The Math, Money, and Scheduling Mayhem Behind College Football's 12th Game

Michael CollinsAnalyst IAugust 21, 2009

August is the cruelest month for football fans. Heat, humidity and sweat sweep over the dead land in two-a-days, catching us between memory and desire, mingling historical ghosts and anticipatory future greatness with the specters of past failed expectations lingering over our shoulders.

We can begin to see the sprouts that summer rain, perspiration and summer workouts and conditioning programs bring to our favorite teams.We are less than two weeks away. We are all delusional in anticipation—without the brakes of retrospection.

The 12th Game

So, for now, let’s look back on how the college football landscape has changed over three years with the introduction of the 12th game.

Opposition to the 12th game included some heavy hitters—the football coaches (the AFCA), the ACC, the Knight Foundation and the Coalition of Intercollegiate Athletics, which represents 47 FBS schools. FCS schools (D-IAA at the time) rejected the proposal. The D-1 Board passed the proposal 8-2.

“An overwhelming majority (of coaches) are against this, and their rationale is the student-athlete,” Grant Teaff, executive director of the AFCA said in 2005. “But we’re realists. Even though we came out and said we’re against it, we knew it was a financial issue for institutions.”

Unbalanced Schedules

This year, of 66 BCS schools (the 65 conference schools and Notre Dame), only 15 (23% or less than one in four) will play a 6-6 schedule balanced between home and away games. The other 77% (51 teams) have utilized the 12th game to increase home games and/or include big payday neutral site games.

  • Seven schools will have 8-4 schedules (Michigan, Penn State, Tennessee, Auburn, North Carolina State, Oklahoma State, and Syracuse).
  • The first three will maximize the home game benefit from stadiums whose capacity is greater than 100,000—more than neutral site venues. Auburn’s home game capacity is 87,000.
  • LSU with a stadium capacity of 92,000 reportedly makes $3-4 million per home game. In two of the last three years, the Tigers have had an 8-4 schedule.
  • 26 schools have a 7-5 schedule.

“It was quite clear that the motivation for mounting a 12th game was financial,” said Bob Eno of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics in 2005. “Well, the motivation for having intercollegiate athletics is supposed to be for educational enhancement.”

Neutral Site Games (Plus More Home Games)

Neutral site games are becoming common. 18 BCS schools (27%) will play a neutral site game. More schools have neutral site games than have a 6-6 schedule (15).

  • Eight schools have 7-4-1 schedules (Florida, Alabama, Arkansas,  Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Ohio State, and Notre Dame).
  • Eight schools have 6-5-1 schedules (Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Virginia Tech, Georgia, Washington State, and Illinois).
  • Two schools will play two neutral site games in a 6-4-2 schedule (Missouri and Oklahoma).
  • Only four non-BCS schools will play neutral site games (BYU, Toledo, Army, and Navy).

The advantage of the 12th game coupled with large stadiums like the Georgia Dome, the new Meadowlands stadium, the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando and the new Cowboys Stadium in Dallas looking for ways to fill seats have led to the phenomenon of  big payouts for neutral site games.

Arkansas and Texas A&M inked a ten year contract to play each other in Cowboys Stadium for $5 million each per year—more than a BCS at-large participant and without having to share the revenue with their conference teams.

Big-time college football has entered a new era with 12th game scheduling, neutral site games, new rules for playing FCS teams and national and conference TV contracts. With $205 million per year from CBS and ESPN, SEC coffers are overflowing. Each SEC school will benefit with over $17 million per year from the TV deals. Notre Dame makes $9 million per year with its contract with NBC.

Four SEC teams—Florida, Alabama, Arkansas, and Georgia—will play neutral site games this year, reeling in more money for their schools.

Breakdown by Conference

Both the Big East and the Pac-10 have 50% of their schools playing a 6-6 schedule. The ACC, which opposed the 12th game, has 67% (eight of 12) teams playing an unbalanced scheduled.

The three top conferences with unbalanced home-away schedules are:

  • The Big 12—92% (11 of 12 teams, 12 neutral site games)
  • The SEC—92% (11 of 12 teams, 4 neutral site games)
  • The Big Ten—91% (10 of 11 teams, 2 neutral site games)

Only one Big Ten team (Indiana), one SEC team (Vanderbilt) and one Big 12 team (Colorado) play a 6-6 schedule.

The overwhelming winner in scheduling neutral site games is the Big 12. 10 of their 12 members have neutral site games in 2009 with two schools with two neutral site games. Only Colorado and Nebraska are not involved in neutral site games, though Colorado had one in Denver in 2008.

Two Big Ten teams (Ohio State and Illinois), one ACC team (Virginia Tech), one Pac-10 team (Washington State), one Independent (Notre Dame), two non-BCS Independent teams (traditionally, Army and Navy), the two non-BCS teams (BYU and Toledo). No Big East teams play neutral site games this year.

Are the Rich Getting Richer?

No question. While the Big Ten only has two teams with neutral site games this year, many of their schools have stadium capacities of over 100,000.

Seven of the Forbes’ Top 10 richest college football programs will have neutral site games this year in addition to their TV revenues. Of the other three, Michigan and Tennessee have eight home games in stadiums over 100,000. LSU will have thirty home games from 2006-09. The Tigers paid a BCS record of $2.85 million to four visiting teams last year. Forbes Top 10 includes five SEC schools.

“(College football) is not a student’s game as it once was. It is a highly organized commercial enterprise. The athletes who take part in it have come up through years of training; they are commanded by professional coaches; little if any initiative of ordinary play is left to the player.

The great matches are highly profitable enterprises. Sometimes the profits go to finance college sports, sometimes to pay the cost of the sports amphitheater, in some cases the college authorities take a slice for college buildings.”  —Carnegie Commission Report, 1929

Commercialism and Costs

The Carnegie Commission Report’s statement from eighty years ago is similar to those concerns issued today about big-time college football.

“The Commission received reports on three new financial studies commissioned by the NCAA that examine operating revenues and expenditures and spending on athletics facilities. The Commission noted that even without full costing of capital expenditures and staff compensation, the preliminary data show that from 2001 to 2003, athletics spending grew at a rate four times faster than overall institutional spending.” —Knight Commission, May 23, 2005

In short, despite the drain on college resources, colleges are expanding stadiums and their facilities to keep pace with the competition, paying spiraling coaching contracts, travel costs, national recruiting costs and opponents’ buy-in game fees.

However, few teams can cover their costs. In a recent study, only 19 teams in FBS football make enough profit to cover their costs without raising student fees or getting a subsidy from the university to support the football program. The gap between those elite football teams and the others would appear to be on the rise in the coming years.

Imagine what the Carnegie Commission would say about athletic apparel contracts, stadium sponsorships, advertising, Jumbotrons, luxury boxes and mega-TV deals.

In the last week, the SEC has acted to restrict photographs and videos of its games and players for use on Internet websites that charge for access or advertising. The conference, with its broadcast partners, view these uses as infringements on their rights.

The soon-to-launch SEC Digital Network will market highlight reels, videos and slideshows—for a price.

Non-BCS and FCS Game Impacts, More Conference Games?

More non-BCS and FCS games are being scheduled than ever before to fill out the schedules for the ninety-two games over a 6-6 schedule.

  • Only 16 BCS teams will not play a FCS opponent this year.
  • Only five BCS teams—Notre Dame, USC, UCLA, Washington, and Tennessee—have never played a FCS opponent.
  • Eight teams—Rutgers, Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Kansas State, Iowa, Mississippi, and South Florida—will play two FCS opponents (only one counts as a win).
  • The typical buy-in fees for those games is rapidly approaching $1 million.

Could FBS football survive without a 12th game? Does FCS football with 11 games and a majority on the road need the income from the BCS opponent game?

Delaware State has already lost a game this year, forfeiting to North Carolina A&T on October 17 for the $550,000 check to play Michigan in the Big House as one of the Wolverines’ eight home game opponents.

Michigan Athletic Director Bill Martin explains the revenue/cost/competition dilemma: “We (Big Ten Athletic Directors) talk about that at every meeting. As the guarantees (for non-conference games) go up and up and up and the fans want to play our sister institutions in the conference, to me it’s a no-brainer. Play ‘em…” and “It is a revenue hit to you (losing a home game), but you have to balance that with the responsibility to give your fans some quality opponents.”

The earliest that schedules could be adjusted for nine conference games is for the 2012 season. The problem for the Big Ten is that without adding a 12th team one team would have one less conference game. A 12-team Big Ten could also split into divisions and play a lucrative conference championship game. The clock is ticking.

The 12-team ACC, too has talked about having nine conference games, which could improve their strength of schedule rankings—as well as lower their costs for buy-in games. Are they too addicted to the extra home game?

Education vs. the Big Business of Football

The history of college football includes many instances where colleges and their organizations have tried to come to grips with the inclusion of football as entertainment within their mandate to educate.

Knight Commission Chairman William C. Friday, president emeritus of the University of North Carolina said in 2003:  “It is unacceptable to the Knight Commission–and, we trust, to other university presidents as well—that nearly two-thirds of the teams participating in bowl games fail to graduate at least 50 percent of their players. It is a reasonable—indeed, minimum—standard for demonstrating that academics are valued in big-time college football.”

The current average NCAA graduation rate is 60%. Why not reserve bowl participation for teams that graduate more than 50% of their players? No problem, right? Any school should be able to graduate one out of two football players in six years.

For the 2008-09 bowl season, using the 50% graduation measurement:

  • Only 12 of 34 bowl games could have been played.
  • 33% of the participating teams failed to graduate at least 50% of their players.
  • The national championship game between Florida and Oklahoma graduated football players at 36% and 36%, respectively.

The graduation rates by teams in the national championship game is especially miserable. From 2001-08, only two of the 16 teams exceeded a 50% graduation rate—USC (58%) in 2004 and Nebraska (57%) in 2001. Eight of those 16 teams  had graduation rates in the 30-40% range.

For BCS conference breakdown, with teams graduating 50% or more in 2008:

  • Big East—100%, all 8 teams
  • ACC—83%, 10 of 12 teams
  • Big 12—75%, 8 of 12 teams
  • Big 10—66%, 6 of 11 teams
  • Pac 10—60%, 6 of 10 teams
  • SEC—42%, 5 of 12 teams

Off-season moves by the SEC include lowering admission standards to the NCAA minimum, verbal commitments by their schools to utilize some TV revenue towards improving educational outcomes of their players and limiting recruiting signing classes to twenty-seven per team per year.

Are we educating football players or just hiring them for entertainment?

Wasteland or Garden

In anticipation of the coming season, look farther down the road where there is no shade for those not blessed with large stadiums, neutral site games opportunities and lacking compelling matchups. A generation of student-athletes, who have a 50% chance of graduating college and care less about their “academic needs,” want to be paid. Their education is not enough.

There is shadow under improved graduation rates and the thirsty can quench under equitable revenue-sharing. With both, we may see more competition, less mediocrity, and the student-athlete with a promising future upon graduation.

Without either change, I will show you fear in an armful of unsold tickets, teams that resemble semi-pros, and a shrinking hierarchy in college football.

August becomes less cruel daily, as flexed sinews in soil and sweat comes closer to the clash triggered by  whistles. Sitting in the stands, would I sacrifice some of those players’ graduations and careers for a win or two more?

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