College Football's Fleecing of American Universities

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

By comparison, "Most highly efficient charities will spend 75 percent or more," says Megan Davison of CharityWatch, a Chicago group that helps donors find the most effective charities. "A program that spends 60 percent will get a C grade from us."

So what does one receive for donating just 3 percent? "We would give them an F grade and call them pathetic and urge the general public not to support them," says Daniel Borochoff, president of CharityWatch.

But while bowls violate every principle of philanthropy, state and city politicians are happy to look away. The games' non-profit status may allow them to skirt taxes, but they do deliver built-in tourist traffic.

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.

To ensure no one asks too many questions, the bowls fete these same politicians with receptions, comped tickets and sideline passes. The Fiesta Bowl even paid for luxury legislator junkets to cities like Chicago and Boston.

The bowls do their best to cloak this strange approach to philanthropy. Both the Orange and Sugar bowls claim they do wonders for their cities' charities; for reasons unexplained, they just don't include those donations on their books. A Cotton Bowl Classic spokesman stressed the bowl's contributions to higher education.

Even the small number of bowls set up as for-profit enterprises claim to be charitable in spirit.

At the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Houston, one of seven games owned by ESPN, spokesman Zac Emmons is happy to note that $400,000 has been donated to the DePelchin Children's Center over the past five years. He just isn't authorized to reveal what percentage of the game's revenue went to charity — or how much executive director Heather Houston is paid.

And ESPN network publicist Rachel Margolis won't talk numbers either: "We usually don't disclose any information related to revenue or wages for any of our bowls," she says.

Equally trapped in an altruistic mirage is the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco, sponsored by the food giant Kraft. The bowl insinuates that it's part of Kraft's marketing campaign to give away 25 million meals a year.

Spokesman Doug Kelly claims the bowl "donated the equivalent of 120,000 meals" in 2010. That's likely an overstatement. The game's own website says it gives away just one meal per ticket sold, and the Kraft is known for hosting pastures of empty seats.

So it's not surprising that Kelly gets defensive when asked what percentage of the revenue goes to the hungry. "That's proprietary," he responds.

He's politely informed that, as a charity, the bowl is obligated to make such figures public. After all, Sports Business Journal reports that the game's CEO, Gary Cavalli, makes $377,475 a year, likely making him the hungriest of all.

But Kelly is in no mood to provide details of the game's supposed largesse. He suddenly claims that he's been speaking off the record and that he can't be quoted.

The wiser Hancock downplays the beneficence angle, well aware that it's riddled with blather. Instead, he emphasizes the tourism advantages to host cities.

He's right, of course. By forcing schools to write mammoth ticket checks — and contractually coercing teams to stay longer than they need to — bowls do wonders for warm-weather economies.

"There's no question bowl games benefit charities in their community," Hancock says. "From my perspective, the economic development to the community is significant. It's a blend. I think the people who talk about the bowls as nonprofits exclude the economic development end."

Left unmentioned is why University of Missouri students would have wanted to subsidize Tempe when the Tigers played the Insight last year. Or why Washington state residents would have been thrilled to see their tax money burned in San Diego when the Huskies appeared in the Holiday Bowl. That's the problem with the insiders: The system rewards them so lavishly, they simply can't fathom that others might resent paying the freight.


College presidents could easily put a stop to the shell game. If they had the will. Which they don't.

They tend to be a lot like coaches, a job-jumping species forever on the hunt for more prestigious posts. This march to greater altitudes requires staying within the graces of trustees and big donors, who enjoy free bowl vacations as much as everyone else. Besides, many presidents wield less institutional power than their own coaches, as Penn State's pedophilia scandal revealed.

So they behave like congressmen, allowing their schools to be pillaged to preserve their political capital. Better to kick these decisions to athletic directors and conference commissioners.

And that's where the pitfalls begin.

"The bowl directors are a lot smarter than the athletic directors, because anyone who would agree to this deal is getting whomped," says Yahoo! columnist Wetzel.

It's not that A.D.s are necessarily stupid. They're just incurious, and not especially self-aware.

Most have spent years, if not decades, being chummy with bowl execs. When they're invited to events like the Fiesta Frolic, a weekend of splendor and golf in Phoenix — price tag: $387,421 — they don't believe their allegiance is being purchased. It's just a swell time among old friends.

The same goes for the Orange Bowl's Summer Splash events. Last year's featured an "all-inclusive, three-night, four-day complimentary getaway" for 40 insiders and their guests, according to the invitation. They sailed the Caribbean, docked at a private island and spent their days parasailing and "sipping delicious Coco Locos on a hammock." Don't forget the free pedicures.

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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.

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 !

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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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.

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.

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?

GusMitchem
GusMitchem

Really, then who should be #2.

Ames Iowa counts too...

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.

 
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