Hope you’ve kept up on the gigantic news from college football the past two weeks.
Some journalists and bloggers are breathlessly reporting that — hold on to your helmets — schools can actually lose money by going to a bowl game.
Amazing. Unbelievable. Stunning.
In reality, it’s none of those. If anything, it’s old news, not big news.
Oregon, which this season is playing in the BCS championship game, once lost $127,000 going to a bowl game — 21 years ago. And the Ducks were happy about it. (More on that later).
It’s very true that schools, regardless of the size of the bowl, can come home dripping in red ink.
What’s news to most people is that it isn’t the bowls’ fault.
To lay blame, the schools only have to look in the mirror. It is the schools that through the years have entered into lopsided agreements with bowls, and it is the schools that have purposely overspent their bowl allowances.
So how does this work?
With conferences now racing to see who can secure the most bowl tie-ins, postseason agreements generally are negotiated during league meetings.
The bowl guys in their fruit-colored blazers make presentations about the greatness of their game and city.
Then the athletic directors and CEOs from the member schools, regardless of how ridiculous a requirement the bowl makes for guaranteed ticket sales, vote to add that bowl to the lineup. (Hey, if the League X has nine bowl agreements, we need that many, too.)
From some of the “reporting’’ lately, you would think the bowl guys come dressed in SWAT gear and hold schools hostage until they sign.
I’ve shaken hands with hundreds of bowl representatives through the years. The most dangerous weapon I’ve ever seen one wield is a cocktail glass.
So by cutting deals that favor the bowls, schools can get caught short on meeting their ticket requirement, especially when the national unemployment rate is at 9.5 percent. Welcome to reality.
A school’s other big expense is the size of its bowl traveling party, and how long everyone stays.
Go ahead and arrive 10 days before the game. Take your 500-piece band. Include every single person who had a glancing blow with the football team this fall — including their spouses and kids. And make sure you take plenty of administrators and regents, too.
Just don’t come back crying about “losing’’ money. There is no divine right to make money on a bowl or have an unlimited travel party.
If you come home in hock, you didn’t lose money. You overspent your allowance.
(As a side note, I’ve seen Nebraska officials do a good job of managing their bowl budget through the years. And I’m pro-band and pro-student. Those two groups should get all the help allowable to get to a bowl ahead of certain hangers-on who don’t need to be seen.)
Even if a school comes home a little over budget, it can be worth it.
In 1989, Oregon finished 7-4. It hadn’t been to a bowl in 26 years, and wasn’t attracting much interest. At that time, schools cut more deals directly with bowls.
So the Oregon athletic director, a guy named Bill Byrne, called the Independence Bowl and asked what it would take to get a bid. He was told to sell tickets.
Soon, Byrne found out the Independence Bowl had pitted him in a bidding war with another A.D. for the final spot in that game. By agreeing to buy 14,000 tickets, Byrne “earned’’ Oregon a bowl bid. The Ducks sold 6,000 on short notice and lost money.
But school officials called it one of their best investments ever because of the resulting boost in fundraising and putting the football program in the national conversation.
“It all comes down to perception,’’ Byrne said a few years after that trip. “Even if the list of who went to bowls and who didn’t is in tiny agate print, you want to be part of the group that did.’’
Also, there is value derived from having your school be part of what amounts to a four-hour infomercial on national and cable TV outlets.
I hope this gives some insight into the process. Too many talk-jockeys are spinning the schools-lose-money-on-bowls story into a diatribe on how a playoff is needed and the bowls are failed and corrupt.
All it really shows is the normal business cycle in a down economy, and that schools and conferences need to drive harder bargains when the colorful-jacket group comes to town.
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