Conference-Only Power 5 Schedules Come at a Steep Price to Group of Five Schools

Across the country, Group of Five administrators are bracing for the budget hole that will be left without their big-money road games.
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In one of the gloomiest days in recent college football memory, Troy Dannen, if he looks hard enough, can find the glass at least fractionally full. In these dark pandemic times, he’ll accept even a small trace of liquid lining the bottom of the cup.

As Tulane’s athletic director, he oversees one of the rare Group of Five programs to not have scheduled this season what’s termed as a “buy game” against a Power 5 school, where in which big brother writes a hefty check to little brother for what’s usually a beatdown. As college football moves closer and closer toward a season in which non-conference games won’t exist, Dannen, unlike many of his colleagues, is in the clear.

“Fortunately, we didn’t schedule one this year, so we’re not relying on it to balance our budget,” he says, and then reality sets in, “but we are relying on football games.”

The Big Ten’s jarring announcement Thursday to play only conference games this fall eliminated a slew of marquee matchups. Ohio State and Michigan aren’t heading west for games against Oregon and Washington, respectively. Wisconsin and Notre Dame will not be meeting at Lambeau Field. Miami’s trip to East Lansing is scratched, and Penn State’s haul to Blacksburg is bagged. But other cancellations are even more significant byproducts to Monday’s grim news.

To find those, you’ll have to look to the Group of Five level, where Ball State will no longer get $975,000 for a game against Michigan; where Buffalo won’t get the $1.7 million for a meeting at the Horseshoe with Ohio State; and where Kent State won’t pick up the $1.5-plus million check from its road trip to Happy Valley.

In all, schools from the MAC may lose more than $10 million for missing the 11 scheduled games against the Big Ten. And cancellations aren’t over yet. The ACC and Pac-12 are both seriously considering a conference-only schedule. “This is not the last move that’s going to be made,” Dannen says.

And it’s one that not everyone agrees with. It’s not necessarily what the Big Ten did, but it’s how the Big Ten did it. High-ranking administrators and even some conference commissioners were caught off guard, their programs given no real warning for such a chilling financial impact. “It’s earlier than I had anticipated,” MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher says Thursday in an interview with Sports Illustrated. “We were very anxious to pursue a full season if at all possible. The non-conference and conference were important to us.”

Across the country, Group of Five administrators are bracing for the budget hole that will be left without their big-money road games. Nearly 40 Power 5 programs have scheduled a total of 49 buy games worth about $65 million, according to the Associated Press. The home team often shells out anywhere from $800,000 to $1.8 million for these matchups—fractional numbers for their own $100 million budgets but serious cash for the recipients.

A single buy game can be responsible for 5% of a G5’s budget. Some programs rely on these games more than others. Kent State is notorious for a schedule that often includes three buy games. In fact, this season, the Golden Flashes were scheduled to play Kentucky, Alabama and Penn State for a combined price of about $5 million, or roughly 17% of its athletic budget.

Kent State football players

The SEC hasn’t—yet—moved to a conference-only slate, and Bryan Maggard, athletic director at Louisiana, hopes it doesn’t. The Cajuns’ game against Missouri is worth $1.3 million. That’s not chump change for an athletic budget of $32 million. “In our space, that’s a significant hit to your budget,” Maggard says. “That’s a huge deal in our world, particularly if ticket sales are going to be down.”

The disappearance of buy games is the latest burden to befall athletic departments at the lower level of FBS, many of them already millions in the hole from the pandemic shutdown. While perception is that athletic departments are swimming in deep profits, the reality is that most at the Group of Five level barely break even, and they often need football revenue to get there.

Revenue-generators are different on this level than those on the Power 5. While P5 athletic departments lean heavily on seven-figure donations and eight-figure TV contracts, the Group of Five relies on state and institutional support, mostly through student fees, to stay afloat. The average G5 school got $21.7 million in athletic aid last year from its university, while that number among Power 5 schools was $5.5 million. In many cases, school funding is responsible for more than half of a Group of Five’s athletic budget.

With no students on campus, enrollment dipping and the overall economic downtown, institutional support is down. In fact, one Sun Belt Conference athletic director says his department has already lost about $1.5 million this summer without students on campus. No athletics, no students, no student athletics fees. Lump that in with expected lower ticket sales because of limited attendance—the absent buy games, too—and lower-level athletic directors are in quite a pickle.

And it’s not just those on the Group of Five level. The same goes for those in the FCS. “Our three sources of revenue are ticket sales, student fees and game guarantees,” says SWAC commissioner Charles McClelland. “If you interfere with any three of those, you’ll significantly impact our model and the way we do business.”

So what happens now? Some Group of Five athletic directors don’t plan to sit idly by. They wonder aloud if Power 5 programs are contractually forced to pay them at least a partial amount. One even suggested legal battles. “So do we end up in court?” the AD asked.

Many if not all contracts include a force majeure clause, a provision excusing one or both parties’ obligations when circumstances arise beyond their control that make the contract impossible. Like, for instance, a global pandemic. However, there could be a legal opening, suggests another Group of Five AD. In the Big Ten’s case, the conference still plans to play football—just not against conference foes. “At the end of the day, is there going to be enough reason to stand on to get out of paying the guarantees?” asks the AD.

These are things that, thankfully for him, Dannen doesn’t have to worry about. It’s luck more than anything else. While the Green Wave did plan to start scaling back on buy games, it played one each season the last three years. Auburn last year, Ohio State the year before and Oklahoma in 2017. This year, Tulane had a trip to Northwestern on the schedule, but that was part of a home-and-home. The Green Wave will host the Wildcats in 2025.

But what about that empty hole on the schedule? Well, says Dannen, at least it’s not a hole in the budget. “Those (buy) games have always been a significant line item in our budget,” he says, “but not this year.”

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