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COLUMBUS — For Ohio State, the Orange Bowl carries the promise of a lot of green.
Its showdown against Clemson next month features an advertised payout of $18 million per team — a return surpassed only by the $22 million distributed for the national title game — and the expectation Buckeyes fans will inundate Miami. OSU is in the Orange Bowl for the first time since 1977.
Yet come bowl season, little is as it seems.
That $18 million payday and a packed Sun Life Stadium? A South Beach mirage.
A postseason that features 35 bowl games provides little direct financial reward for success — and for Mid-American Conference schools like Toledo and Bowling Green State University, it’s often punitive.
Ohio State, which generates more than $6 million of revenue for each regular-season home game, is hardly counting on the same windfall for its trip to a marquee bowl.
The Big Ten will pool $46.7 million in payouts from its seven bowl games and distribute what remains after covering the participating teams’ travel expenses into 12 even shares.
Unlike in 2010, when OSU exceeded its allowance and lost $80,000 on the Rose Bowl trip, the Buckeyes will vie to stay under their $2.15 million budget — then collect as much money as, say, Purdue from a bowl pot that will be drained further by tens of thousands of unsold tickets.
Conferences and schools ate nearly $21 million in tickets last year, according to USA Today.
OSU athletic director Gene Smith called the ticket guarantees “a hard business model that we keep fighting.”
His department is just one of dozens nationally struggling to unload their massive allotments to far-flung destinations.
The Buckeyes, who regularly play before scarlet-drenched road stadiums in the Big Ten, battle cool sales even for Bowl Championship Series games short of the Rose Bowl or the national championship.
The five BCS games require each team to purchase 17,500 tickets. Don’t sell them? Too bad. Either the school or the conference must pay for them. (The Big Ten absorbs unsold tickets.)
Ohio State sold 9,983 tickets for the 2009 Fiesta Bowl and now finds its Orange Bowl sales hurt by steep flight costs to Miami and a friendly secondary market. An OSU spokesman said the school has sold about 7,000 of its allotted 17,500 tickets, priced between $90 and $240.
On the resale site Stubhub.com, tickets sold for as little as $40 this week. Hundreds are available for less than face value.
Clemson, too, is searching for answers. The Tigers and West Virginia ate more than 15,000 tickets between them at the 2012 Orange Bowl, another instance of a skewed supply and demand.
In 2011, Connecticut took a $1.8 million bath for playing in the Fiesta Bowl — its $2.9 million in 14,729 unsold tickets absorbed by the school. And last year, Florida fans bought just 6,500 tickets to the lowest-attended Sugar Bowl since 1939 (54,178) while Florida State and Northern Illinois played the Orange Bowl before swaths of empty seats.
FSU sold less than half of its allotment despite offering half-price tickets. The Huskies, who averaged 15,670 fans at home games, gave students free passes to the game but still sat on more than 7,000 tickets.
The Big Ten’s second tier of bowls often face the same issues. Michigan, which absorbed 4,662 tickets at the 2012 Sugar Bowl, has sold about 5,600 of its 11,000 available tickets to Saturday’s Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in Tempe, Ariz. A spokesman said the school gave 4,500 tickets back for the bowl to attempt to sell.
OSU’s ticket office has shifted its target to Buckeye fans in Miami.
“We have a large population of alums down in [South Florida] that are slowly starting to buy tickets through us,” Smith told The Blade this week. “We’re starting to see a little more activity. It’s a hard hard sell every single year.”
And harder still for many other teams.
While the value of a postseason trip transcends money — the benefits including national exposure, a reward for players, about 15 extra practices, and momentum for the program — one NCAA financial consultant estimates only 8 to 10 schools come home in the black.
“If it’s not a BCS bowl, you are probably going to lose money,” said Dan Fulks, the accounting program director at Transylvania University in Kentucky.
A rare success story could be this year’s Bowling Green Falcons, who play Pittsburgh on Thursday in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl at Ford Field in Detroit.
Bowling Green will receive only $100,000 from the MAC, but that’s because expenses of a three-night stay just up the road are minimal while it gets to keep the revenue from ticket sales. A spokesman said the school has sold 7,500 of its allotted 10,000 tickets.
“There’s the expectation that they’re going to sell more tickets to that bowl than to any of our other bowls,” MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. “We’re different than a lot of other conferences in that we don’t charge schools and tell them they’re responsible for selling ‘X’ number of tickets, and if you don’t, you have to pay for them. We negotiate with the bowls so that schools can monetize them.”
Problem is, most games are not in Detroit. The MAC is giving Buffalo $475,000 for its trip to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise — a game with a $325,000 payout.
At the 2009 Humanitarian Bowl in Boise, Bowling Green received 4,000 tickets. It sold 77 — 76 for $40 and one for $15. The athletic department and university lost a combined $154,000 after adding up expenses for the team, band, and athletic department staffers.
Toledo, meanwhile, sold about 300 tickets for last December’s Potato Bowl. It received $225,000 for the 2011 Military Bowl in Washington and $475,000 last year, but spent $518,000 and $699,000, respectively, according to school records.
The expenses did not reflect a binge, either. For the Military Bowl, they included $145,000 on the team’s charter flight, $4,500 on individual flights, $200,000 on hotels and catering, $16,000 on buses, $27,000 on player and staff per diems, $26,000 on equipment and supplies, $18,000 on player housing while the dorms were closed, $5,000 on rental cars, and $4,000 on entertainment in the hotel game room.
UT athletic director Mike O’Brien said his department has helped offset recent bowl losses with unexpected revenues — $130,000 from former Rockets coach Tim Beckman’s buyout in 2011 and more than $360,000 from Northern Illinois’ appearance in a BCS game last year. (Toledo went 7-5 this season but was not selected for a bowl.)
“We do what we can creatively,” O’Brien said.
Said Steinbrecher: “Unless we’re in a BCS bowl, there’s probably not more money coming in for bowls than we’re spending.”
Exposure at a cost
That’s why Bowling Green’s recent MAC title win, which denied Northern Illinois a likely second straight BCS berth, was bittersweet for the conference.
The five nonautomatic qualifying conferences usually share $14.1 million in BCS revenue, though that figure doubled to $28.2 million last year when NIU earned a BCS bid. The MAC received $15.7 from the bowls last season, according to an NCAA audit. This year, it will receive the combined $2.63 million in payouts from its five games and between $2 and $4 million from the BCS.
“Obviously, if Northern had [beaten BG], it would have generated a lot of revenue,” Steinbrecher said. “But you know what, you’ve got to earn it. It points to how challenging is to go undefeated. Bowling Green was exceptionally well prepared, and they certainly earned the championship. I had a big smile on my face when I was handing out the trophy because I felt wonderful for them. That’s why you budget really conservatively so you don’t count on those things.”
Even if it sometimes leaves them in the red, most schools find a bowl system held together by sponsorships, ticket guarantees, and ESPN — which will televise 33 of the 35 games — worth it.
About 2.8 million ESPN viewers watched Toledo play Utah State in last year’s Potato Bowl while one media service determined the word “Rockets” was used during news broadcasts on about 200 network affiliates nationwide after the 2011 Military Bowl. More than 1.9 million viewers watched BG in last year’s Military Bowl.
“That three-hour commercial on ESPN and the institutional spots you get on there, I don’t know how you value that,” BG spokesman Jason Knavel said. “It’s huge.”
Still, all schools aim to break even, which will become easier beginning next season. The new college football playoff will increase distributions at all levels — ESPN paid about $7.3 billion for the rights to televise the BCS playoff and championship games through 2026 — while schools have negotiated smaller ticket allotments.
For now, though, the everybody-gets-rich narrative is not what it seems, and even Orange does not mean green.
Save for the 2010 Rose Bowl, the Buckeyes have come out slightly ahead on their recent bowl trips, and Smith said it is important they stay under budget again this season. The concern now is all those tickets.
Smith at first thought the draw of Ohio State’s first Orange Bowl in 37 years would be a major selling point. Then he saw the prices of flights, which are running round-trip from Ohio to Miami for more than $800. And then he considered the secondary market. And then ...
“We’ve also been to so many BCS bowls that there’s probably a little bit of bowl fatigue,” Smith said, referring to the Buckeyes’ national-leading 10 BCS appearances. “It’s a lot of different issues, and I’m not so sure what the answer is.”