots" is a problem. The three biggest financial winners of the '99 bowl season, in terms of profits, were Virginia Tech ($2.22 million), which played in the championship-deciding Sugar Bowl; Alabama ($1.82 million), which played in the Orange; and Tennessee ($629,700), in the Fiesta.

Teams in such BCS bowls tend to live higher, spending more freely in the week they bunk in New Orleans or Miami or Tempe, Ariz., or Pasadena, Calif. Those teams' expenses went up 19% in the last two years, from an average of $1.37 million to $1.64 million.

Last year, non-BCS teams cut spending almost 6% to an average of $874,000.

Taking the bus to the postseason

Take Utah's approach. Hill put in a call to opposing Fresno State before last year's Las Vegas Bowl, suggesting a joint effort to hold down costs.

"I said, 'Hey, let's only spend this much a day,' he recalls. "I didn't want to do anything at all to hurt the players' experience or make them feel they weren't rewarded. It was, 'What can we reasonably do so we have a good experience but not spend money silly?'"

Utah trimmed its traveling party and sent its band to Las Vegas via bus rather than plane. The Utes came out almost $264,000 ahead on the game.

On average, transportation accounts for $264,005, or a little more than a quarter of a school's bowl costs -- roughly what the average Division I-A institution spends on its women's tennis program. Meals and lodging account for $319,799, or about a third of the total cost of an appearance -- a little more than a full season's worth of expenses for the average men's soccer program.

There's also:

Entertainment. Texas dropped $68,435 in the week leading up to the Cotton Bowl, in part on 100 tickets (at $60 apiece) to a performance by comic Jeff Foxworthy and another 100 tickets (at $30-40 apiece) to a Dallas Stars hockey game.

Awards. Virginia Tech spent $171,046 on remembrances of its Sugar Bowl appearance last January.

Salary bonuses, which nearly all schools write into coach contracts, often trickle through staff. A survey conducted by Wisconsin last year found that head coaches' bonuses ranged from a month's pay to $100,000 for a BCS appearance to four months' pay for winning the national title. Frank Beamer's new contract at Virginia Tech awards him $200,000 for getting to a BCS game and $100,000 for any other bowl.

And finally, among big-ticket expenses, there are the tickets themselves. Bowls typically make conferences or teams responsible for anywhere from 5,000 to more than 20,000 tickets. Few sell them all.

BYU's big deficit, for example, was swelled by 12,923 unsold tickets. Colorado was left with 7,325 unfilled seats valued at $329,625. "People understand the transportation and institutional decisions on taking the team and staff vs. the band and cheerleaders," says Keith Martin, the NCAA's director of finance and business, who works closely with the association's Football Certification Subcommittee. "But the one that caught the committee's attention was tickets." The NCAA is cracking down on the ticket requirement, putting in place rules where bowls could be decertified if they fail to sell enough tickets on their own.

Too many bowls

The NCAA's primary motivation is holding down the growing number of bowls, which is close to outstripping the number of eligible teams. Last season there were 56 teams eligible for bowls and 46 berths. This year, there were 61 eligible teams and 50 slots.

But the NCAA ticket sales requirement also is a means of compelling the bowls to bear their fair share of ticket-sales responsibility.

"We want to see some indication that a bowl is doing a good job with local ticket sales," Martin says. "Most successful bowls, they're working year-round. They have a good number of tickets sold before the game has even been announced."

Outside of that, and keeping some kind of lid on the number of games, the NCAA isn't likely to poke into the affairs of the bowls or their entrants. If, indeed, there are concerns that almost half the games turn out to be money losers for their participating schools, "those are issues best discussed at the conference level," Griffin says.

As for gutting or replacing the bowl system with a playoff, that avenue appears closed until at least 2007, after the BCS contract with ABC expires. A formal playoff is widely opposed by university presidents.

"It's not going to change," the Mountain West's Thompson says. "So we do the best that we can." Make no mistake: Money-maker or money-loser, everybody still wants to land in a bowl. With most bowls comes a week of basking in a warm-weather setting. National TV exposure. Recruiting leverage. Additional practice time that non-bowl teams don't get, and with that a head start on the following season.

Most schools see money spent on bowls as an investment.

"For the money, could you buy that kind of exposure on national television? And the warm, fuzzy feeling it gives alumni? That's the way you try to rationalize losing money," says Marshall coach Bob Pruett, whose team is back in the Pontiac, Mich., bowl to play Cincinnati on Wednesday. "I'm not saying it's right. But it's a big plus. Enrollment goes up. Giving to the university goes up all over. It certainly helps us in recruiting. It's a plus-plus-plus."

During the '90s, when Marshall moved to NCAA's big-time Division I-A and played in its first three bowls, out-of-state enrollment swelled 37% and undergraduate enrollment rose 21%. Virginia Tech similarly saw a 12% surge in freshman admission applications in the wake of last season's 11-1 record and Sugar Bowl appearance. While school officials there, such as those at Marshall, don't credit it all to football, they acknowledge it had an "impact."

Even through the cloud of a quarter-million-dollar bowl loss, BYU's Hale recognizes that intangible value. "You can't afford to miss out on a bowl opportunity, from a PR standpoint and a recruiting standpoint and a prestige standpoint. If you're not a bowl team, it hurts you," he says.

"But it's sure tough when you know you're going to come home in the red."

Comment from the judge, Kevin Sherrington: Maybe the best story in all categories. Interesting topic, well-researched and presented in perspective both large and small. Rare to get the big picture as well as the small one. Teams sometimes do better not to go to bowls, at least from a financial standpoint. And it was interesting to see what Texas spent on hockey games and tickets to see a redneck comic the week before the Cotton Bowl.

Second place: Dennis Dodd, CBS SportsLine
Third place: Adam Thompson, Denver Post
Honorable mention: Ted Miller, Seattle Post-Intelligencer