Wanna Play?

Along with the skyrocketing costs of fuel and transportation, another price bubble is affecting schools such as West Virginia in the area of football scheduling.

WVU, like every football-playing school, is facing steep increases in travel costs for its away games. However, it, like other top-tier universities, is also paying more in guarantees to those schools who make one-time only trips to Morgantown. It wasn't too long ago that West Virginia could get a low-tier Division 1 Bowl Subdivision or Championship Subdivision (1AA) team for around $100,000, depending on its proximity to campus. Now, however, a Championship Subdivision team's guarantee runs from $200,000-365,000 per date. And while that's a far cry from the payouts being made by teams with stadiums that seat 80,000 or more (Ohio State recently broke the bank with a $1.4 million guarantee for Navy), that' doesn't mean the Mountaineer athletic department isn't feeling the pinch either.

"The 12th game has really changed things," WVU deputy athletic director Mike Parsons said. "The teams with big stadiums and bigger budgets can pay more, and they want that extra game at home. They need that game, and they can pay more to get it."

West Virginia, with a 60,000 seat stadium, simply can't match offers for one game that schools like Ohio State, Georgia, Florida and others can. Those schools, which make far more money off one game than West Virginia does, can afford to offer at least a half-million dollars, if not more, for a one-and-done contract. It still makes economic sense for them, because they rake in far more money off the single game, even after the payout, than schools with smaller stadiums.

An unintended consequence of this, however, is that schools willing to play at WVU without a return game are starting negotiations out at a much higher level than in previous years, because they know that big money schools are offering much more.

"We're definitely seeing that in negotiations," Parsons confirmed. "Teams are starting out at a higher number. The payouts are going up across the board."

One bit of good news for WVU is that the majority of its out of conference games are still home and home affairs, for which the payout structures are much different. In these contracts, the visiting team gets enough money to cover its travel and help with the budget for that year, while the home team keeps the bulk of the revenue that's generated. That sets up the seemingly odd situation in which WVU and Auburn will actually receive less for their road trip than schools with a one-and-done deal, but in the end each school gets its chance to make a big payday with its home game. WVU's contract with East Carolina is closer to a home and home than a two-for one deal now, and the state-mandated payouts for the Marshall series aren't up for negotiation. Still, WVU has some holes in future schedules to fill, and the bulk of those will likely be either one-game shots or two-for-ones.

Some observers think it's a simple matter to schedule a one-off game. Call up Richmond or Ohio U, pick a date and play, right? It's just not that easy any more. Those schools know that big paydays await if they can get a game at Michigan or LSU or Florida State, so they angle for those games first. If they can't, the next tier of schools (for instance, WVU or Virginia Tech) can always be treated as a fall back, because they are going to be available later in the scheduling process. They pay less, due to the economics of smaller stadiums, and thus have less clout in forging contracts and deals far in advance. And as the amount of money paid by the mega-schools increases, it raises the price bar for everyone.

Still, the economics of top-level football demand that the seventh game be played at home in most, if not all, years. Parsons observed that West Virginia is in the same boat, as the Mountaineers need that seventh home game to help offset spiraling travel costs in all sports and keep the athletic program's budget balanced. And there are other reasons that schools must get that extra game at home.

"Coaches salaries have gone up, and schools have to figure out a way to pay those," said Parsons. "Plus the construction of new facilities, maintenance and upkeep factor in too. It's become a real thorn for some schools."

While private donations do cover some of those costs, they don't foot the entire bill. So, for schools in West Virginia's position, it may seem that they are caught in the middle. Playing at the top level of football in the country, the Mountaineers are able to do so with one of the lower athletic budgets of any of the upper-tier programs. Even with a quantum jump in that budget (from $24 million to the upper-$40s in just a few years), WVU must still watch every dollar it spends. And while everyone wants to see high-quality teams come to Mountaineer Field, the economics of getting those games is proving to be a more costly affair. While Ohio State termed its deal with Navy as "a special situation", payouts of $750,000 or more are becoming the norm for the mega-stadium schools. That's a level at which West Virginia simply can't compete.


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