College Football's Fleecing of American Universities

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

"It's really an opportunity for us to bring key stakeholders together, whether conference people or folks from the schools, to come down to South Florida and to get a taste of what we have to offer," says Orange Bowl vice president Larry Wahl.

Yet he admits his game, part of the BCS series, has to "vie constantly to maintain the position in the BCS. It comes up for renewal every four years." And there's nothing like a free luxury cruise to butter that renewal.

Wetzel contends that athletic directors simply aren't bright enough to know they've been bought, seeing these freebies from friends as just another part of college football's grand tradition. So they're not inclined to get too inquisitive over contracts. And this allows their "friends" to utterly rip them off.


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.

The biggest scam is the bulk ticket purchases. Depending upon the bowl, schools are required to buy anywhere from 10,000 to 17,500 up front. So begins the seasonal hemorrhaging.

The deal starts with a presumption of failure. Even powerhouses like Ohio State rarely sell that many. When the Buckeyes played the Fiesta Bowl in 2009, they failed to sell more than 7,000 seats. Price for this bath: $1 million.

Auburn, last year's national champion, was still stuck with $781,000 in unsold tickets from the title game.

What's worse is that the seats depreciate from the moment of purchase. Though crowds for most games are a smattering of capacity, the schools still pay bloated face-value prices. Their "friends" aren't about to grant them bulk discounts.

So when the colleges can't sell these seats to their fans, the market is flooded with more than 200,000 bowl tickets a year.

Prudent fans of UCLA, for example, know better than to buy hefty-priced seats from the school. After all, a ticket broker will soon be pushing the same seats for dimes on the dollar. StubHub, the online ticket broker, once famously sold tickets to the Music City Bowl in Nashville for just 19 cents.

So while Connecticut may have won the Big East championship last year, it still failed to sell 14,729 seats to the Fiesta Bowl. The bowl charged the Huskies prices ranging from $111 to $268 a ticket. StubHub, meanwhile, was offering them at 20 bucks a pop.

The ticket scheme alone leaves schools awash in red ink. Virginia Tech lost $400,000 on last year's trip to the Orange Bowl — despite getting $1.2 million from the ACC. Though Auburn claimed last season's BCS crown, financial records show it still lost $600,000 — even after a $2.2 million bailout from the Southeastern Conference.

Some bowls have also found a way to scam schools on hotels. Since the bowls usually arrange lodging, athletic directors assume their "friends" are negotiating the best group deals. But that's not always the case.

Under Junker's rule, the Fiesta Bowl required schools to purchase 3,750 room-nights at about $200 a pop. According to the contract, the schools had to pay whether they used them or not.

But what Junker wasn't telling his "friends" was that he'd arranged a side deal with the Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. In exchange for funneling teams to Scottsdale resorts, the city's tourism arm agreed to kick the Fiesta Bowl $8.2 million over the 20-year pact, according to a contract unearthed by the Arizona Republic.

The Sugar Bowl also received "voluntary commissions" from New Orleans hotels. Other bowls have been accused of similar arrangements.


It's nothing more than a massive "money laundering" scheme, says Richard Southall, director of the College Sport Research Institute at the University of North Carolina. That's the only way to describe a system where schools send millions to bowls, then bowls use a fraction of that same money to pay teams for playing.

The problem for college football is that too many people are taking notice.

Consider Taylor Morgan. He's a board member of Playoff PAC, a fan group launched to protest the way the BCS picks title contenders. It's a ubiquitous complaint. One Gallup poll showed that 85 percent of fans favor a playoff system, making bowls slightly more popular than polio.

But Morgan and his friends soon realized the selection process was a minor travesty. More galling was the way bowls grabbed money from everyone in their path.

"These bowls receive millions of dollars in federal and state subsidies," Morgan says. "They don't donate money to their communities. They don't do anything of substance in a charitable sense, other than line the pockets of their friends and executives."

So Playoff PAC posted financial records from bowls and schools for everyone to see. It also began bombing the IRS with complaints that bowls were violating their charitable tax status.

Add in books like Wetzel's Death to the BCS, a step-by-step account of this wholesale soaking, and bowl execs were suddenly being publicly strafed for their sins.

Just a few years ago, these same execs were claiming before Congress that they were legitimate charities. These days, they're being confronted with their own financial reports that say otherwise.

The system's also facing attack on the anti-trust front. Only the six biggest conferences — plus the Notre Dame athletic director — have voting rights within the BCS. The BCS picks the teams for the top five bowls. These six leagues also receive the largest revenue cuts, leaving the five remaining Division I conferences at their mercy.

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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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