Posted by Adam Jacobi
It's not exactly news that the bowl system is not set up with the invited teams' best financial interests in mind. Every year, there are numerous stories from the teams invited to minor bowls about how the athletic department actually lost money (or, at the very least, made a few thousand dollars), and the story is so commonplace that it doesn't make national headlines.
In fact, the West Virginia Mountaineers recently announced that the program made a $144,750 profit on its trip to the Champs Sports Bowl back in December. And as non-BCS bowls are concerned, in actuality, that level of profit is actually pretty solid.
And yet, at the same time, the question has to be asked: how in the world does under $150,000 qualify as an unusually positive outcome for a bowl invitation? The Charleston Gazette wondered exactly that, and it wasn't exactly impressed with the answers:
Considering the current bowl setup, West Virginia officials did well. They were thrilled.
"The interesting thing," said WVU deputy athletic director Mike Parsons, "is our ticket sales didn't meet what we've had in the past, but we still turned a profit."
It's a point of pride, as it should be. According to [the book Death to the BCS], "nearly 60 percent of schools spend more money to participate in bowls than the games offer in payouts."
Consider the situation. WVU's athletic department funded this expensive football team. It took that team to another city to make money for that city and ESPN; it entertained the nation; and it walked away with $144,750. There are incentive bonuses in coach Dana Holgorsen's new contract that pay more.
But there was also the expense of unsold or, as Parsons said is more correctly, "absorbed" tickets.
The bowl cartel, in this instance, persuaded the Big East and Atlantic Coast conferences to agree that their representatives would be "responsible for" 12,500 tickets each. Parsons said his school sold but 4,700 tickets. It had to buy around 500 tickets for the band. (You read correctly. Not only do the schools' bands provide halftime entertainment, they have to pay to do so.) Schools are allowed to, and expected to, provide tickets for players' families. Parsons said that accounted for over 800 tickets to the Champs bowl. (Odd to me for 85 scholarship players, but ... ) He said 200-400 tickets are for the department's staff.
I suspect the reason the bowls are allowed to continue offloading the risk of running a bowl onto the participants is that going to a bowl is a near-universal bonus for a football team. And that's not from a prestige or financial perspective; donors barely care about minor bowls and as the aforementioned book pointed out, most schools lose money by going to bowl games. No, the primary benefit is one codified by the NCAA, which states that teams with bowl bids are allowed several extra weeks of practice in preparation for the final game.
Such a rule makes sense, of course; a 4-8 team has no immediate athletic task in front of it in the middle of December, after all. But it's not as if there's no incentive to keep throwing its kids out into full-contact practice without an opponent to prepare for; all time a coach can get organizing practice helps his team improve, regardless of when in the year the practices happen.
If non-bowl teams were allowed the same practice time as bowl teams, then, it would remove one specific and unfair incentive for teams to accept bowl bids and allow the teams to evaluate whether going to a bowl game or not is in the athletic department's best financial interests. In these tough economic times, it's only fair to afford schools that opportunity without what amounts to an institutional mandate that the teams accept the bowl bid, is it not? Thus, we totally expect the NCAA to reverse course, rule in favor of its schools instead of the bowls and their sponsors, and decide that member teams will not be coerced into losing money by agreeing to ticket guarantees just to attend a bowl game. That's who the NCAA works for, right? The member schools?