College Football's Fleecing of American Universities

How insiders use the bowl system to loot the colleges that support it.

College Football's Fleecing of American Universities
ZumaPress

By the time the 2009 football season rolled around, the University of Minnesota hadn't won a Big 10 title in 42 years. The Gophers had largely spent those decades serving as target practice for the league's higher powers, but they weren't without occasional bursts of second-string glory.

That season Minnesota finished 6-6, collecting the minimum wins needed to earn a slot in the Insight Bowl in Tempe, Arizona.

Their bragging rights would be slender. Every year, 70 of Division I football's 120 teams get bowl invitations, making faceless games like the Insight akin to summer camp participation awards. Minnesota would face Iowa State, another 6-6 team from the Big 12. The teams were charged with providing three hours of TV programming for hard-core fans and shut-ins just before New Year's. The ratings would be measured in decimal points.

Minnesota's 2009 trip to the Insight Bowl didn't break the school's bank -- unless you count all the money administrators left on the table.
NEWSCOM
Minnesota's 2009 trip to the Insight Bowl didn't break the school's bank -- unless you count all the money administrators left on the table.
A visit to Tempe for the Insight Bowl is good for the mascots, but bad for their schools' bottom lines.
NEWSCOM
A visit to Tempe for the Insight Bowl is good for the mascots, but bad for their schools' bottom lines.

But within the Minnesota football offices in Minneapolis, there was cause for celebration, however muted. Though the game orbited well outside the realm of consequence, it was still a chance to reward players, boast to recruits, liquor up boosters and feed a small army of university suits with a paid vacation in the Arizona sun.

The accounting office no doubt held a much different view. It surely knew that, like nearly all bowls, the Insight was designed to plunder all it could from the college treasury.

The bloodbath began the moment the contract was signed. Minnesota was obligated to write a check for 10,000 tickets, which were supposed to be resold to fans. Never mind that even the best teams struggle to unload such sums. For middling squads like the Gophers, it was nothing more than a way for the men in funny yellow blazers who ran the Insight to grab piles of money from a public university.

Minnesota managed to sell just 901 seats. After kicking another 900 to the band, administrators and cherished hangers-on, the school was forced to eat $476,000 worth of useless tickets. The contract also required the team to show up a week early, if only to burn as much school money as possible at the restaurants and retailers of Greater Phoenix.

One would think school administrators would protest such gall. But one would be wrong. They were quick to see the advantages of a luxury vacation on the school's dime. So they happily signed off.

The school's traveling party was larded up with 722 people, including players, band members and faculty. Airfare alone ran $542,000. Toss in hotels and meals, and the school had blown $1.3 million before the opening kickoff.

The ballsiest part of all: None of it was remotely necessary.

Minnesota and Iowa State sit less than 200 miles apart. Their teams were providing the game; their bands would provide the halftime entertainment. In fact, the Insight offered nothing — save for warm weather — that the schools couldn't have done better themselves. Had the game been played in Minneapolis, the teams could have sold more tickets and put on a profitable game, as Big 10 matches typically generate $1 to $2 million — not knee-bending losses.

Yet none of this was ever considered. Thanks to an alliance of unblushing incompetence and corruption, college football long ago decided to outsource its most valuable asset: its postseason earnings. The scheme plays out each year on the ostensibly pristine fields of amateur athletics. Bowl executives grant themselves breathtaking salaries. The games, meanwhile, provide coaches, athletic directors and the suits who nominally supervise them with an unending stream of bonuses.

And everyone else picks up the tab.


There's a reason cities hosting Super Bowls or rounds of March Madness bid with buffets of giveaways just to land the tourist traffic: If you want a taste, you have to pay.

College football is the only sport that gives away its postseason revenues. Its business model is akin to Walmart keeping its profits for the first 10 months of the year and then letting Value World host its holiday sales.

This is an especially hazardous form of capitalism for the nation's universities, which have been bloodied by ever-diving state funding combined with double-digit tuition hikes. And contrary to popular belief, their athletic departments just widen the damage. Depending upon the year, only about 20 of the 120 athletic departments featuring Division I football actually pay for themselves. The rest require students and taxpayers to ride to the rescue.

Minnesota is typical. From 2006 to 2009, the Gophers went to three Insight Bowls. Their bill for unsold tickets alone was well more than $1 million. At the same time, their athletic department needed a $25 million infusion over five years just to break even.

These kinds of losses could be allayed if college football simply cut out the middlemen — the bowls — and took its post-season in-house by adopting a playoff system. Instead, universities have chosen to hand their money away in a deal that's at best moronic and at worst an epic swindle.

The racket works like this: Through required purchases of anywhere from 10,000 to 17,500 tickets, schools essentially pay for the right to appear in a bowl. The bowls keep the ticket and sponsorship money. Bowl execs also negotiate their own TV contracts.

After taking 50 to 60 percent off the top, the bowls then write checks to the teams' conferences. The conferences, in turn, split that money among their schools. (Profits from the five Bowl Championship Series games are spread to varying degrees among all conferences.)

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30 comments
Whitman1
Whitman1

72 teams went to bowl games this year. There are only 120 teams in Division I or FCS, whatever they are calling it this year. That is basically the beginning of a playoff system. The NCAA basketball tournament begins with 64. However, since the colleges are opposed to a playoff system let's return some sanity to the system. It got so bad they had to pass the six-win rule so teams with losing records couldn't get invitations; if Notre Dame were 3-8 they would still go to a bowl. Many of the teams this year weren't even coached by their head coaches, the coaches either having left for another team or got fired for a bad record (but then they got rewarded with a bowl game). Many teams were putting out minimal effort, refusing to play for assistant coaches and not even having enough pride to play for themselves. Enough.

asu87
asu87

it's just like everything else---follow the money and you find out why something exists. Very interesting article.

If a trend shouldn't continue, it won't. I believe that the bowls (as we know them now) won't exist in 10 years...too bad it's going to take that long for people to come to their senses.

There is a better way to do this....and this better way will be more interesting, provide more occupied seats in stadiums, provide more hotel rooms and restaurant dollars generated, as well as higher television ratings---all of those things drive the dollars that go toward the universities.....

Let's get real and come up with a real plan.

Victor Long
Victor Long

That may well be the coolest thign I have ever seen dude.www.Total-Privacy dot US

Mike
Mike

Almost all the schools in bowls have athletic kingdoms that are self supporting. While maybe you could make a case that more money ought to be coming back from the AD instead of spending every dime, the idea that schools are hurting education by going to bowls is unfounded.

Mike
Mike

The author keeps harping on the ticket sales, but that depends on your alumni. Our school simply tells the alumni to buy the tickets and then we donate them to students or military people at nearby bases to the game looking for a nice way to enjoy the holidays. We found you turn potentially empty seats into screaming cheer sections. In fact, we often oversubscribed. The school gets a big check and we have developed a reputation as a second tier Notre Dame, the unbeatable champion in fan support. That Minnesota could only sell 901 tickets says a lot about pathetic alumni.

Our school would never make the playoffs. Do we just tell the other 50 plus schools in bowls only the top 8 or 4 get to play. We enjoy going to places like San Diego, Orlando, Birmingham, Charlotte, Memphis to get together with other alumni or supporters and have a day long party. Playoffs kill that experience.

Playoffs are for people that do not have a school or cannot get their big, lazy, and getting wider by the day,rear ends off the sofa and support a school.

Guest
Guest

So the alumni are responsible for subsidizing the college going to the bowl game. What a joke! People don't buy the tickets from the school because they can get them cheaper from other places. It's called free enterprise.

Pathetic alumni? Auburn, the national champion, couldn't sell all their tickets. Are their alumni just as pathetic?

Playoffs are for people who want to see a true national champion crowned. Not a champion that is based on computers and voters. The other college football divisions seems to hold a playoff, why can't the FBS.

And based on your logic, the college basketball tournament should be cancelled. It's nothing more than a month-long playoff.

Mike
Mike

If a school cannot get its alumni behind a national championship bid, then I would say that defines pathetic alumni. Of course the alumni support this endeavor as it would other activities. Unless you went to Devry, I hope your participation with your alma mater is more than using it to pick up dates. We all cannot be Boone Pickens, but we can support minor things like spending $50 for a ticket.

How do you get a tournament field without using computers and voters? Isn't that what basketball does? Is the championship awarded based on the final game? Isn't that what basketball does?

Apm74
Apm74

Pathetic alumni are those who choose to spend $250 on a sporting event ticket and then do nothing to support the academic mission of their school. I guess according to your logic, Harvard alumni are pretty pathetic since they'd rather increase their university's endowment than pay for an FBS football program.

Gary
Gary

Good article. SI covered some of this last year also. Hancock embarrasses himself with his paid BCS shilll job. Dan Beebee was the previous BCS whore, and for this alone I'm happy he was booted out of the Big 12.

Jedis54
Jedis54

These bowls are glorified marketing tools for cities. That is all. They have no meaning ever since the creation of the BCS and the BCS Championship game. I figured this out a long time ago when Boise, ID created a bowl game. Who in the hell wants to go to Boise in December? Its all about tourism and teams that "travel" well.

Paul
Paul

Evasion, misdirection and obfuscation ... all necessary for a successful con ...

GusMitchem
GusMitchem

The gen pop wants to tune in right at the end and have teams organized in a pretty clean bracket and crown a champion, it requires less dedication as a fan and makes that water cooler talk accessible for even the biggest idiots. See: Superbowl & March Madness

GusMitchem
GusMitchem

Great, another pro-playoff article to be swallowed up by the masses. The basis "lost" money is crap, thats why there are conferences.The big dogs help the small dogs, a subsidy for filling out the schedule every year with common geographical opponents in the spirit of competition.

$17 or $34M million for two BCS bowls will support lots of trips for Minnesota.

College football is a season long championship not a lets play just good enough to make the playoffs and then see what happens. Besides that if you have a playoff of say 16 teams I can tell you right now the 10-12 teams that will be in it every year on name brand alone, because thats fair too right !

Solesrfr
Solesrfr

Season long championship my foot. If that was the case Alabama would not be in the "championship game". That fact alone proves that not every game counts like the BCS apologists like to shout so loudly.

GusMitchem
GusMitchem

Really, then who should be #2.

Ames Iowa counts too...

Hender328
Hender328

I think another reason that the bowl system is popular is because this allows 35 teams to end the season on a win. It also allows another 10-12 teams that went to bowl and lost to feel goood about the direction in which their program is going .

Hender328
Hender328

I think another reason that the bowl system is popular is because this allows 35 teams to end the season on a win. It also allows another 10-12 teams that went to bowl and lost to feel go about the direction in which their program is going .

Fritz
Fritz

Gee...slaves on a plantation...did you make that up yourself? They choose where they want to go. School is paid for, all the food they can eat at the training table, roof over their head, free clothes, travel etc, and who knows what they get behind the scenes. Yep-sure sounds like slavery.

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Kergo 1 Spaceship

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