When the Washington Huskies take the field Friday night for the Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco, expect all the pomp and pageantry that a postseason college football game promises as the capstone to a successful season.
Just don’t expect a big payday.
The university’s cheerleaders, its marching band and thousands of students, alumni and other UW die-hards are expected to be on hand, celebrating Huskies football before a national TV audience.
But for the fourth straight season, the UW’s participation in a non-Bowl Championship Series (BCS) game isn’t likely to rake in big bucks — if any at all — for the school’s football program.
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In fact, just covering the costs to participate in such a postseason contest is viewed as a financial victory, UW officials said.
“It is common for teams to break even or lose money on non-BCS games,” Robert Sasaki, the UW athletic department’s chief financial officer, said in an email.
The UW covered costs and made modest sums for its participation in the 2010 Holiday Bowl and the 2011 Alamo Bowl, records show. But the school lost about $250,000 for last year’s Maaco Las Vegas Bowl.
That leaves the purple and gold in the red by more than $56,000 for its last three bowl appearances.
And this year, Washington’s roughly $750,000 cut from the Fight Hunger Bowl’s $1 million payout to the Pac-12 equals the lowest reimbursement amount of any of the bowls the UW has played in four seasons.
It seems counterintuitive: The reward for a successful season for Washington’s big-money revenue sport actually isn’t a moneymaker. But in the economics of big-time college football, Washington’s paltry postseason take-aways are hardly unique.
“They’re all financial losers,” Transylvania University accounting Professor Daniel Fulks, a financial research consultant for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), said of non-BCS bowl games. “Unless you’re in a BCS bowl, you’re probably not going to make a dime.”
Playing in any of the five top-tier BCS bowl games hits a jackpot for a school’s conference of at least $17 million, with the National Championship Game offering the biggest bonanza: $18 million. But payouts for the 30 lesser bowl games? They come in, well, lesser, ranging from the Idaho Potato Bowl’s $325,000 to the $4.55 million offered by the Capital One Bowl.
How Washington and other schools typically get upside down in their non-BCS bowl budgets is by sending large entourages to the events, Fulks said. “Last time Nebraska went to the Orange Bowl, it took 1,000 people with them,” he said.
This year, Washington planned to take 450 people to San Francisco, including 100 players, 113 coaches and their family members, 187 members from the UW cheerleading squad and marching band and 50 other officials, including the UW president’s party and top athletic department staff members.
Tickets are another big cost, Fulks added. Schools that can’t sell all of the game tickets allotted to them at face value — or at all — can wind up eating big dough for hundreds or thousands of prime game seats.
Washington received 11,000 tickets to its bowl, with the Pac-12 pledging to cover any unsold tickets up to 5,500. The UW Athletic Department was selling tickets for $55. A department spokesman said 4,000 tickets had been distributed as of Thursday night.
Promoting the bowls
“If it’s true that teams are losing money, then we don’t have a bowl problem, we have a conference problem,” said Wright Waters, executive director of the Football Bowl Association, a nonprofit that promotes college football’s 35 bowl games.
For years, bowl games primarily have contracted directly with athletic conferences, Waters said. That means a bowl game’s payout goes to a school’s host conference, not the school itself. “Each conference determines the amount of money they are willing to give the school,” Waters said.
Last year, the 35 bowls paid out more than $290 million to 11 conferences, NCAA reports show. From that, the conferences netted about $206 million after expenses.
Washington’s Pac-12 Conference grossed $41 million in bowl revenues for 2012-2013 — fourth highest among all conferences. After expenses, the Pac-12 netted $29.8 million.
Pac-12 spokesman Erik Hardenbergh said the conference, a private nonprofit, doesn’t publicly comment on the amounts of bowl revenues it distributes to each school — a sum typically made in addition to the money the conference gets for the sale of its annual TV rights.
But the conference’s handbook sets a bowl-game reimbursement schedule for the bowls with which the Pac-12 contracts. It shows a set amount for each game that the conference pledges to reimburse each participating school for transportation and other expenses.
Such reimbursement payments can be hundreds of thousands or even millions less than what a bowl game actually pays the conference.
For instance, the Pac-12 will pay a school playing in the Rose Bowl — a game with a $17 million payout — $1.5 million for expenses, plus reimbursements for up to 600 seats on charter flights and an unsold-tickets subsidy. For the Alamo Bowl, which pays nearly $3.2 million to the conference, the conference pays a school $1.2 million, plus up to 500 charter seats and the ticket subsidy.
“The reimbursement usually does not cover the entire bowl game expense amount,” the UW’s Sasaki said.
True, but each university also controls the size of its travel party to a bowl game — a factor that largely determines whether it financially wins, loses or breaks even.
After the Pac-12 pays its allotted reimbursements for each bowl, any remaining bowl revenues go into a fund that, at the end of the fiscal year, can be divvied up equally among its 12 schools, whether each played in a bowl game or not.
So, in theory, even if Washington loses money directly by participating in the Fight Hunger Bowl, the conference will reward the UW down the line with other bowl-derived money under Pac-12 revenue sharing.
With a record nine of the conference’s 12 teams playing in bowl games this season, that distribution promises to be generous. Last year, if the conference doled out equal payments from the $29.8 million it netted from its eight bowl games, each Pac-12 school pulled down nearly $2.5 million.
But the distribution amount varies from year to year. While the conference has had at least four schools playing in bowl games every season since 1989, it put just one team into the postseason in 1980 and has had only two bowl participants in three years since 1975, Hardenbergh said in an email.
“The number of bowls each year is dictated by performance,” he added. “Our teams need to become bowl eligible with six wins. We have contracts with seven bowls, but we still must qualify.”
Lewis Kamb: email@example.com or (206) 464-2932. Twitter: @lewiskamb