Rutgers celebrated its 8-4 record last football season with a trip to the St. Petersburg Bowl in Florida. Big East Conference schools got stuck with a $740,000 bill.
The Scarlet Knights' story isn't unique in college football. Payouts for all but the biggest bowl games seldom match teams' expenses, and the rest of the schools in the conference have to subsidize them, according to financial records obtained by Bloomberg News using open records laws.
There were 33 bowls played last year, not including the national championship game. At least 13 schools spent more to play in the game than their conferences received in compensation. According to figures from public universities where open-records laws apply, those losses totaled more than $3.8 million, even as taxpayer subsidies for athletic departments are on the rise and athletic programs are falling deeper in debt.
"Bowls have become network-owned, commercial enterprises, in some cases, pitting average teams in money-losing bowls for the benefit of a few," said Charles E. Young, 79, president emeritus at the University of Florida and a member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. "I think the losses are higher than anyone knows."
League commissioners including Wright Waters of the Sun Belt Conference, who are usually responsible for negotiating the money-losing bowl agreements, say these games aren't about profit; they're meant to promote the school and give athletes a chance to experience postseason play.
"At what point does the projected economic impact of a bowl reach the point where you say, 'This makes sense, it's a win-win,' " said New Mexico State athletic director McKinley Boston. "As opposed to, 'You win, I subsidize your tourism business, and the economic impact is great for you, but it destroys everybody else's budget.' "
This year, there will be 34 postseason bowl games excluding the national championship, ending Jan. 9 with the Fight Hunger Bowl. The championship game, pitting Auburn against Oregon, will be played the following day in Glendale, Ariz.
The five games comprising the Bowl Championship Series are the most lucrative. Six conferences — the Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and Southeastern — are under contract to send their champions to those bowls; each received $18.9 million last season, according to Bill Hancock, executive director of the Prairie Village, Kansas-based BCS.
Schools that play in lower-paying bowls burn up some of the money that is coming into the conference from the richest ones.
The Big East, for instance, received $400,000 for Rutgers's participation in the St. Petersburg Bowl last season, according to college sports' governing body, the National Collegiate Athletic Association. It cost the Scarlet Knights $1.14 million to attend, according to Rutgers financial records. The league pools money from all of its bowl appearances, pays expenses to the teams that played in them, then divides the rest among all schools.
The difference in what Rutgers earned for the league by appearing in the bowl and what it spent to go came out of that pool, reducing the cut that each school got when the money is split up. Big East Commissioner John Marinatto wouldn't disclose the formula the league uses to determine how much each university gets from bowl payouts.
According to Rutgers's financial records, the conference gave the New Brunswick, N.J., school a $1.33 million revenue-sharing check — based on the BCS distribution, bowl payouts and conference television revenue.
The Big East also booked losses from South Florida's appearance in the International Bowl ($428,000) and Connecticut's appearance in the Papajohns.com Bowl ($430,000), university records said.
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