Bowling on a Budget

College football programs look to save money by bringing fewer people to their postseason games.
December 22, 2009

Hoping to reduce expenses in what has been a rough budget year, a number of college football programs are cutting back on the number of guests they bring along to bowl games.

Boston College made headlines two weeks ago when it announced that it will not bring along its 180-member marching band to its football team’s appearance in the Emerald Bowl in San Francisco this Saturday. Institution officials cited the high cost of travel and the game’s proximity to Christmas Day in their rationale for not bringing the band. The decision, however, is not sitting well with current band members and recent alumni.

"I understand the economy isn't great, but the students should not suffer," Jen Greenwich, a 2008 graduate and former band member, told The Boston Globe. “I'm sure the football team will be a little miffed when they find out that athletics isn't sending their band. I think the holiday would be a valid reason for students to not go, but many students are willing to sacrifice the holiday for the team. That's the kind of dedication and heart that the band has."

Similarly, the University of Nevada at Reno will not be taking its marching band to its football team’s matchup in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl in Honolulu this Thursday. There will be music for the big game against Southern Methodist University, but it will come from an unlikely group.

"At $189 a night plus tax for six nights and maybe three or four members of the band per hotel room, it starts to add up," said Chad Hartley, Nevada spokesman. “That’s why we won’t be taking our band. We are, however, working with the University of Hawaii, and their band is learning our fight song and will play with us at events. As a fellow conference member, they are willing to do so. We’ve already sent some shirts and some gear over to the islands for them to don Nevada silver and blue for the game.”

Band members are not the only ones who will have to watch Nevada play from home. Hartley noted that the university will take fewer cheerleaders to the game and will not bring along some of the football team’s younger members and red-shirt players, who only compete on its practice squad and not in actual games.

In addition, Hartley noted that the university also made significant cuts to its “official party,” or those members of the athletics department, administration and faculty whom the institution pays to bring along. For example, the university will hire a local photographer at the event rather than bring along the official team photographer. A few senior administrators also volunteered not to go to in order to save the program money.

Hartley estimated that Nevada would bring 150 people (including an 80-person football squad) to the Hawaii Bowl, down from about 200 (including a 100-person football squad) when the team played in the same game back in 2005. He also noted that the university plans to see a net financial gain from the trip, considering that expenses are projected to be less than the bowl payout to the institution. In 2005, Nevada received a payout of $400,000 from the Hawaii Bowl – after its conference subtracted the cost of travel from the top – and went home with $133,605 after expenses. This year, Harley noted that the institution will receive a payout of $375,000 from the bowl and hopes to bring nearly $150,000 back after expenses.

Nevada’s plans for their meager bowl profit, Hartley said, include helping pay down the athletic department’s operating deficit.

“Every little bit helps if you’re facing a deficit,” Harley explained. “It’s not a wise course of action to spend outlandishly when you can bring some money back in to the department to address some of the concerns you have overall. We plan from the moment we know we’re in a bowl game. We set a budget number – this is how much we’d like to save from the payout – and we work to get that done.”

Nevada, however, has the luxury of not having to purchase any tickets from its allotment to Hawaii Bowl that go unsold – an unforeseen cost passed along to institutions by many other bowl games. This makes planning for a net gain after expenses a much easier proposition. Most institutions that attend bowl games actually lose money because of this extra cost, especially smaller programs playing in poorly attended lower-tier bowls. For example, The San Diego Union-Tribune recently reported that unsold tickets to bowl games cost universities and their athletic conferences $15.53 million last year in the 34 games combined, an all-time high and an increase from the 2007-8 bowl season, in which the total cost was $14.9 million.

Those football programs that do not have the luxury of escaping extra ticket costs and often cannot plan to bring back funds from a bowl trip are simply trying to spend within their bowl payout.

“The expenses are always increasing year to year, but the allotments from the bowls and our conference don’t always increase,” said Garry Bowman, spokesman for the University of Minnesota at Twin Cities. “Schools are under a lot of financial pressures, so I can see why some of us are pulling back in certain areas.”

Minnesota is saving about $60,000 on its trip to the Insight Bowl, in Tempe, Ariz. on Dec. 31 by chartering smaller planes than it has in years past. As a result, Bowman explained, the 40 or so members of the athletics department’s support staff who cannot fly in the smaller chartered planes will fly commercial. Minnesota is also saving another nearly $40,000 by limiting the number of marching band members and cheerleaders it will bring this year to 400, the same number as last year, even though membership in the groups has grown.

Perhaps the biggest change at Minnesota, however, is that non-athletics department staff members are no longer part of the university’s “official party” and will not have their trip to the bowl covered; this includes the president and his executive committee, the vice president, faculty representatives and members of the Board of Regents.

As of last week, when the latest budget estimates for this year’s trip were available, Minnesota was still within its budget. It will earn $1.35 million for its appearance in the Insight Bowl versus Iowa State University, but it will spend nearly $1.2 million along the way.

Last year, -- when it appeared in the same bowl game in Tempe -- Minnesota earned $1.3 million for the bowl and spent all but $1,460 of it. The university did not sell 8,988 of the tickets it was allotted. As a result, the Big Ten paid most of the $494,340 price tag for the unsold tickets.

“We are provided an allotment by the Big Ten to cover expenses and any unsold tickets and we will not exceed that figure,” Bowman explained in an e-mail. “Since the Big Ten shares all bowl revenue, we will receive another payout once all the bowl proceeds are dispersed. Those monies will go into our general fund, which pays for everything from scholarships and salaries to faculty expenses and debt service. The reason we have made these cutbacks is that we are trying to be good stewards of the funds we receive from the Big Ten. We are unwilling to take a loss on traveling to a bowl game, so we will always do what is necessary to stay within our budget.”


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