As athletics departments plan their men’s basketball calendars for next season, the cost of scheduling nonconference opponents is on the rise.
Behind the scenes, programs like Minnesota’s are negotiating with mid-major schools to find the right price for next year’s nonconference portion of the schedule — as the NCAA requires men’s basketball teams to play at least 25 games a season.
A survey of nine Big Ten programs by the Des Moines Register found that seven of them paid more than $400,000 to schedule a smattering of “guarantee games” — games that major conference teams like Minnesota pay mid-majors to come play at their home courts. And the price of these games is rising as mid-major schools try to balance their budgets.
Minnesota led the Big Ten in both guarantee games scheduled and money paid this past season with eight home, nonconference matchups for a total of $645,000, according to the Register.
However, its average paid per game was $80,000 — one of the lowest in the Big Ten.
Joe Esposito, Minnesota’s director of basketball operations, estimated that the Gophers bring in $400,000 in revenue from concessions, tickets and parking when they host a guarantee game.
Minnesota’s self-proclaimed scheduling guru in men’s basketball, Esposito has already begun penciling in nonconference games for the 2016-17 season.
“I’m looking at scheduling every day,” Esposito said. “You can put it on the backburner and pick it up at the end of the season, but you’ll never get it accomplished.”
Esposito has had three fewer weeks to prepare because of Minnesota’s success in the postseason National Invitational Tournament. He said he’s sweating the few empty games he still has to fill for next season.
“I usually have it done by now,” said Esposito, who’s been scheduling for the Gophers since Tubby Smith’s arrival in 2007.
“The later it gets [in the off-season], it seems the money goes up,” he said. “And that’s why I’m getting scared right now.”
Ohio State spent the most on average in the Big Ten this season, averaging a payout of $95,000 over its six guarantee games. The program paid $110,000 to Valparaiso University.
Regina Sullivan, senior associate athletics director at Minnesota, said the increase in the costs of guarantee games is concerning.
“I never thought teams would be paying over $100,000 to play,” Esposito said. “But it’s happening regularly now.”
For the upcoming season, he said Minnesota’s payout ranges from $60,000 to $90,000.
“But I may have to throw a few bigger numbers out there,” he said, “to get the proper games.”
During the Gophers’ 2006-07 season, the team played six guarantee games and paid $300,000 — an average of $50,000 a game.
Negotiating the deal
In late February, as teams vie for a spot into the NCAA tournament — which provides financial and prestigious benefits to a program — the level of competition the team plays becomes increasingly important in which teams get selected.
“You can schedule your team right out of the NCAA tournament before the Big Ten schedule even starts,” Esposito said.
Esposito said scheduling competition with a low-level Ratings Percentage Index — the NCAA’s way of ranking a team’s strength of schedule — looks bad to the tournament’s selection committee, regardless of whether a team won those games.
“You want [to play] someone playing a competitive schedule,” Esposito said. “The higher their strength of schedule, the more it benefits you in the long run.”
The most difficult part of scheduling with other programs is settling on a proper date that both parties are comfortable with, Esposito said.
“Ninety percent of the time, the problem with the schedule is that I don’t have the day available for the team that wants to come.”
That often drives up the price, Esposito said.
Even if Minnesota has the date open, Sullivan said economic challenges and higher expectations of guarantees have schools bargaining now more than ever.
“I’ve seen in the last few years their expectation and what they ask for and a bidding mentality that can go on just to push the guarantees that we pay,” Sullivan said.
Esposito said he has seen the price of guarantees climb and is reluctant to follow it.
The price to lose
Mid-major programs often take a beating on the court from larger institutions in turn for the typical $40,000 to $100,000-plus payment.
This past year, the Big Ten and the Big 12 combined to play 92 guarantee games, winning 90 of them, according to the Register.
“You play too many guarantee games, you’re going to pick up a lot of losses,” North Dakota State head men’s basketball coach Saul Phillips said.
Phillips and his Bison squad lost to the Gophers 63-59 at Williams Arena on Dec. 22 this season. His program received $57,000 from Minnesota to play the game.
“We’ve got a number of guarantee games we have to schedule to balance our budget,” Phillips said. “[The cost] varies depending on travel costs for those games.”
Scheduling teams that are nearby can prove easy and cheap for programs like Minnesota.
The Gophers currently have two multi-year deals with nonconference teams: NDSU and South Dakota State.
Esposito said those games are all about regional rivalries, lower travel costs and the benefit of not having to worry about filling those dates.
For the mid-major schools, it’s often about getting the money they need — not want.
“I typically ask [men’s basketball] to get between $150,000 and $200,000 in guarantee money [in a season],” NDSU athletics director Gene Taylor said.
While NDSU generally needs only a few guarantee games to reach its bottom line, Taylor said it’s a year-to-year struggle to get the right balance.
“[Guarantee games] help bring in revenue beyond home games,” Taylor said. “We’re trying to do it in a balanced way, where they can play good teams, get better, but not start off the season 0-10.”
Mike Flynn, assistant athletics director at Appalachian State, said his program limits the numbers of guarantee games it plays “for competitive reasons.”
“Obviously, the guarantee games we play are a fairly sizeable line item for us,” Flynn said. “But we try to limit them to three a year.”
Appalachian State received a $90,000 check for the game it lost to the Gophers 70-56 on Dec. 6 at Williams Arena.
However, success on the court isn’t always a benefit for Esposito and Minnesota when negotiating a deal.
“When you’re not as good, everybody calls you,” Esposito said. “But when you’re good … people don’t call you.”
Mid-majors often have the luxury to pick the Bowl Championship Series conference program that offers them the highest bid, Esposito said.
Critics have pointed to the exponential rise in athletics spending versus academic spending, providing the notion that athletics departments are growing away from the intended mission of their university.
The Knight Commission, an organization that tries to keep athletics departments in check with the educational mission of their institutions, has had concerns over the growing costs in guarantee games.
“The bottom line is that the increases have resulted in athletics spending per athlete increasing at twice the rate of academic spending per student,” said executive director Amy Perko.
Of the hundreds of athletics departments, a handful have proven to be self-sufficient, requiring no public funds. But Minnesota is not one of them.
In fiscal year 2011, Minnesota’s athletics department had to borrow $2.3 million in a direct loan from the University’s central fund to balance its budget. Guarantees paid to nonconference, visiting opponents in men’s basketball totaled $565,000 for seven games early in the 2010-11 season.
Esposito said programs have to look at their return on investment to see they aren’t losing money while paying out guarantees.
“It makes sense for us to buy a game and get money out of it than for us to go on the road and get nothing,” he said.
Scheduling at Minnesota
Esposito, who has 26 years of experience coaching and administering college basketball, said scheduling for the Gophers is one of the hardest parts of his job.
Because the three main venues at Minnesota — Williams Arena, Mariucci Arena and TCF Bank Stadium — all use the same amenities like parking and ushers, Esposito needs to coordinate not only with a possible opponent, but many other teams at the University too.
A University policy also limits athletics events from taking place during finals week, Esposito said.
“That’s the largest played weekend of college basketball in the country,” Esposito said. “And we can’t take part in it.”
Unlike most Big Ten schools, Minnesota doesn’t offer any perks with the guaranteed money such as covering hotel and transportation costs.
“We just cut them a straight check,” Esposito said.
Esposito said he also lures schools that have student-athletes from Minnesota, selling the Twin Cities as well as historic Williams Arena when bargaining with teams.
While the NCAA requires teams play at least 25 games, programs often schedule tournaments to kick off the season and knock out two or three games in one stretch.
Yet those tournaments are among the toughest to schedule, because only one representative from each conference is allowed at each tournament, Esposito said.
“One advantage at Minnesota is having Tubby Smith as your coach,” Esposito said. “He’s a major college basketball icon; [teams] want him in their tournaments.”
Esposito said relationships are crucial in scheduling as well. The Gophers have a two-year contract with the University of Southern California under which the teams travel to each others’ venues once each. No money will be exchanged.
“We knew [head coach] Kevin O’Neill over at USC,” Esposito said. “[Smith] and Kevin have been friends for a long time. That’s how that deal came together.”