A few years ago, the University of Minnesota football teams went to the Insight Bowl. Aren’t you thrilled? If you’re like me, though, you might be wondering what the heck the “Insight Bowl” is: the team had a 6-6 record, which isn’t anything to get excited about, and the bowl doesn’t seem to have any connection to Minnesota or any kind of regional association.
If you’ve also been wondering about the mysterious proliferation of post-season bowl games, you need to read about the economics of the college football bowl system. They’re a big scam, and our athletics administration gets sucked right in.
The racket works like this: Through required purchases of anywhere from 10,000 to 17,500 tickets, schools essentially pay for the right to appear in a bowl. The bowls keep the ticket and sponsorship money. Bowl execs also negotiate their own TV contracts.
After taking 50 to 60 percent off the top, the bowls then write checks to the teams’ conferences. The conferences, in turn, split that money among their schools. (Profits from the five Bowl Championship Series games are spread to varying degrees among all conferences.)
But only about half of the 35 bowls offer payouts large enough to cover team expenses. So the conferences use money from more lucrative bowl games to cover losses from the barkers.
“You don’t lose money going to bowl games, at least not in the Big 10,” says Minnesota football spokesman Andy Seeley.
But that’s true only in a technical sense. In the Gophers’ case, the Big 10 covered the university’s $1.3 million blemish from the 2009 Insight Bowl. What insiders don’t mention is the humungous pyramid of cash schools are leaving on the table.
“They should go take economics 101,” says Dan Wetzel, a Yahoo sports columnist and co-author of Death to the BCS. “Lost profit is lost money to any other business in the world.”
And these losses are staggering.
Last year, the nation’s bowls paid schools roughly $270 million. Just for playing middlemen and providing 70-degree temperatures, bowl execs grabbed a larger cut, north of $300 million.
Why does this continue to happen? Because the people who make the choices about participation in these events are basically bribed: they get week-long vacations in places like Arizona, and no long term investment in the health of the institution.
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 good 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.
Faculty at universities often have an adversarial relationship with the administrators. Now you know why.