In 2018, with his school facing the possibility of cutting staff to make up a huge shortfall in state funding, Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier added a football game at Florida State to the Huskies’ schedule.
The road trip came with a $1.6 million payout to NIU.
“Florida State, essentially, saved people’s jobs,” Frazier said.
Guarantee games, or buy games, are essential to many athletic departments that field Division I football teams but have far smaller budgets than those at Power Five schools. Even before the pandemic spawned a financial crisis, most Group of Five schools were using university funds and student fees to help pay for athletics.
This season, 39 major college football schools have scheduled a total of 49 buy games worth an estimated $65 million. If coronavirus disruptions cause Power Five teams to play more or only conference games, it could leave huge holes in the athletic budgets of schools already stretched thin.
The largest payout for a one-game deal with no return this season reportedly is $1.9 million by Auburn to Massachusetts. UMass has a $10 million budget for football. The Auburn game scheduled for Nov. 14 offsets much of the expenses for the rest of the Minutemen’s schedule, athletic director Ryan Bamford said.
“If we lose that and we’re playing 11 other games, then it’s a major impact,” he said.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, whose school is a football independent, has encouraged conference commissioners to consider abbreviated schedules that preserve traditional nonconference rivalries (Florida-Florida State, for example) and high-profile games (such as Notre Dame-Wisconsin at Lambeau Field). That could protect Notre Dame, which has a five-game scheduling agreement with the ACC and traditional rivalries against USC, Stanford and Navy.
But if the wealthy Power Five conferences — ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — close ranks, Group of Five schools will be out millions.
The 12 MAC teams are playing 18 guarantee games this season, including Akron going to Clemson for $1.1 million. Earlier this week, Akron announced it was dropping three sports programs as a cost-cutting move because of shrinking revenue across the university due to the pandemic.
NIU, which has been one of the most successful programs in the MAC for more than a decade, has just one guarantee game among four out of conference this year: A $1.1 million deal to play at Iowa on Sept. 26.
“Any time you talk about half a million, a million, a million and a half, two million, and you’re talking about the budget our size here, which is just over $30 million, you’re talking about a significant dollar amount of projected revenue that has to be made up,” Frazier said.
If there is an emphasis on conferences games, the losses would trickle down to the FCS level. There are 114 FCS-FBC matchups this season, including many involving Group of Five schools. The payouts to FCS schools from FBS range from $200,000 to $750,000.
Arkansas State is getting $1.8 million to play at Michigan on Sept. 19. That’s easy for Michigan to cover when it’s playing in front of 110,000 fans. But what about if it’s just friends and family in the Big House?
Arkansas State athletic director Terry Mohajir said his budget would take a hit if the Red Wolves of the Sun Belt can’t play at Michigan.
“But I would think that as much as it hurts us, it’s going to hurt them, too,” Mohajir said. “I would imagine they make $15 to $17 million per home game. Our game against them is not as important to winning the Big Ten.”