By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — In terms of tickets sold, the contrast couldn't be greater between the FCS and FBS postseasons.
At the FBS level this week, a bevy of different news reports have been illustrating how difficult it has been for certain bowls to sell tickets to a "unenthused fan base".
But you can't claim that Sam Houston State and North Dakota State fans are "unenthused" about the FCS National Championship game to be held in Frisco, Texas this January.
While Rutgers and Virginia Tech have so many tickets available to the Russell Athletic Bowl, they're practically giving them away, North Dakota State recently make 1,500 standing-room only seats available to purchase through their athletics website. They were sold out in an hour.
Played on the blue turf on the campus of Boise State, the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl is one of the earlier bowl games on the postseason FBS schedule. This year it featured Toledo and Utah State, and also held out the promise of coverage on ESPN.
Out of a school alottment of 4,000 tickets, fans of the Toledo Rockets only purchased 300.
Like many bowls, the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl requires that the participating schools buy a certain number of tickets for its fans.
Unlike most bowls, however, "[Toledo] will not be required to pay for any of 2,000 tickets that go unsold," said Ryan Autullo of the Toledo Blade.
That means that the university was only on the hook to buy out 1,700 seats for the game rather than the 4,000 allocated to them, which ranged in price anywhere from $18 per seat to $160 per seat.
If the bought-out seats averaged in price for $100, that would mean Toledo would have been required to spend $170,000 of athletics budget money to buy out their allotment of tickets.
And the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl is actually one of the bowls that doesn't require an extorbitantly large ticket purchase.
In 2011, Virginia Tech went to the Orange Bowl, but was required to pay for a block of 17,500 tickets ranging in price from $75 to $225. Overall, they ended up losing nearly half a million dollars on their trip to the BCS Bowl.
“The public in general thinks if you’re going to a bowl game, your program is getting rich,” MAC commissioner (and former OVC commissioner) Jon Steinbrecher said recently to the Columbus-Dispatch. “What you’re really hoping for is to break even.”
Northern Illinois, who surprisingly crashed the BCS party this season by grabbing the next-to-last slot in the BCS standings this year, doesn't look like they're going to make it. After selling a grand total of 738 tickets to the GoDaddy.Com bowl last season, they seem more likely to take a bath on tickets and will come nowhere near the 17,500 allotment (which is literally 70% of the undergraduate enrollment of the school, which is 25,000 students).
"Reports filed with the National Collegiate Athletic Association show that nationwide last year, schools were saddled with $12.8 million in bowl tickets that went unsold or were given away — up more than $1 million from the previous year," the Newark Star-Ledger reported this week.
Why are fan bases refusing to buy tickets through the schools? Contributing to the shortfall is the fact that many people grab complimentary tickets and then rush to secondary marketplaces like StubHub to unload them.
If you're a Virginia Tech fan, why pay $72 for tickets through the athletic department to go to the Russell Athletic bowl when you can get them on StubHub for $5?
And even with a discounted ticket, many fans just aren't willing to fork over the money to take a week off to make a trip to a bowl game, especially if it's not one of the big ones.
"It's killing [Tech fan Mike] Fitzgerald to sit at home in Richmond and miss Tech's appearance Dec. 28 in Orlando, Fla.," the Daily Press recently reported, "for the Russell Athletic Bowl against Rutgers (9-3), but he just can't justify digging deep into his pocket to make the trip. His attitude isn't uncommon among Tech fans this year, as evidenced by slow bowl ticket sales through Tech's athletic department.
"With the bowl not being as good, the more responsible thing is to not go. In previous years, it was a little bit bigger game and I could say, 'Hey, I'll take off work and let's do it.' It just doesn't seem like a good idea now. If it was a bigger game, or something a little more exciting, I'd be like, 'I'm going.' … I hate that I'm not going."
The Daily Press put a price tag on a trip for a single adutl to the Orange Bowl, including accomodations and the game "conservatively" at $2,000.
"It's not just us here at Virginia Tech having trouble selling tickets," said Virginia Tech athletic director Jim Weaver. "It's happening at a lot of places. Somebody called to my attention (this week) that Nebraska had only sold 2,000 to 3,000 tickets (to the Capital One Bowl against Georgia), Michigan State was around 2,500 tickets (sold for the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against Texas Christian). It's just a whole different environment out there right now."
And tickets are only part of the story.
Hotels are frequently part of the bowl's package, and if fans don't make the trip to the bowl, the school is on the hook to pay.
“You can’t do a lot of shopping around,” Dan Hauser, Ohio’s senior associate athletic director for external operations, told the Columbus-Dispatch. (Ohio plays Louisiana-Monroe in the Independence Bowl.) “It’s not like we get to go to Shreveport (La.) and pick our hotel site. The bowl site says, ‘You’re staying here, here’s how long you’re staying, and, by the way, here’s the rate you’re paying.’ ”
If schools don't make their allotment of fans making the trip, they – again – have to pay the hotels for unused rooms, including a minimum of seven days for players and staff, and a minimum of three days for band members.
For Northern Illinois, that tab can be almost a half a million dollars.
There are other hidden costs, too.
“Bowls have partnerships with certain bus companies, and you have to use them on site,” Hauser said. “Over one week, we might spend $25,000 to $30,000 on buses. You can’t go out in the marketplace and get the lowest price. “And you submit (the team’s) menu to the hotel, and where it might have been $37 a head for dinner at your hotel at Penn State, the same menu at a bowl site might be $58 a head.”
Teams also need to pay for entourages, donors and athletic department personnel to go to the game, while also sponsoring parties and a host of other events for a week of festivities.
"Most bowl games are significant money-losing propositions," said Andrew Zimbalist, a leading expert in the business of college sports.
Such costs are why Steinbrecher has teamed up with other presidents of the MAC to help offset Northern Illinois' costs to go to the Orange Bowl. They will be pooling together to pay the Huskies four million dollars to make sure Northern Illinois doesn't run a giant athletics department deficit. Other schools, like Ohio, Bowling Green and Ball State will also be getting money from this fund, too, to help them break even on their bowls.
“It assures teams that we’re not going to take a (financial) bath. It’s not a red-ink budget to go to a bowl,” said Jim Elsasser, associate athletic director for internal affairs at Bowling Green.
Not all bowl games, of course, are money losers.
The Cotton Bowl in football-crazy Dallas basically sells out every year, frequently while FBS squads are still scrimmaging trying to find out who will be starting in the fall.
The historic Rose Bowl, with a classic Pac 12/Big 10 matchup between Stanford and Wisconsin, seems destined to make money with the hometown Cardinal scarfing up the schools' allotment of tickets and Wisconsin's allotment jumping when it was learned Barry Alvarez would unretire for one game to coach in the game.
And it goes without saying the FBS Crystal Ball game will also be a giant moneymaker for Notre Dame and Alabama. On StubHub, the cheapest ticket packages go for $1,000 a pop, and it seems likely that they will be hard to come by when the game is contested in Sun Life stadium in Miami.
But aside from a handful of bowls, even for so-called "big-time" programs the costs to play in the postseason can be astronomical – and hard to understand.
Take Rutgers and Virginia Tech, two programs that will be in the Big Ten and ACC next season, who will be playing in the Russell Athletic Bowl this year.
Combined, both sides have sold about 8,500 tickets of their allotment of 25,000. The ticket gap will be covered by the respective athletic departments.
Like the other bowls, they will be required to pay for unused hotel rooms, and the expenses, including travel and food, will also be footed by the athletic department.
And, like the other bowls, it looks like Rutgers and Virginia Tech will be spending money, not making money, to get their football team, band, cheerleaders, and donors in what's likely to be a half-empty stadium in Florida next week.
The announced attendance at the bowl will be an impressive-sounding number, and the TV ratings for ESPN will probably pull in more than a regular-season NBA game. The game, too, will not be without merit – one team will prove themselves in their final game of the 2012 season, and end as winners. The kids will get to play one more time, and will get gift bags from the bowl committee.
It's possible, too, that it might make for an interesting matchup on TV.
But it seems very likely they'll be playing in a mostly empty stadium, and paying a boatload of money for the privilege – and the school, the players, and their fans, deserve better.
The FCS National Championship game will be contested just a little bit north from Dallas Stadium, the home the Cotton Bowl.
At FC Dallas Stadium, in Frisco, Texas, it's smaller than the home of the NFL's Dallas Cowboys, with a capacity of a little over 20,500 fans.
But there are none of the issues that many bowls have in regards to selling tickets.
When Sam Houston State hung on to beat Eastern Washington 45-42 in Cheney, Washington last weekend, it ensured that the Bearkats, who are currently the closest FCS program to FC Dallas Stadium, would be contesting the championship game in their backyard for the second straight year.
"General public tickets were put on sale within an hour after the Eastern Washington game and were all but gone by 5 a.m. the next morning," Paul Ridings, Sam Houston State's assistant athletic director, told me. "Student tickets went really fast as well, in half a day."
While you'd expect tickets for the hometown team to go quickly, it might come as a bit more of a surprise that the Bearkats' opponents, the defending champion North Dakota State Bison, who beat Georgia Southern in a 23-20 victory, also sold out their allotment of tickets almost immediately.
After the schools sold out of their seats in record time, and other available seats were sold out by Tuesday, a limited number of standing-room only seats were also made available by the schools as well. At North Dakota State, they were sold out in a couple of hours.
"We expect this to be another outstanding FCS Championship game," said Damani Leech, NCAA director of championships and alliances and operations manager for the Division I FCS Championship. "With two great teams playing for the national championship in front of a sellout crowd, the atmosphere will be electric. In addition, many people have put in a lot of time and effort into making sure that the participating teams and their fans have a tremendous experience."
The FCS postseason works very differently from how bowls are done in FBS.
From the first round of the FCS playoffs all the way to the semifinals, home facilities from the schools involved host the games. Schools can host games either by qualifying as seeds, guaranteeing a home game, or bidding for home games if they are unseeded.
"(The NCAA is) renting our facility, not dissimilar to a concert,” Peter Fields, Montana State's athletic director, recently explained.
"Each of the top four seeds in the FCS playoffs host at least one game," the Bozeman Chronicle continues. "The schools are required to submit bids for each game. Bids detail game day costs, Fields said. For example, he said MSU’s bid included the anticipated cost of snow removal, in addition to the costs of providing security, public address announcers and other expenses that go along with a football game. The NCAA then reimburses the university for those costs, while taking a portion of ticket sales. A percentage of the gate, about a third, goes back to the university, Fields said."
Unlike the teams losing money in mid-tier bowls, Montana State actually made about $50,000 in each of the two rounds of the playoffs they hosted, their second-round game against Stony Brook and their quarterfinal game against Sam Houston State, thanks to the NCAA's support.
That particular FCS quarterfinal game, like the low-level bowl games, appeared nationally on ESPN2 with no other football competition, but didn't cost Montana State a half a million dollars.
For visiting teams, the travel arrangements are handled through the official travel agency of the NCAA, while the accomodations are handled by the hosting venue.
Sam Houston State will take bus transportation to Frisco, while North Dakota State will fly their team to the site.
For the championship, "Each team has an official travel party of 145 persons for the game," Leech told me. "That travel party gets its transportation fully covered and gets a $130 per diem to offset their hotel and meal expenses."
Basically, unlike the bowls, where the athletic departments can get soaked, for the playoffs the NCAA actually subsidizes the experience.
And according to North Dakota State head football coach Craig Bohl, it will be an experience that a good hunk of the citizens of North Dakota will be partaking.
“I know our fan base thoroughly enjoyed it,” Bohl said in regards to last year's trip to the championship game. “In a couple weeks, the last person in North Dakota better turn out the lights, because I don’t know if there’s going to be anyone left in the whole state.”
While nobody pretends the FCS national championship game makes millions of dollars for the member schools, it provides a clear-cut champion, an intense fan experience, and a sellout crowd – and it doesn't cost the school millions of dollars to be a part of it either.
"I would like to thank Team Frisco, the Southland Conference, the mayor of Frisco and Hunt Sports Group for all the hospitality you have shown us in Frisco," head coach Willie Fritz said this week. "We had a great experience last year, obviously other than the final score of the game."
As of today, the FCS National championship is still a hot ticket. On StubHub, they're going for $160 a ticket.