On a Sunday afternoon in early December, the Northern Illinois football team gathered on its DeKalb, Ill., campus to learn its fate.
A Cinderella story from the Mid-American Conference, the Huskies erupted in cheers when they received an invitation to play in the Orange Bowl.
But as players jumped on tables and threw their hands in the air, administrators set to work behind the scenes, wondering if their university could afford its big break.
“I’ve been in this business for a while,” said athletic director Jeff Compher, who has heard “… some not-so-great stories about schools that lost money in situations like this.”
There are 35 bowl games being played this holiday season, including five that belong to the elite Bowl Championship Series — the BCS national title game plus the Rose, Fiesta, Sugar and Orange bowls.
It’s no secret that teams often run up deficits traveling to minor bowl games that offer small payouts. More surprising, these tough economics can extend to the BCS.
Multimillion-dollar payouts get whittled down by complicated formulas and hefty costs, with competitors required to pay for large blocks of seats and expensive hotel stays. Schools turn a profit if they sell their allotted tickets, but not everyone can manage that. In recent years, Virginia Tech, West Virginia and Connecticut wound up in the red.
Bowl committees prefer to choose teams that will bring lots of fans — and discretionary income — to town. The payouts they offer do not go directly to teams.
For a non-BCS bowl game, the money is sent to the respective conferences. The Pacific-12, for example, should net about $31.2 million for placing eight teams in bowls, including Stanford and Oregon in high-paying BCS games.
Amounts can be dizzying as power conferences – the SEC, Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 – pool their postseason cash. The math gets trickier for schools from outside the power conferences.
Years ago, when the big boys created the BCS, they set aside 9 percent of revenues for five less-prominent leagues — including the MAC — whose regular-season champions do not automatically qualify for BCS games.
The non-automatic qualifying conferences will get $28 million this season because they have a non-AQ team in a BCS game.
The MAC figures to receive at least $12 million thanks to Northern Illinois’ success, commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. That would divide into $1 million shares for each of the conference’s members, but Steinbrecher realized early on that Northern Illinois faced major expenses.
The Huskies had to charter three planes to transport players, coaches, officials and band members to Miami. Not only was their designated team hotel relatively expensive, they had to check in for seven days as opposed to the four or five required for lesser bowls. And the Orange Bowl requires teams to buy 17,500 tickets, almost 2,000 more than Northern Illinois averaged at home games.
With actual sales at about 3,000 and with face values ranging from $75 to $225, Northern Illinois stood to lose millions.
The MAC recently approved $4 million in travel expenses to help Northern Illinois. Exact payouts will not be calculated until after the game, but the school should leave Miami with a reasonable profit.
“This is a celebration for the entire conference,” Steinbrecher said. “We’ve made it to a BCS game.”