TIGER KICKOFF: MU paying big bucks for nonconference opponents

Friday, September 24, 2010 | 5:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:33 a.m. CDT, Friday, September 24, 2010
According to research by Dan Fulks of Transylvania University, the average guarantee payment for Football Bowl Subdivision teams has risen since last year.

COLUMBIA — The San Diego State football team earned $850,000 to come to Columbia and nearly upset Missouri.

The disappointed silence in the stands, Gary Pinkel’s anxious pacing up and down the sideline, the deflated feeling in the pit of fans’ stomachs each time Blaine Gabbert threw an interception — that’s right, all those feelings cost the MU athletic department nearly a million dollars.

Saturday's game

Miami of Ohio Redhawks (2-1)
at Missouri Tigers (3-0)

WHEN: 1 p.m.
WHERE: Memorial Stadium
RADIO: KTGR/1580 AM and 100.5 FM, KCQM/96.7 FM

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Maybe the rush of emotion as T.J. Moe ran into the end zone to score the winning touchdown with less than a minute remaining in the game was worth $850,000. Maybe not.

The payment for last Saturday’s game is the largest of the three guarantees that Missouri is paying in 2010, trumping the $310,000 it’s paying McNeese State and $200,000 to Miami of Ohio. Those sums are nothing in comparison to the amounts of money, called guarantees, that are paid by many teams in the FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision, formerly NCAA Division 1-A) to entice lesser nonconference teams to play them.

“These one-game deals are what we call guarantee deals, and guarantees have skyrocketed,” said Mark Alnutt, Missouri’s Senior Athletics Director of Administration, who is in charge of scheduling.

“Skyrocketing” guarantee prices

According to Professor Dan Fulks of Transylvania University in Lexington Ky., who compiled the NCAA Revenues/Expenses Division I Report 2004-2009, in 1997 the average guarantee paid by an FBS team was $799,000. In 2009, the average guarantee was $1,313,000. This amounts to a 64.3 percent increase. 

The inflation-adjusted numbers show that guarantees have not grown as astronomically as the numbers suggest at face value. What's most notable is that the numbers have increased markedly since 2008, despite the lagging economy. Even the recent recession has not stopped the grown in guarantees. In 2009, payments were 7.6 percent more than those in 2008, when adjusted for inflation.

What’s even more striking is a 2008 Bloomberg report that says the top 10 public schools in the final 2007 BCS rankings (Missouri was No. 6) saw a 43 percent increase in guarantee prices from 2003 to 2008. Compare that with Fulks’ study that says that in the same time frame the average guarantee for all FBS teams grew only 1 percent. Obviously, the top teams are pulling away from the middle-of-the-road BCS conference schools.

Increasing guarantee costs were in part responsible for the association’s decision to allow teams, beginning in 2006, to schedule a 12th regular-season game. This game, a nonconference matchup, is pure revenue for major FBS teams, and has led to a money-driven competition between those teams to sign weaker nonconference opponents.

There’s a tiny glitch in this plan, though: losing. Only the fees are guaranteed. The wins are not. In 2009, Missouri barely beat Bowling Green, rallying in the fourth quarter to defeat the Falcons 27-20, and Saturday's near-loss to San Diego State is a fresh wound in the team's confidence.

“I’m scared to death every day," head coach Gary Pinkel said. "I’ve been a coach for 34 years, and to me we’re playing the national championship tonight.”

Can Missouri pay the increases?

Between 2005 and 2010, Missouri’s average payout has increased by 161 percent. However, the school was starting from a decidedly low point, and its current payouts still do not come close to those of bigger programs like Nebraska, Ohio State, Texas and most SEC schools.

Alnutt said that Missouri doesn't have the money to fund extravagant guarantees, like the $1 million that Ohio State paid Navy to play its team in 2009. Missouri has also caught some breaks in recent years. Its 2009 matchup against Bowling Green cost the school only $175,000 because the schools negotiated the contract nearly 10 years before the game, before the escalation of guarantee prices.

Alnutt added that for every nonconference schedule slot that Missouri has, about 10 teams might express interest in playing in Columbia. Of those 10 teams, Alnutt estimated, Missouri would only be able to pay two.

Part of the reason Missouri doesn't have the revenue stream for large payouts is the size of its stadium. Memorial Stadium can seat about 70,000 people, and the average attendance at Missouri’s 2009 home games was 64,120.

Missouri’s problem is not that it can’t sell tickets, but that its stadium is far smaller than many of the larger ones at schools like Michigan and Penn State. Alnutt said that Missouri makes about $1 million for a home game, depending on attendance, and if you’ve attended any of the games so far this year, you know they’re not bringing in sold-out crowds.

“You don’t really want to have too many guarantee games,” Alnutt said.

Missouri’s nonconference scheduling process

Each year, Alnutt, who wants to schedule a minimum of six home games for Missouri throughout the season, tries to schedule one BCS (Bowl Championship Series) conference opponent, two FBS opponents and one FCS (Football Championship Subdivision, formerly NCAA Division 1-AA) opponent. BCS opponents come from within the FBS subdivision, but must be members of the six conferences that receive an automatic bid to a BCS bowl game each year. FCS teams are usually smaller and have less prominent football programs, and for those games, Missouri regulations state that Alnutt must offer the opportunity to play to all in-state FCS programs before he opens the game up nationally. This allows teams, if they choose, to keep the guarantee money within the state.

Alnutt and other athletic directors begin the scheduling process by reaching out to a network of their colleagues.

“It really varies on the market, the availability of the host institution, what they can afford to pay and what the visiting team is looking for,” Miami of Ohio Director of Athletics Brad Bates said.

McNeese State Athletic Director Tommy McClelland said that the two keys to nonconference scheduling are the money and the date. The first question he’s going to ask, he said, is how big of a lump sum the school is willing to pay McNeese State. Although there are other provisions in many contracts, like travel expenses, McClelland is less concerned with whether those details are incorporated into McNeese State's contracts.

“I’d rather take the lump sum and set up my own transportation,” McClelland said.

Alnutt must also account for the possibility of a home-and-home matchup, in which a team would come to Missouri one year and then host the Tigers the next year, or vice versa. Guarantees for home-and-home series are usually smaller, and programs often use the money to offset travel costs in each year’s budget. However, in some situations it’s more profitable to just pay the larger guarantee rather than give up a future home game.

Alnutt said that he also likes to bring in “fresh faces” from time to time, which added to the appeal of McNeese State. Alnutt and McClelland began discussions in 2007 and signed a contract that same year.

San Diego State appealed to Alnutt for an entirely different reason. Unlike McNeese State, San Diego State offers a level of name-recognition, and it is a well-regarded program in the Mountain West Conference. The bottom line, though, was that the cost of the contract that San Diego State agreed to fit within Missouri’s budget.

“Yes, it is more of a name recognition, but also the rising costs of playing guarantee games with mid-level schools,” Alnutt said.

He added that San Diego State was one of the few schools that didn’t break into seven figure guarantee costs, though Missouri is paying the $850,000 over three fiscal years, rather than in one lump-sum check.

A win-win situation

Many teams see nonconference games as being mutually beneficial to the winners and the losers alike. Schools like Missouri bank on getting the easy win, while the smaller schools see both financial and less tangible benefits.

“Financially, it’s a win for us,” McClelland said.

McClelland added that the sums that McNeese State receives make up a sizable portion of parts of the school’s athletic budget.

“These games, it’s certainly about money, about budget. It’s a revenue injection,” McClelland said.

Bates agreed and said that the money Miami of Ohio will get from Missouri will help with recruiting and other miscellaneous costs.

“Being an FBS institution, we want to play the best schools in the country,” Bates said. “Don’t get me wrong, the money is certainly an important part of playing these games.”

McClelland also said that the experience itself will be greater than the financial benefits to the program. Not only do games like the matchup against Missouri allow teams like McNeese State to at least have a chance to defeat a BCS conference team, they also are like nothing many smaller-program players have ever experienced.

“There’s another part of that, for our kids, the opportunity to play against these big crowds and the best athletes in the entire country,” McClelland said. “To take it up a notch and be able to travel on a plane and stay in a hotel … to be a part of that environment, 30 years from now the kids probably won’t remember the score of them game. They’ll remember this experience.”

So, are three supposed Missouri wins worth $1,360,000? You be the judge.

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Ellis Smith September 24, 2010 | 7:59 a.m.

"Why don't you pick on someone your own size?" - Old playground saying.

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