The Gophers have spent three weeks listening to people say 5-7 teams don’t belong in bowl games, that the bowl system is broken and this finally is the tipping point.
Leave that debate to someone else, the Gophers say. They are in Detroit to win a football game, hoping to end a seven-game bowl losing streak.
Win or lose, the school itself can keep a separate streak intact: its run of six-figure profits in bowl games.
A Star Tribune review of the University of Minnesota’s expenses on its past three bowls shows the program made money on each. So the Gophers are not only talking excitedly about this trip to play Central Michigan on Monday in the Quick Lane Bowl. They are doing it up again, their marching band in tow, with intentions of making another profit.
Last year, the Gophers spent more than $1.7 million — including $459,309 on transportation and meals for their band and cheerleaders, a group of 371 people — on their trip to Orlando for the Citrus Bowl. But those expenses were all covered, and then some, by the Big Ten, which acts as a colossal Santa Claus, showering its member schools in bowl money each holiday season.
Five years ago, Connecticut went to the Fiesta Bowl for a celebrated Bowl Championship Series matchup against Oklahoma, only to sustain a reported $1.8 million loss, mostly because UConn sold only a portion of its 17,500 allotted tickets.
It’s still not a perfect system. Central Michigan, of the Mid-American Conference, has lost money on recent bowl appearances, including last year’s trip to the Bahamas Bowl.
But the Power Five conference schools (Big Ten, ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC) are swimming in so much bowl cash now that there is practically no financial danger for their schools in accepting bowl bids.
Each year, these conferences set aside a large travel stipend for each school to use to cover bowl expenses. The Big Ten gave the Gophers $1.5 million for the 2012 Meineke Car Care Bowl in Houston; $1.5 million for the 2013 Texas Bowl, also in Houston; and $2 million for last season’s trip to the Citrus Bowl. The conference pays that full amount whether the schools spend it all or not.
The Big Ten also covers each school’s unsold ticket allotment. That was particularly helpful for the Gophers in Houston. In 2013 the Gophers had $512,515 in unsold tickets — all covered by Santa.
The NCAA makes each bowl team fill out an annual Summary of Postseason Football Institutional Bowl Expenses. The Star Tribune obtained those documents for the Gophers’ past three bowl trips.
When factoring in the Big Ten subsidies (for travel and unsold tickets), here are the bottom lines for the Gophers:
• In 2012, they had $1,668,889 in expenses for the Meineke Car Care Bowl — and still netted $328,741.
• In 2013, they had $1,825,013 in expenses for the Texas Bowl — and still netted $187,013.
• In 2014, they had $1,744,147 in expenses for the Citrus Bowl — and still netted $359,448.
“The Big Ten does some proactive work to make sure [costs are covered],” said Tom McGinnis, the Gophers chief financial officer. “They don’t want people feeling like these bowls are losses for them.”
The Gophers’ travel party for the Citrus Bowl swelled to 775, up from 709 and 635 for their previous two bowls.
“The fact that we were in a New Year’s Day bowl for the first time since the 1960s, going up against a marquee opponent [Missouri], there was a lot of excitement for Gopher football,” McGinnis said.
For the Quick Lane Bowl, the Big Ten is giving the Gophers a $1.2 million travel stipend, McGinnis said. Travel costs will be considerably less than the Citrus Bowl expenses, in part because the band is busing, not flying, to Detroit.
“As we always are, we’re being very cognizant of costs with regard to this bowl,” Gophers associate athletic director Chris Werle said.
Sharing more money
Big Ten schools don’t even have to reach a bowl to make multiple millions this time of year. Each bowl has a payout for teams — the Quick Lane Bowl payout is $1.2 million, the Citrus Bowl is $4.25 million, etc. The Big Ten pools that money, subtracts the expense stipends and ticket allotment reimbursements, and then spreads the money around the conference.
Nebraska, Rutgers and Maryland, relative newcomers to the conference, don’t have full shares yet. But the 11 other Big Ten schools, including Minnesota, each made an additional $4.5 million in bowl revenue sharing last year.
That was up from $2.26 million two years ago and $2.75 million last year, in the final two years of the BCS. Last year was the first year of the four-team College Football Playoff, which ESPN paid $470 million to televise, just for the first year of a 12-year deal.
Each of the Power Five conferences will get at least $51 million in CFP revenue to distribute to their schools this year. The Big Ten will get an additional $6 million with Michigan State in the playoff, plus $4 million apiece for its two teams — Iowa (Rose Bowl) and Ohio State (Fiesta Bowl) — in other “New Year’s Six” bowls.
Last year, the Big Ten had two teams in New Year’s Six bowls (Ohio State and Michigan State). So the conference’s full bowl revenue share figures to increase above last year’s $4.5 million mark, for Minnesota and the other schools.
Central Michigan’s view
The revenue story changes outside the Power Five, of course. Dave Heeke, Central Michigan’s athletic director, said the MAC covered $500,000 of the school’s expenses for last year’s Bahamas Bowl, and will cover $250,000 of the expenses for the Quick Lane Bowl.
Heeke acknowledged the school loses money on these bowl games.
“Yeah, there’s no question it’s a university investment,” he said. “But we think it’s a very reasonable investment, one that does pay dividends.”
The announced attendance at last year’s Bahamas Bowl was a mere 13,667. But the game between Central Michigan and Western Kentucky drew a 1.1 rating on ESPN, which is the equivalent of 1.5 million viewers. For comparison, ESPN drew 1.1 million viewers for its 2013 Major League Baseball Opening Day clash between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, according to USA Today.
“You couldn’t buy that type of exposure,” Heeke said. “When we talk about making an investment, you’re buying that exposure to a degree.”
The Detroit Lions own the Quick Lane Bowl. ESPN owns and operates 13 bowls itself, including the New Mexico Bowl and Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
“As a fan, I agree, there’s too many bowl games, but people keep tuning in,” said AJ Maestas, president of Navigate Research, which measures the impact of marketing investments. “If fans really felt there were too many bowl games, they’d stop watching.”
Last year’s Quick Lane Bowl between Rutgers and North Carolina drew an announced 23,876 to Ford Field, but the national TV rating was 1.8, which equates to about 2.87 million viewers.
On Monday, the Gophers and Central Michigan will kick off at 4 p.m., on ESPN2. Is that a favorable time slot for TV ratings?
“A better question would be, what else can they show that day?” Maestas said. “What is there to watch on Dec. 28? A lot of people are on vacation over the holidays. A lot of people are not working normal hours.”
Even if there is passing interest nationally, Gophers bowl games have resonated locally. More than 312,000 in the Twin Cities market tuned in to the Gophers vs. Syracuse in the 2013 Texas Bowl, and nearly 740,000 viewers locally, a 51 percent audience share, watched the Gophers play Missouri on ABC in January’s Citrus Bowl.
Too many bowls?
Craig Thompson is a Minnesota graduate and commissioner of the Mountain West Conference, giving him an influential voice in the discussion about whether college football has gone too far with 40 bowls.
Thompson doesn’t begrudge the Gophers for accepting their Quick Lane Bowl bid, despite their 5-7 record. In fact, his own conference sent a 5-7 team (San Jose State) to the New Mexico Bowl.
But Thompson believes this could be a one-year phenomenon.
“Definitely, the Mountain West is in the future not supportive of 5-7 teams [making bowls], and 6-6 could be a long debate internally,” Thompson told the Star Tribune. “I think it’s something that all 10 [Football Bowl Subdivision] leagues are going to have to sit down and say, ‘What are we trying to accomplish here?’ ”
ACC Commissioner Jon Swofford has said his athletic directors would prefer teams be at least 7-5 to be bowl-eligible.
No 5-7 team ever had made a bowl game before this year. With 80 spots to fill, the NCAA needed three of them and based the selection on the teams’ latest Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores. Missouri turned down a bid, but Nebraska, the Gophers and San Jose State gladly accepted.
“The members are going to have to figure out: What’s the purpose of bowl games?” NCAA President Mark Emmert told reporters. “Is it a reward for a successful season, or is it just another game that we’re going to provide an opportunity for?”
Central Michigan went 6-6 two years ago yet was one of nine qualified teams nationally that weren’t invited to a bowl that season. At the time there were 35 bowls, which was up from 18 in 1995. There were 39 bowl games last year, and the Arizona Bowl, with its Mountain West tie-in, was added this year to make it an even 40.
“I can’t be a hypocrite,” Thompson said. “People say, ‘Why’d you start that game in Tucson, Thompson? There may not be enough teams.’
“We’re all going to have to sit and address it. Are 5-7 teams truly deserving to be in bowl games? This year we said they were, mostly because we didn’t want bowls to go dark. I don’t know if that’ll be the same answer in 2016.”
Regardless, the Gophers and other Big Ten teams keep making money on bowl games, whether they are playing the Rose Bowl in Pasadena or in a half-empty stadium in Detroit.