With today’s championship game between Alabama and Clemson fast approaching, and the rest of bowl season behind us, there is one aspect of bowl mania that seems to go somewhat unnoticed: bowl game payouts. Many fans might know, or perhaps wouldn’t find it hard to believe, that teams get paid for making bowl games. This payment comes from the College Football Playoff Selection Committee and the NCAA, who get that money through endorsements, television contracts, ticket sales, etc. Another unsurprising fact about bowl payouts is that more prestigious bowls featuring higher ranking teams payout more money. However, just as no two bowls are the same, neither are the budgets of the teams who play in them.
There were three teams this year that provided excellent examples of the impact bowl payouts can have for one team versus another, and in one particular example how one or two plays can either win or lose a program millions of dollars. These teams are the University of Washington, the University of Alabama, and the University of Utah (bear with me Fronte). Two of these teams played in the College Football Playoff Semifinal, while the third participated in the Foster Farms Bowl. As the above paragraph might lead you to believe, the payouts for these two games are extremely different.
In 2014, the first year of the College Football Playoff (CFP), statisticbrain.com listed the payout for each semifinal game, as well as the other New Year’s Six bowls, as $18 million for each team, with the championship contenders receiving an extra $4 million on top. In 2015 it seems the payout structure changed, where conferences received the money for each team that competed in either playoff games or New Year’s Six bowl games, with increased money for the playoff games versus the other games. The conference would then distribute the money however it chooses, though it seems reasonable to believe that the teams in the bowls themselves would actually get the money the earned. For reaching the championship game, each school would receive somewhere in the ball park of $2 million.
For the sake of the argument, let’s assume the payout numbers from 2014 were equivalent to this year’s payouts. This would mean both the University of Alabama and the University of Washington would both receive $18 million regardless of result. Another way of putting it would be a gift from the NCAA for being one of the best four teams in the nation. Now for Alabama that $18 million dollars is nice, but unnecessary. In the 2013-2014 season, reports place the revenue earned from football related activities to be around $150 million dollars. The $18 million payout would be just over 10% of their revenue for the year. As for Washington, their entire athletics department earned $67 million dollars in 2015. And to add on to that, the University of Washington athletics department reported a loss on their income statement during that fiscal year. The $18 million dollars seems much juicier to them than the Crimson Tide, and yet here they are playing against each other. While David vs. Goliath may have been a good description for the battle on the field, it was certainly fitting when the finances of the programs are considered. Therefore, the payout aspect of bowl games adds an incredible aspect to bowl mania. Alabama’s reward for making the playoffs: a chance for Nick Saban to try to etch his name in the history books next to Bear Bryant, and for a defense full of NFL-bound players to “prove” they’re the best team in the nation. Washington’s reward for making the playoffs: saving their athletic department from potential budget cuts, and allowing the Huskies to continue to compete across the wide range of sports they currently do. That fact makes their spectacular run to the PAC-12 Championship that much more special.
As for the third team, the University of Utah, a Foster Farms Bowl berth earned them about $2.5 million dollars. For a football program which generated $30 million dollars of revenue in 2013, and an athletic department earning a revenue of $46 million, $2.5 million is good…. ish. For the University of Utah, this $2.5-million-dollar payout serves as a reminder of how close they were to a whole lot more. Utah played to a respectable 8-4, 9-4 if you include their bowl win. USC, who represented the PAC-12 in the Rose Bowl had a record of 9-3, one win above Utah’s. Now imagine a world where Oregon doesn’t make a remarkable catch at the end of regulation to beat Utah earlier in the season, and Utah and USC have the same record. Also keep in mind that Utah beat USC earlier in the season. Doesn’t it stand to reason that Utah might then be in the Rose Bowl, taking home its $18 million payout? Makes $2.5 million seem pretty small. The point is not to argue over if-that-then-this scenarios, because sports, especially at the collegiate level, is full of those. The point is that one miraculous play for a team that ended their season 4-8 cost another team a shot at $15.5 million dollars more for their athletics department, which is huge for a school like Utah, and most likely not that big for a school like USC*. This adds to the wonderful excitement of college football, and how one play can mean everything to a program.
The argument here is that the impact of payouts in college football bowl games is an incredibly important aspect to the success of football programs, and in some cases entire athletic departments’ success, at many universities. At the end of the day, larger budgets and endowments are the roots for sustained success in college football. Ever wonder why teams that don’t always have good seasons seem to always land 4 and 5-star recruits? Big time money equates to big time stages.
*Financial data less available for USC as they are a private institution, and are not required to publish their financial reports