A postseason game seems far out of reach for the Gophers’ football team this season, but that might not be all bad for the Big Ten conference — bowl games from recent seasons have actually cost the Big Ten conference money.
The Bowl Championship Series makes each conference foot the bill when its teams fail to sell tickets to their bowl games.
The Big Ten had to find out what to do with $476,190 worth of unsold tickets when the Gophers traveled to Tempe, Ariz., in 2009 to take part in the little-known Insight Bowl, according to expense reports filed by the University.
When the Gophers failed to sell 8,658 tickets to their match-up that year against Iowa State, the Big Ten conference had to absorb the tickets, resell them and distribute the cost of unsold tickets to teams throughout the conference.
It’s a common problem around the country — the Big Ten is not the only conference that the BCS forces to cover its members’ deficits.
Virginia Tech's athletic department reported losing more than $400,000 in its trip to Miami for the 2011 Orange Bowl. The Hokies would have lost more, but the Atlantic Coast Conference gave them nearly $1.2 million to help, according to an investigative report by the Arizona Republic.
Eventual National Champion Auburn University even reported losing more than $600,000 on its trip to winning the BCS title.
The Gophers have gone to the Insight Bowl in Tempe, Ariz., three times: 2006, 2008 and 2009.
According to expense reports filed by the University, the Gophers broke even on every game, but not without help from the Big Ten.
The Big Ten had to absorb and redistribute 6,123, 7,886 and 8,658 tickets respectively for each year Minnesota participated in the Insight Bowl.
Minnesota — along with every other Big Ten school — paid one-eleventh of the cost of the remaining Minnesota tickets.
Losing money in college football's top five postseason games — the Orange, Sugar, Fiesta and Rose bowls, as well as the National Championship game — has become more common for successful programs reaching that stage.
According to the Republic's report, 41 percent of public universities that played in BCS bowl games over the past six years reported losses.
Teams would be in danger of losing more if their major conferences, like Virginia Tech's ACC, had not subsidized their losses during years they compete in a bowl game.
The six major conferences, whose champions automatically qualify for a BCS bowl, receive a BCS annual payout of roughly $20 million, according to the Republic's report.
Regardless of their on-field performance, each team in the conference receives a share of that money. That share could be lessened if the conference decides to subsidize a bowl team's losses, like the ACC did with Virginia Tech.
These losses can be temporary though, as schools still receive subsidies every year regardless if they make it to a bowl game or not.
Losing money in bowl games has become such a trend that schools like Virginia Tech actually save money from conference subsidies every season for a year when they play in a BCS game, according to Virginia Tech's Assistant Director of Athletics for Financial Affairs Lisa Rudd.
“We do set aside a portion of our conference's revenue for years like this,” Rudd said. “But, one reason why we incur such a large loss is how we compensate our coaches. That is an internal decision.”
Rudd was referring to incentives that are often in the contracts for college coaches, which gives them a bonus for making it to the national spotlight of a BCS bowl game.
The standards and regulations set up by the BCS system add millions to each team’s bill.
BCS decides which bowl the team will attend, regardless of the distance the team would need to travel, and where and how long the team will stay in that city.
BCS also requires that participating schools buy up a large block of tickets to resell, which schools often find they cannot do.
The University of Connecticut reported losing nearly $1.7 million in its trip to the 2011 Fiesta Bowl. That’s because the Huskies, who won the Big East championship that year, failed to resell 14,729 of the 17,500 tickets that the Fiesta Bowl required them to purchase.
The time commitment and distance are obvious reasons why fans do not often follow their teams, for example, to Florida or Arizona, where the Orange and Fiesta bowls are played respectively.
The BCS system prides itself in making every game count. It accomplishes that goal with a grain of salt — one loss in the regular season can drastically affect a team's ticket sales to their one allotted postseason game.
In 2007, the West Virginia Mountaineers were favorites to win the BCS title until a loss to non-ranked Pittsburgh in the final week of the regular season crushed any hope of a championship appearance.
“We had a very disappointing loss at the end of that season,” West Virginia's Deputy Director of Athletics Mike Parsons said. “Not as many fans were willing to make the trip all the way to Arizona because of that.”
The Mountaineers went on to beat third-ranked Oklahoma in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, but were unable to sell more than half of the 17,500 tickets they were required to distribute. As a result, the Mountaineers reported losing more than $1 million on the trip.
“This was still a great experience for our team,” Parsons said. “We gained a lot of national exposure and you can't put a financial value to that.”
Many conference programs that reach the BCS spotlight will pay the price without complaint, as they believe the intangible benefits like national television airtime outweigh the actual cost.
Not everyone is in agreement with the way the current BCS bowl system works, though.
There are proponents for a change in the current college postseason format. Non-major conference schools like Boise State argue that every game does not count.
Many schools argue that BCS is under-inclusive by taking teams from only the six major conferences and ignoring the rest.
“It is time to revamp the system so that the statement ‘every game counts’ rings true,” Boise State's President Bob Kustra said in a statement about BCS last year. “This is not a point unique to Boise State. Auburn in 2004, Utah in 2004, Boise State in 2006, Utah in 2008, and Boise State in 2009 all went undefeated but were denied a chance at a national championship by an injurious and fundamentally flawed system.”
BCS did not return multiple emails from the Minnesota Daily seeking comment.
Kustra specifically cites his team's 2009 season in which the Broncos defeated Texas Christian in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl to finish 14-0; at the time they became the second team in major college football history to ever accomplish such a feat.
If there were a playoff system in place, the 2009 Broncos could have had the chance to battle it out with the national championship contenders and, at the time, fellow 13-0 squads Texas and Alabama.
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