Two years from today, on Sept. 18, 2021, the Arkansas State Red Wolves will file into Husky Stadium for what, we would assume, will be a 60-minute beatdown.
For this privilege, the Red Wolves will receive a $1.75 million paycheck from the University of Washington — a sum that would be jaw-dropping except for the fact that our jaw dropped long ago on this topic.
The cost of college football buy games, in which a Power Five team pays a Group of Five or FCS opponent to play the role of Saturday snack, has been steadily rising.
But Washington’s payment to Arkansas St. is next-level stuff in the Pac-12.
Deep-pocketed programs in the Big Ten and SEC, with their 100,000-seat stadiums, have paid more than $1.5 million for buy games for years.
Arkansas State is a chief beneficiary. The Red Wolves reportedly took $1.7 million from Alabama last year and $1.8 million from Georgia this year.
Most buy-game paychecks written by Pac-12 schools are in the high-six-figures or low-seven-figures.
The Hotline is aware of just one other contract in conference history to exceed $1.3 million: Oregon paid San Jose State $1.6 million for a game last year.
But that price tag was artificially inflated. After Texas A&M cancelled a home-and-home series — the result of its move into the SEC — the Ducks were left scrambling to find an opponent. San Jose State obliged, after using its leverage.
Washington wasn’t looking for a replacement meal for the third week of the 2021 season, but the timing worked to Arkansas State’s advantage nonetheless: The contract was signed last fall.
“There were only a few years left (until the date of the game), and we didn’t have a lot of options,’’ Washington athletic director Jen Cohen told the Hotline.
Buy games receive far less attention than other football-related expenses, like staff salaries and facility upgrades, but they’re significant — and climbing.
Five years ago, Georgia State visited Husky Stadium for just $900,000.
In that short time, the price has doubled.
“The schools in that business are sophisticated,’’ Cohen said. “They’re getting smarter about waiting.”
The closer Power Five programs get to kickoff, the more desperate they become.
“It’s supply and demand,’’ said Dave Brown, a former ESPN programming executive who operates GRIDIRON, a scheduling software system.
“And now some teams are playing two Power Five games per year, which takes two guarantee slots out of the system.”
Why so much demand for buy games on the Power Five side?
Why were the Huskies desperate enough to spend $1.75 million on an opponent that won’t excite fans and should be an easy win? (Arkansas State lost 55-0 at Georgia last week.)
UW’s financial model includes annual payments of $14.8 million on the debt service for the Husky Stadium renovation.
To make the math work, Cohen said, the Huskies rely on million of dollars in revenue from seven home games per year (ticket sales, concessions, parking and merchandise).
When the Apple Cup is in Seattle, in odd years, they need two non-conference home games.
When the Apple Cup is in Pullman, in even years, they need three non-conference home games, or two plus a lucrative neutral-site date (like the Auburn game last year in Atlanta).
Many Power Five schools have long-term debt obligations and similar financial models: They need seven home games.
But there are only so many snacks available for the insatiable Power Five budgets — and few in the west.
Half of the 130 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision are in the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and Pac-12 (plus Notre Dame).
Only 14 of the 65 teams in the so-called Group of Five are based in the Mountain or Pacific time zones (or Hawaii).
But it’s not really 14, because the likes of Brigham Young, Boise State and San Diego State could hardly be considered cupcakes and would insist on playing Pac-12 opponents in a home-and-home series.
Meanwhile, the Arkansas States and Georgia States of the Sun Belt Conference have myriad opportunities to play in nearby Power Five stadiums and little incentive to schlep to the west coast — unless the price is absolutely right.
“There aren’t a lot of options for folks who are willing to come to Seattle,’’ Cohen said.
“We have to be competitive with leagues that have schools that want seven home games and have tremendous resources and that are willing to pay.”
Not every program in the Pac-12 uses the same model.
Colorado, for instance, prefers to play home-and-home series with schools on the Front Range of the Rockies: Air Force, Colorado State and Wyoming.
Those games make sense for all involved. The visitor and its fans can drive, lowering expenses and boosting net profit.
(Washington doesn’t have a non-conference FBC opponent within 500 miles of campus.)
Meanwhile, Oregon State played the role of Arkansas State last year, accepting $1.7 million for a beating at Ohio State.
Athletic director Scott Barnes said OSU’s days as lunch for a blue blood are over.
“To not play that kind of game is an investment in our program,’’ he told the Hotline.
His view of the future of buy-games:
“It’s market driven, and it’s only going to continue to increase. It’s not unlike in basketball. And in the west, it’s even harder.”
For Pac-12 programs unwilling to pay for Group of Five opponents, there are two primary options:
Single-date home games against FCS opponents, or home-and-home series against Mountain West or Power Five opponents.
Both carry obstacles and concerns:
FCS teams do little for ticket sales and are increasingly costly; their asking price is rising because so many Power Five are loath to pay the Group of Five rate.
But there are only so many Power Five teams available for home-and-home series.
“A lot of them want seven home games, too, and they have the odd-even year schedules issues,’’ Cohen said. “So the opportunities are cut in half.
“Philosophically, I’m torn, because if we didn’t have these games” — the buy games — “how would these programs be afloat (financially). It helps sustain football, but I’m not sure we can sustain the model.”
At some point, she said, the price for the likes of Arkansas State will become untenable for the Power Five business models currently in place.
“Athletic directors are having conversations about the escalation in guarantees,’’ she said.
“You want the most competitive schedule you can give your fans, and how do you meet that objective? I’m not sure of the future. There will come a time when these games aren’t profitable.”
Which could have ramifications up and down the food chain.