NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- College football is three games and $3.7 million in payouts into its bowl season with three weeks to go until the national title game. Let the holiday money parade begin.
The season began Saturday with the New Mexico, Humanitarian and New Orleans bowls, the first of 34 that will be played between now and the Bowl Championship Series title game in Glendale, Ariz., on Jan. 10. Who won? Some more than others. The Mountain West Conference and the Western Athletic Conference got $750,000 each for Brigham Young University and the University of Texas-El Paso's time in Albequerque, with the WAC getting another $750,000 for Fresno State University's matchup against Northern Illinois University -- which also brought in $750,000 for the Mountain West Conference. That's better than the $325,000 payout the Sun-Belt Conference and the Mid-American Conference each got for the Troy-Ohio contest in New Orleans, but still well behind the $17 million to $18 million conferences earn for each team sent to the five BCS bowls.
The Fiesta Bowl is one of 34 that will be played before the Bowl Championship Series title game Jan. 10.
Roughly $260 million will be doled out by the bowls this year, though more than half will immediately go to the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big East, Big 10, Pac-10, Big 12 and Southeast Conference -- whose champions get automatic bids and who soaked up most of the at-large bids this year -- and the Mountain West Conference, thanks to Texas Christian University's undefeated season. Why? Because the BCS soaks up money like water on cleat-trampled sod.
Frito-Lay paid millions for multiyear sponsorship of the Rose Bowl, Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl and Fiesta Bowl, respectively, with rotating sponsorship of the BCS Championship game. Fox pays $20 million per game to broadcast four of the five BCS games, while ABC's contract for the Rose Bowl cost it $300 million through 2014. This is how the BCS' five bowls can offer eight-figure payouts, while the most lucrative non-BCS bowl -- the
Bowl on New Year's Day in Orlando, Fla. -- offers the Big 10 and SEC $4.3 million apiece. The most lucrative bowl not to feature a conference with an automatic BCS bid, the
Liberty Bowl on Dec. 31 in Memphis, Tenn., drops the payday down to $1.8 million per conference -- and you have to win Conference USA as the University of Central Florida did for the right to play the SEC's eighth-best team.
"Is there a problem with that? I don't think so," says Robert Boland, sports attorney and professor of sports business at New York University's Tisch Center. "I'm a sports lawyer, and I think the BCS would pass antitrust scrutiny because it provides a pro-competitive effect that matches the best teams every year and has expanded the structure to allow more teams in."
If TCU's an example of that inclusion, it's a cautionary one. After fleeing Conference USA and joining the Mountain West Conference in 2005, TCU announced this year that it would play in the Big East next year, with all signs pointing toward that conference's automatic BCS bid as motivation. The University of Utah, which went 10-2 this year and finished second behind TCU, made a similar move to the soon-to-be PAC-12, where Stanford's second-place finish behind Oregon earned an at-large BCS bid.
This may drive revenue for new superconferences, with fees for the Big East and Big 10 television networks bringing in more cash for their conferences and Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott considering a television network for the new Pac-12, but it's also driving some teams to the poorhouse in the short term. The University of Connecticut, which sealed its first BCS bid when it won the Big East this year and earned the right to play Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, is on the hook for $2.5 million in unsold game tickets (which cost $111 to $268 apiece), 550 $125 to $225 hotel rooms, chartered flights for the team, staff and a 300-member band and bowl bonuses for head coach Randy Edsall and his crew, according to the New Haven Register. The Huskies' estimated cut of the Big East's $18 Fiesta Bowl payout is around $3 million, which almost assures they'll lose money on the game.
They're in good company, as a host of college teams lose money on their bowl bids each year.
So why go? Because there's still big money in it, especially for coaches who use bowl appearances as resume points and team-building tools. It's a lot easier to keep your job and keep the recruiting pipelines flowing when your program appears in a bowl each year, but it's also a great way to put a podunk program on the map.
"If you're a coach and your team doesn't go to a bowl, you may be hitting the unemployment line," Boland says. "If you've gone to a bowl, you can point to that and maybe keep your job for a year and show you're on an upswing."
A university's bowl invite is also an investment in its players. The NCAA gives bowl teams an extra 15 practices, which is the fundamental equivalent to a college team's all-important spring practices and can help a young team build toward the seasons ahead. It's also an extra game on a bigger stage, which never hurts when trying to get your young players some experience or give your seniors a chance to extend their careers a bit. Most importantly, a bowl is a lucrative money magnet for programs looking to fill the seats and the coffers for homecoming.
"Athletic departments make money two ways: off of direct benefit -- what the bowl pays out -- and off the giving of alumni," Boland says. "It's a lot harder as an athletic director to mail out to various alumni houses and ask them for even a small donation when your team has missed a bowl game versus getting to a bowl game, throwing a party and asking them to help out more last year."
Athletic departments make money two ways: Off of direct benefit, what the bowl pays out, and off the giving of alumni," Boland says. "It's a lot harder as an athletic director to mail out to various alumni houses and ask them for even a small donation when your team has missed a bowl game versus getting to a bowl game, throwing a party and asking them to help out more last year."
As for everyone else, bowl games are a great way for a local company to connect with its key audience and for a local multimillion-dollar facility to fill its schedule. That's how the
San Diego County Credit Union
came to sponsor the Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 23, the new Yankee Stadium came to Syracuse and Kansas State in the
Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 30 and how Detroit managed to put a local company and an event-needy facility together for the
Pizza Bowl on Dec. 26. While it also works to tap into a hungry college crowd -- with
advertising heavily in its restaurants and on its cups for its New Year's Eve bowl in Atlanta and
' Outback Steakhouse using its New Year's Day bowl in Tampa to push sales of its gift cards -- bowl sponsorship has less conventional uses as well.
After years of introducing itself to America through racy Danica Patrick Super Bowl ads,
is now hoping sponsorship of the former
Bowl in Mobile, Ala., on Jan. 6 will make sports fans more aware of its Web hosting.
( KFT), meanwhile, bought sponsorship of the former
Bowl in San Francisco and created a massive social-media campaign across Facebook and YouTube not to push mac and cheese on a hungry football public, but to provide 20 million meals to Feeding America to feed hungry families through its Jan. 9 Fight Hunger Bowl.
"Kraft is probably looking at that bowl game in a nontraditional sense, because it's all about the cause," says Bill Glenn, senior vice president of event and marketing firm
. "Kraft wants to sell more Kraft products, but if you look at the true title of the bowl, it's all about cause marketing -- even if it isn't the most flowing bowl title."
-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.
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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.