Pay for play: Ugly football games serve more purpose than entertainment
In the last two years, the Elon University football team has played Atlantic Coast Conference opponents University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Georgia Tech on opening weeks of the season. Combined, Elon gave up 132 points to the two schools in a 62-0 loss to North Carolina and a 70-0 loss to Georgia Tech.
Both games were televised, so Elon scored a grand total of zero points in front of its biggest audiences of the respective seasons two years in a row while taking a beating from the Tar Heels and Yellow Jackets. But Elon didn’t leave Chapel Hill and Atlanta empty-handed.
In what has become a rapidly growing trend of late, Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) teams, such as Elon, have come accustomed to scheduling games against Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams year in and year out. Why? Because teams in the FBS like Georgia Tech and North Carolina pay teams like Elon to come play, and therein lies the reason fans see so many lopsided games.
Most FCS teams know they don’t belong on the field with an FBS program, but the payout is worth the trip, even if just to play on a major stage one time a season.
In 2012, North Carolina paid Elon $350,000 to play one game in Chapel Hill. This year, Elon picked up a $275,000 check for its trip to Georgia Tech Aug. 31.
But Elon and FCS schools are not the only ones that benefit from the FCS/FBS matchup.
“Scheduling has become a science,” said Tony Weaver, associate professor of sport and event management at Elon. “You want to have home dates if you’re a big school. At these bigger schools in the Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC, it’s not trying to get six or seven home games. What they’re looking at is trying to get eight or nine home games because that extra home game can be a few million dollars worth of revenue. To do that, sometimes you play an FCS school.”
In 1997, 77 percent of FBS teams played a full schedule against other FBS programs. This season, just 15 percent of FBS programs in the country are playing a full FBS schedule, with the other 85 percent playing at least one FCS school at some point this year. These “guarantee games” have become a staple for teams in both the FBS and FCS in recent years and both programs involved are reaping the benefits.
What’s a “guarantee game?”
Teams like Elon, McNeese State University and North Dakota State University are FCS members that play other Div. I-AA FCS teams most weeks of the season. They’re not on the same playing field rules-wise with FBS teams because FCS teams are only allowed 63 scholarship players, 22 less than FBS schools, and don’t attract the same “big time” athletes FBS schools do.
When these FCS teams play Div. I-A FBS teams like Georgia Tech or North Carolina, it’s fun for fans to see how their teams match up against the big-time schools. But it’s not a yearly matchup like a conference game or rivalry game. These are “guarantee games,” and the money that goes to the FCS schools for playing these games is guaranteed no matter the result.
The same process applies to lower-tier FBS schools.
“If an FBS school is going to play another FBS school and they’re not going to do a home-and-home and not going to set up a multi-year contract, they’ll get a guarantee in some cases,” Weaver said. “And sometimes, it can be as high as $900,000. FCS schools against FBS schools use this same model to set up games.”
While the payouts don’t run quite as high for FCS schools as they might for lower-tier FBS opponents, that is the format for Elon or McNeese State when they play against teams like Georgia Tech and North Carolina.
This season, the University of South Florida hosted McNeese State on the opening week of the season and fell to the visitors 53-21. Not only did McNeese State get a win against a power six conference school, but it went home with $400,000 from the game, according to Brian Siegrist, an associate director of athletics in charge of communications at South Florida.
“McNeese State was compensated $400,000 and 500 complimentary tickets for the game on Aug. 31,” Siegrist said. “This is fairly standard compensation for large FBS institutions for scheduling non-conference opponents in a guarantee game and not a home-and-home series.”
That check would have gone home with McNeese State regardless of whether the score held at 53-21 or whether it was a 76-0 score going the other way.
Though not an FCS school, Florida A&M University is a lower-tier FBS school that took on Ohio State University Sept. 21. The Rattlers were upended in Ohio Stadium, the home of the Buckeyes, 76-0. In return, Florida A&M took home a $900,000 check from Columbus, Ohio.
“The Florida A&M overall budget is just over $10 million,” Weaver said. “That one day, they were able to supplement 10 percent of their budget in one game. Now they got killed. It wasn’t a good game. But they were able to essentially find 10 percent of their budget in that one day. That one payout is more than anything else they’ll raise the entire year in terms of ticketing, fundraising, concessions and merchandise.”
Balancing and funding the budget is not an easy thing to do for small FBS schools and FCS schools. Playing top-tier Div. I schools can help balance the budget and fund the athletic program for the year, but there are other factors to consider.
Funding the small budget
With just 15 percent of FBS schools playing a full FBS schedule this season, the stat proves there are ample opportunities for FCS teams to play a guarantee game, if not two. With the payout in return, playing more than one game against FBS schools can go a long way toward funding the budget, but is it worth the chance of getting beaten badly on a big stage and hurting the brand your program has built?
“It depends on how much the FCS program counts on the guarantee game to supplement their budget,” Weaver said. “Some schools don’t necessarily believe in having that many guarantee games because the reality is, if an FCS program is going to go on the road and play all these FBS schools, chances are you’re going to lose. Regardless of what we hear in the media of one FCS school beating someone, the reality is most times, you’re going to lose these games. In some cases, you’re going to lose them really, really badly, and it can get ugly.”
As hard as it is to generate funds for an athletic program that does not have a 100,000-seat stadium like Ohio State or the University of Michigan, payout games against FBS schools are sometimes the driving force behind adequately funding the entire athletic department budget for the year, even if the price they pay is embarrassment at the hands of a larger program.
To determine if a team needs more than one matchup against an FBS team with a payout, the revenue streams each school has are examined and estimates are made as to how much the department will receive from each. These streams include, but are not limited to, ticket sales, merchandise, fundraising, concessions and parking fees.
“It’s really a philosophy,” Weaver said. “These games can get ugly sometimes and that’s never good. For most coaches and most athletic directors, if you’re going to play a guarantee game, play one, maybe two, but then that’s it. Some schools, however, because their budget is so depleted, this becomes their biggest revenue generator, so they’ll try to go find more games with teams that will pay out a bigger guarantee.”
There’s also the chance, though it’s slim, for FCS programs to beat FBS programs, and the frequency of these upsets has increased in recent memory. This season, 31 games were played between FBS and FCS schools during the opening week of the season. Of those games, eight FCS teams came out victorious. Some of the victories were surprise upsets, too, as Eastern Washington University topped No. 25 Oregon State University 49-46 and North Dakota State beat reigning Big 12 champion Kansas State University, 24-21.
The most known and renowned FBS/FCS upset is Appalachian State University, currently a member of the Southern Conference with Elon, defeating Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich. in 2007. At the time, Michigan was No. 5 in the country.
“A lot of times, coaches will look at whether they have a chance at beating that team on a given day,” Weaver said. “If they do, or they think they could be competitive with them, maybe they’ll take a little less of a pay to go play there versus going to play a team like [the University of] Texas and getting a bigger payout but knowing you might not beat them. If you played Texas 20 times as an FCS school, you probably won’t beat them once. I know Appalachian State beat Michigan and everybody holds onto that, but the reality is if you’re going to go play Ohio State or a Michigan or a Michigan State [University], year in and year out, those programs are going to be really good football programs so that’s going to be harder to do.”
According to Weaver, with Elon being an FCS program, the program’s biggest stream of revenue internally is money coming from the university, including student fees and tuition.
“Certainly the biggest thing is allocated money from the university, so student fees and tuition dollars are a big part of how Elon funds its program because if you look around, there’s not a lot of revenue streams in Elon’s department,” he said. “That’s just like a lot of other schools. A lot of times, schools are supported through university allocated dollars through tuition and student fees.”
Because Elon is a private institution, the athletic department is not required to release monetary information like how revenues for the department are used. Elon athletics declined to comment when asked about the department’s budget.
While Elon wouldn’t disclose details, Weaver said while every athletic department is different, the revenues brought in for the one guaranteed game Elon played are most likely spread through the department and not just allocated for football.
“Let’s say you have a football program and a men’s basketball program. Sometimes, those programs will make money. But for the most part, even those programs at this level lose money,” Weaver said. “So what the money and revenue goes to from the guarantee games, it usually goes to pay out some of those expenses. In some cases, it’s to the actual team, so sometimes to the football team and their actual expenses. A lot of cases, it would get spread out across the entire athletic department.”
While similar factors to consider ring true for FBS athletic programs, the process is quite different.
Balancing a large budget
For FBS budgets like programs like Ohio State and Texas, more factors come into play than where the next revenue source is coming from.
According to USA Today, only 23 of the 228 athletic departments in Div. I, which includes both FBS and FCS schools, generated enough money in 2012 to internally fund the entire department.
To arrange payout games such as FBS/FCS games, athletic departments look at the home games on their schedule and determine, based on how much they bring in from each revenue source per game, how much they can afford to pay a team to come play a game. In the case of the University of Iowa, the department examined the revenue streams based on its past home games and scheduled from there.
“We base our budget on having seven home games, and we make our money at home games from ticket sales, seat licenses, concessions and parking fees,” said Mark Abbott, an associate director of athletics at Iowa. “That money pays the guarantees and for a big chunk of our annual budget.”
Iowa, in turn, determined it could pay a school like Northern Illinois University to come play a game, which resulted in a loss for Iowa and a payout of $700,000 in the hands of the Northern Illinois athletic department.
A fellow conference opponent of Iowa is Ohio State, who, according to ElevenWarriors.com, makes “upwards of $6 million each game in Ohio Stadium.” That allowed them to pay $3.1 million to three non-conference opponents combined this season.
“Whatever a bigger school pays, they’re still going to make a significant amount of money,” Weaver said. “What they’ll do is they’ll look at how much money is coming in on game day, including television, fundraising, ticket sales, merchandise, parking, concessions, everything. In some cases, if you look at Ohio State for example, a home game day is around $6 million in revenue. So when they go ahead and pay somebody $700,000, $800,000, $900,000, that’s still a good net for them in addition to other expenses they have, but what you’re looking at is still a good payday for the opponent.”
A big part of the revenue coming into larger FBS schools is the money from television deals. Oregon State’s Reser Stadium is considered a smaller stadium at the FBS level, as it only holds 45,674 spectators at capacity. But according to Steve Fenk, the associate athletic director in charge of athletic communications at Oregon State, that doesn’t have as much of a say in how much the school can pay out because of TV deals in the Pac-12.
“Oregon State, which mind you has a smallish FBS stadium, grosses about $1.3 million per home game,” Fenk said. “That does not include TV money that we receive.”
According to USA Today, Pac-12 schools will receive about $30 million a year from TV deals. Only $21 million of that from FOX and ESPN is guaranteed. That’s more than enough to cover guarantee games for a few seasons.
So the total paid out on a given Saturday to an FCS school is just a small chunk in the grand scheme of things for the overall athletic budget, but it can be a huge deal for schools like Eastern Washington or Elon.
“It depends on a lot of factors, but the idea that $200,000, $300,000, $400,000 to a school like Elon or a smaller FBS school, it can be a good size of money that goes into the revenue,” Weaver said.
But with conference expansion and reshuffling taking place the last few years, the formation of larger power conferences, the strive for the best possible competition level on the field and the four-team playoff system for FBS schools on the horizon, there’s a wonder if FBS/FCS games could disappear.
The underdog’s future
Records are everything for coaches, for players, for fans and for administration at all levels. A 10-2 record screams out more success than a 6-6 or 7-5 mark. While all three records will usually earn a team bowl eligibility at the FBS level, the draw of double-digit wins is far more appealing for everyone than going 9-3.
That’s a fact not far off coaches’ and athletic directors’ radars, and the records can be helped by scheduling FCS opponents that should be easy wins.
Earlier this year, the Big Ten elected to consider stopping the scheduling of FCS opponents in the future as non-conference opponents, starting as soon as the 2015 season. The conference also decided to move to a nine-game conference schedule, giving each team three non-conference matchups per year down from four.
“They can say they want to start doing away with them and that’s fine because they’re going to add another conference game. They’ll go from eight to nine conference games,” Weaver said. “The problem with nine conference games is essentially, now everybody beats each other in the Big Ten. Now, you have nine really tough games out of a 12-game schedule. Now, those other three games become really important. What coaches want to do, in terms of job security, is add three wins, get to a bowl game and keep their jobs. You don’t want to give those three games away. So it’s a balance. There’s a thought that these guarantee games would go away, but if they go away, you have to understand that now your schedule gets tougher.”
The nine-game conference schedule is something the ACC was going to do, but it decided to stick with the eight-game schedule before the 2013 season began. This left multiple teams in a tight situation and in search of games at the last second.
“Georgia Tech is playing two FCS teams, something we prefer not to do and only did because of an odd sequence,” said Dean Buchan, the assistant director of athletics in charge of media relations at Georgia Tech. “A couple of years ago, the ACC moved to increase the number of conference games from eight, as it has been for many years, to nine. Thinking we were going to play nine conference games in 2013, we had to actually cancel or postpone games with non-conference opponents. Before the nine-game ACC schedule was put in place, the schools opted to return to the eight-game ACC schedule. This means every school in the conference had to scramble to find opponents — opponents that were willing to play on the road with no expectation of a return game.”
Playing multiple FCS schools in a season is not beneficial to FBS programs. Six wins in a season are needed to become bowl eligible, but only one of those wins can come against an FCS opponent. Playing and beating two FCS opponents means the team has to finish with a 7-5 record to make the postseason, meaning one win over an FCS team was no more than a scrimmage and a couple million dollars brought into the athletic department. That’s not ideal for teams to have to get another win in an already short season.
This season in the ACC, three teams were backed into a bind and forced to schedule more than one FCS school. Georgia Tech took on Elon early and will take on Alabama A&M University later this season.
Florida State University and Clemson University were forced to play two FCS opponents this season as well, which is not ideal when battling for a spot in the national championship game as Florida State and Clemson are, given their respectable rankings.
While the ACC is not looking to give the matchups against FCS opponents away at the moment, the effect the games will have on the four-team college playoff, which will start next season, is still to be determined. The Big Ten is seemingly attempting to get a head start on scheduling to favor the playoff draw while making it seem as if the competition on the field is what matters most.
“We’ll see how the playoff affects all of this,” Weaver said. “If schools get rewarded for a tough non-conference schedule, then you’ll see the guarantee games kind of go away. If they get rewarded for going undefeated and we don’t really think about strength of schedule, then you’ll see the guarantee games stay. But to give away the guarantee games is dangerous. There is the talk about getting away from these guarantee games, but the reality is, what do you replace them with? If you replace them with a conference game or a tougher FBS team, there’s a chance you’re going to lose that game. Most coaches don’t like the sound of that.”
That’s just the thing of it. College athletics is a business, and sometimes people forget that. Teams are funded based on concessions, parking fees, ticket sales, TV deals and payouts from other programs. If the department fails to bring in the revenue necessary for the program, sports get cut and coaches get fired. The chunk of change Elon brings in from one game at the beginning of the football season goes a long way toward funding the athletic budget for the year, even if the final score doesn’t seem worth it to the average eye of the fans. Both FBS and FCS programs are just as mutually beneficial, just in entirely different ways.
“It’s like any other business. Sometimes people forget college athletics is no different than a business,” Weaver said. “You still have to manage your expenses and understand where your revenues are coming from. Turning a profit isn’t that hard if they know how to manage budgets correctly. Elon going to get beat 70-0 isn’t as bad for the school as everyone thinks. Good things come back from that.”
So maybe it is the fans who suffer most from their team’s 70-0 blowout against a far superior opponent. But the payout for the FCS school is worth the bad loss, and the payday for the FBS school is worth giving up a small sum after all is said and done because of the larger numbers gained on any given game day. It becomes the fans’ jobs to know that a game against a lower or higher opponent is a vital aspect to the rest of the season. It’s all the cost of doing business.