Western Michigan almost beat the Gophers 28-23 in Minnesota’s second home game of the 2012 season.
The Broncos, a lower-tier Division I football program, walked away with $750,000.
The nature of scheduling football — the main financial force in college athletics — has led to a spike in the past decade for what athletic departments call “guarantees,” or the money paid to visiting nonconference programs.
The top-120 Football Bowl Subdivision schools, including Minnesota, typically play three to four of these home games every year. This year, the Gophers paid $1.13 million for two games against Western Michigan and New Hampshire.
Minnesota’s games against UNLV and Syracuse this season are home-and-home agreements. Aside from paying guarantees, FBS programs often set up nonconference games in which they return to the opponent’s home field. The guarantees paid in home-and-home matches tend to negate each other.
Athletics departments across the country pencil in dates as far out as 10 years for its football programs, as costs increase the closer the negotiations are to kickoff.
Same conference, different level
Top-tier Big Ten schools sometimes pay $1 million or more for a game.
“Because we’re Minnesota — and I know some people don’t like to hear this — we can’t afford to pay the guarantees that a Michigan can pay,” former Minnesota athletics director Joel Maturi said.
Michigan paid Air Force $1.1 million for its Sept. 8 game in Ann Arbor, Mich., where the host Wolverines squeaked out a 31-25 win.
Though guaranteed payouts can reach more than $1 million, Michigan’s 110,000-seat stadium in Ann Arbor can easily sell enough tickets to cover the costs — and then some.
“I don’t care what the average ticket prices are. Even if it’s the same as [TCF Bank Stadium], they’re more than doubling the ticket income that we get,” Maturi said.
With 50,000-seat TCF Bank Stadium, Minnesota hit its record payout last year against New Mexico State. The Aggies walked away with $800,000 after beating Minnesota 28-21, according to athletics spokesman Garry Bowman.
Minnesota will match its record payout by giving San Jose State an $800,000 check in 2013, said Bowman.
Ohio State paid $2.55 million for its three home guarantee games this season, an average of $850,000 per game.
The Knight Commission, a “watchdog” for intercollegiate athletics’ effect on the University’s academic values, has noticed the increased spending for these games.
“It’s concerning to [the Commission], the trend of athletics spending increasing at twice the rate of academic spending,” the Commission’s Executive Director Amy Perko said. “Certainly the escalation in guarantees continues to exacerbate the trend that the Commission believes is just not appropriate for higher education.”
Minnesota associate athletics director David Benedict said payouts for FBS programs are all about testing the market — getting a feel for what others are paying.
Benedict, one of three new Minnesota athletics administrators from Virginia Commonwealth University, just recently took on the responsibilities of scheduling Gophers football.
“We have to do our best to control costs, but there’s not a whole lot we can do if some of the other [Big Ten] schools want to pay more,” Benedict said.
In turn, Minnesota has often looked to schedule geographically close teams as well as less-competitive opponents. These teams tend to accept a smaller payout due to lower travel costs and lower demand for that program.
“That’s why you often see the North Dakota States and the South Dakota States on our schedule,” Maturi said. “They can bus here, not charter [a plane], and the costs are less.
“Not many Big Ten programs are looking to play those schools, either,” Maturi said. “So we don’t have to enter that bidding war with them.”
Athletics directors often work with their friends in the industry as well.
New Hampshire — a Football Championship Subdivision program — received $375,000 for a 44-7 loss to the Gophers on Sept. 8.
Despite being more than 1,000 miles away, New Hampshire came to Minnesota because athletics director Marty Scarano and Maturi have a working relationship.
“Joel [Maturi] and I are longtime friends,” Scarano said. “It’s always about relationships in how you derive these games.”
Maturi said relationships are a huge factor because that’s how conversations start.
“Guarantees are critical”
Guarantee payouts often give lower-tier Division I programs financial life.
“The guarantee payout is part of our budget,” Northern Iowa athletics director Troy Dannen said. “We won’t play a guarantee game for less than $400,000.”
Dannen said UNI racks up a total of about $600,000 to $700,000 in ticket revenue for home games every season.
“We almost match that with one guarantee,” Dannen said. “The guarantees are critical for us, especially when we have to turn around and buy schools to come play us.”
Paying out guarantees is not unique among the top FBS programs.
UNI seeks even lower-tiered schools who often ask for $100,000 to $250,000 to travel to Iowa for a game.
With their tight athletics budgets, schools like UNI drive up demands for higher payouts from FBS schools.
Planning the future
Minnesota has the majority of its home football games scheduled through 2016, Benedict said. Scheduling so early helps keep costs relatively low.
Northern Iowa nearly upset Wisconsin in the 2012 season opener, losing 26-21, and took $450,000 home with them.
But Dannen said his team played because Wisconsin needed to fill a last-minute scheduling hole.
“We got $450,000, plus we had a game scheduled against Southern Utah, so they also had to pay a buyout to open up a date for us to play them,” Dannen said. “I initially said no to their [less than $400,000]-offer, but they needed a game late and came to us with a higher offer.”
But no matter how much foresight is involved, football programs can’t plan for everything.
The inaugural game at TCF Bank Stadium was supposed to be against Nevada-Las Vegas not Air Force.
In the early 2000s, Maturi scheduled UNLV to open the 2009 season at home — a game he assumed would be played in the Metrodome.
But Maturi said Minnesota didn’t have access to its own parking because of its contract with the State Fair, which claimed the parking lots around the stadium. The contract expired this year.
Minnesota’s athletics department had to renegotiate each of its home openers at TCF Bank Stadium from 2009-2012 because it didn’t know the games would be played on campus.
“When we scheduled those games, football on campus was simply a dream,” Maturi said. “That’s the complications of scheduling.”
And that was only five to six years before TCF Bank Stadium was functional. The swelling dollar values of guarantee games have many programs looking to pin down their revenue streams — or expenses — further into the future.
“I’m just about to sign contracts as far out as 2023,” Dannen said.