Bowls' extravagant revenues are closely examined as the NCAA mulls a playoff system

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

Officially the document carries the label "2012 BCS Complimentary Tickets," but for LSU it looks more like the StubHub order from hell, nothing complimentary about it.

Two tickets for the school president to the BCS title game? That's $700. Four for the chancellor? That's $1,400. Les Miles' family? Three-fifty a pop. On and on it goes.

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To play the BCS halftime show, the LSU band had to fork over $182,830 for tickets. (AP)

One of the dirty secrets of many bowl games is that almost nothing is cheap. The industry, in this case represented by Sugar Bowl Inc., long ago learned how to squeeze every last penny out of college football. That includes charging even the stars of the show exorbitant prices for tickets.

How about a couple of free ones for the players to give to their parents or girlfriends or high school coaches? Please. The Sugar Bowl instead charged LSU $350 a seat, full price, for every last player request. Total cost: $254,800 on the players alone.

Oh, and the Tiger Marching Band, the one that is contractually obligated to attend bowl week and provide halftime entertainment? With bowls, not even the band gets in free. LSU had to buy tickets for every clarinetist, flutist, tuba player and majorette. Some of the seats, according to the Baton Rouge Advocate, just held the tuba.

That added up to 529 tickets, almost all full price. The bill for the student band to sit was $182,830.

That's $182,830 to get into a venue and give a free show to all the other paying customers.

[Related: All you need to know about the playoff discussions at the BCS meeting]

All in all, the "2012 BCS Complimentary Tickets" document obtained by Yahoo! Sports detailed most of what would wind up being a $526,924 bill LSU owed the Sugar Bowl just for tickets.

It isn't uncommon. Almost every bowl charges schools for everything it can dream up. That's how the industry works: cutthroat capitalism that has made these games and the people that run them rich.

Yet, now athletic directors and conference commissioners say the extreme profiteering is one of the reasons bowl games could be pushed aside as college football's power brokers meet this week in Florida to discuss the future of the postseason.

"Everything has changed in the last couple of years," said an athletic director at a BCS school. "The business practices of the bowl games are of great discussion. … When is enough, enough?

"There's a feeling that it's time to do it ourselves."

After 143 years, the sport is on the verge of a playoff, most likely a four-team entity. The details being hashed out have more to do with who gets to stage the games and whether college football is ready to make a clean break from the bowls with its most profitable games – semifinals and finals.

Plans range from having the semis held on the campus of the higher-seeded team to opening up all three games to bid by any city in the country, effectively turning its back on the major bowls that have controlled the postseason for a century.

There is also discussion about requiring teams to win at least seven games (up from six) to play in a bowl, something that could kill off at least half a dozen of the current 35 bowl games.

The majority of bowl games will continue to operate. However, cutting off the major ones from the lucrative television revenue to the championship-round games will carve into their finances – and thus the high salaries (up to $800,000 per year) and impressive fringe benefits (multiple country club memberships, his and her car allowances) of bowl CEOs.

As a result, the bowl industry is in full lobbying mode, trying to convince anyone who will listen to continue to outsource to them the sport's most valuable properties.

"It's intense," said one major conference athletic director. "There is an air of desperation."


Almost everyone inside college football enjoys bowl games, but there is apprehension about who is paying the bill.

Schools are required to take on huge ticket guarantees for games and have trouble selling the overpriced seats (Connecticut famously ate $2.9 million in tickets at the 2011 Fiesta Bowl). Meanwhile, travel expenses, which the schools are also on the hook for, have soared.

The result is that many teams lose money attending bowl games and others merely break even because conferences spread out bowl payouts.

It's accepted practice because, well, it's always been accepted practice.

Now, insiders say, a fresh chorus of questions are being asked at the same time the sport is ready for a sea change in how it crowns its champion and, in turn, who will control the hundreds of millions even a small playoff will produce.

This isn't the sole or even chief reason for the playoff talk. It is one of the reasons, though, and potentially a deciding factor.

"When did our job as a university become supporting the hospitality industry in certain states?" West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck said last year. "Football is an economic engine at every Division I school. You need a strong and successful football program to pay the bills. We have a limited number of games. When we put the Mountaineer football team on the field, it has to be a profit center."

Yet, too often schools not going to bowl games are making more for their athletic departments than the ones that are.

"Our institutions are excellent at generating revenue, we're just not doing it for ourselves," said Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin. "No one likes to lose money on a bowl game."

The charge-the-players, charge-the-band trick is just one of the more onerous tactics. They often have to pay full price even in half-full stadiums where the secondary market has similar seats running at 10 percent of cost.

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BCS executive director Bill Hancock (AP)

The Sugar Bowl did not respond to requests for comment, but it's worth repeating: This is common practice in the industry. Oregon had to buy 1,030 tickets for its players and band at up to $325 a seat for the 2011 BCS title game run by the Fiesta Bowl.

"The schools love being able to do this [provide family tickets] for their players, but they don't want to spend the money for it," BCS executive director Bill Hancock said. "The conference could take less money as a payout from the bowls and have them comp the tickets, but it would be less money flowing to the schools one way or the other."

There is another option, of course. The bowl could generate less profit.

Neutral-site preseason games regularly provide complimentary tickets. For example, the Washington Redskins gave Virginia Tech 1,050 free seats when it opened the 2010 season at Redskins Stadium against Boise State. The Hokies received no such deal when they ended the season at the Orange Bowl.

Major bowl games have the money. The most recent federal tax filings of Sugar Bowl Inc. show it ended its fiscal year with $34.2 million in assets, including $12.5 million in cash and $20.8 million in publicly traded securities. CEO Paul Hoolahan pocketed $593,718 in total compensation.

While financial numbers from this year aren't publicly available, the last time the Sugar Bowl "double hosted" – it's namesake game and the BCS title game – it did $34.1 million in revenue and turned an $11.6 million profit. Since the game enjoys a 501 (c) (3) non-profit status, that was all tax free.

LSU athletic director Joe Alleva declined to discuss paying over half a million for the title game tickets, however each year the NCAA asks athletic directors whose teams played in a bowl game to fill out a survey about their experience.

It contains myriad questions ranging from the quality of practice facilities to the location of the team hotel to whether the "supply and availability of towels, soap, soft drinks and other necessities" was up to par.

Alleva answered "very satisfied" to 25 of the 26 questions (there was none concerning final score) for the Tigers appearance in the BCS title game. Then there was the question pertaining to "the cost of game tickets."

"Neutral," Alleva wrote.


Tickets are but one worry. A number of athletic directors point to the considerable travel requirements for attending a game. Schools are obligated to purchase hundreds of hotel rooms at choice locations for prolonged stays, all determined by the bowl game.

Bowls were originally created in the first half of the 20th century as a way for cities to draw tourists during what was traditionally a slow travel period after Christmas. The idea was to get thousands of fans to accompany their team, via train, and hang out for a week.

Today we have air travel, interstate highways and far more disposable income. Post-Christmas isn't a slow time in say, Orlando. It's a boom week. Yet the bowls remain, only now with high prices.

For its 2011 BCS title game appearance in Arizona, Oregon and the Pac 12 were on the hook for 580 hotel rooms, some for as many as six nights, according to the school's game contract. One hundred of those rooms were at the Westin Kierland Resort and Spa: nightly rate, $319.

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Expenses piled up by Fiesta Bowl CEO John Junker have been called into question. (AP)

Once there, expenses rise. Food, parking, beverages, everything is at a premium. At the 2009 BCS title game in South Florida, the University of Florida was charged $40,000 for a conference room where the coaches held meetings, according to university documents.

"It's peak season in some of these places," said one major conference athletic director. "You're lucky to see $200-230 per night room rates. Plus, a lot team meals are in the hotel and they're expensive.

"Look at breakfast alone," the AD continued. "A gallon of orange juice at a nice hotel can cost $70 to $95. The coffee is more expensive than Starbucks. You'd think Juan Valdez personally picked the beans and hand-delivered them."

LSU, for example, spent $754,118 on meals and lodging alone this year.

It's great business for the hotels, but also for some bowl games which have cut deals with local hotel organizations for a "commission" for the business it brings to town.

The Sugar Bowl received $235,098 in "hotel/motel commission," according to its most recent federal tax filings, the money coming from a voluntary program run by the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association. The Fiesta Bowl said it has a similar 20-year arrangement with Scottsdale hotels. The Orange Bowl declined to discuss whether it did or didn't have such a deal.

That kind of kickback from the hotels is just one more stream of revenue from the schools to the bowls.


These are the numbers athletic directors discuss among themselves – that and the outlandish spending of bowl games, the most famous being former Fiesta Bowl CEO John Junker.

An internal Fiesta Bowl investigation found him living the high life on the bowl games dime for nearly two decades. The game paid for his four country club memberships, his $2,250 a month car allowance and a $33,188 birthday party he threw for himself. It picked up a $95,000 tab for he and other college sports power brokers to play a round of golf with Jack Nicklaus.

One year, he averaged an almost impossible $2,111.96 per day in expenses on his AMEX Black card.

"The Fiesta thing, to me, was, 'Hey, that's our money,' " said one major athletic director. "That's college football's money."

When they are deciding whether to include bowl games in the playoff, or whether to cut half a dozen small games off at the knees, money is going to be an issue. Maybe the bowls wind up as playoff hosts, even richer and more powerful than ever. Maybe they wind up on the outside looking in, a smaller role in the sport.

At this critical stage there is at least some movement to cut out an industry which has profited richly off the game yet still thinks Tyrann Mathieu isn't worthy of a couple of free tickets.

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