By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
Bowling for Chumps
How insiders use the college bowl system to loot American universities
By the time the 2009 football season rolled around, the University of Minnesota hadn't won a Big 10 title in 42 years. The Gophers largely spent those decades serving as target practice for the league's higher powers, yet they weren't without occasional bursts of second-string glory.
One arrived two years ago. Minnesota finished 6-6, collecting the minimum wins needed to earn a slot in the Insight Bowl in Tempe, Arizona.
Their bragging rights would be slender. Every year, 70 of Division 1 football's 120 teams get bowl invitations, making faceless games like the Insight akin to summer-camp participation awards.
Minnesota would face Iowa State, another 6-6 team from the Big 12. The teams were charged with providing three hours of TV programming for hardcore fans and shut-ins just before New Year's. The ratings would be measured in decimal points.
But within the U of M football offices in Minneapolis, there was cause for celebration, however muted. Although the game orbited well outside the realm of consequence, it was still a chance to reward players, boast to recruits, liquor up boosters, and feed a small army of university suits with a paid vacation in the Arizona sun.
The accounting office no doubt held a much different view. It surely knew that, like nearly all bowls, the Insight was designed to plunder all it could from a college treasury.
The bloodbath began the moment the contract was signed. Minnesota was obligated to write a check for 10,000 tickets, which were supposed to be resold to fans. Never mind that even the best of teams struggle to unload such sums. For middling squads like the Gophers, it was nothing more than a way for the men in funny yellow blazers who ran the Insight to grab piles of money from a public university.
Minnesota managed to sell just 901 seats. After kicking another 900 to the band, administrators, and cherished hangers-on, the school was forced to eat $476,000 worth of useless tickets.
The contract also required the team to show up a week early, if only to burn as much school money as possible at the restaurants and retailers of Greater Phoenix.
One would think school administrators would protest such gall. But one would be wrong. They were quick to see the advantages of a luxury vacation on the school's dime. So they happily signed off.
The school's traveling party was larded up with 722 people, including players, band members, and faculty. Airfare alone ran $542,000. Toss in hotels and meals, and the school had blown $1.3 million before the opening kickoff.
The ballsiest part of all: None of it was necessary.
Minnesota and Iowa State sit less than 200 miles apart. Their teams were providing the game. Their bands supplied the halftime entertainment. In fact, the Insight offered nothing—save for warm weather—that the schools couldn't have done better themselves.
Had the game been played in Minneapolis, the teams could have sold more tickets and put on a profitable game, since Big 10 matches typically generate $1 to $2 million—not knee-bending losses.
Yet none of this was ever considered. Thanks to an alliance of unblushing incompetence and corruption, college football long ago decided to outsource its most valuable asset—its post-season earnings.
The scheme plays out every year on the ostensibly pristine fields of amateur athletics. Bowl executives grant themselves breathtaking salaries. The games, meanwhile, provide coaches, athletic directors, and the suits who nominally supervise them with an unending stream of bonuses.
Everyone else picks up the tab.
There's a reason cities hosting Super Bowls or rounds of March Madness bid with buffets of giveaways just to land the tourist traffic: If you want a taste, you have to pay.
College football is the only sport that gives away its post-season revenues. Its business model is akin to Walmart keeping its profits for the first 10 months of the year, then letting Value World host its holiday sales.
This is an especially hazardous form of capitalism for the nation's universities, which have been bloodied by ever-diving state funding combined with double-digit tuition hikes. And contrary to popular belief, their athletic departments just widen the damage.
Depending on the year, only about 20 of the 120 athletic departments featuring Division 1 football actually pay for themselves. The rest require students and taxpayers to ride to the rescue.
Minnesota is typical. From 2006 to 2009, the Gophers went to three Insight Bowls. Their bill for unsold tickets alone was well more than $1 million. At the same time, their athletic department needed a $25 million infusion over five years just to break even.
These kinds of losses could be allayed if college football simply cut out the middlemen—the bowls—and took its post-season in-house by adopting a playoff system. Instead, universities have chosen to hand their money away in a deal that's at best moronic and at worst an epic swindle.
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.)