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Florida State enters college football's national championship game as a favorite on the field -- but as an underdog in the off-field financial wars.
Auburn, Florida State's rival in today's national championship game, has outspent every college-football program in the country except Alabama over the past three years, dropping $36.2 million a year to field a team, according to a Palm Beach Post analysis of federal data. Florida State, by contrast, ranks No. 21 in football expenses, spending an average of $21.4 million over the past three years.
And Auburn brings in twice as much money from football. FSU's average revenue for 2010, 2011 and 2012 was $37.8 million a year, less than half Auburn's $76.2 million.
The Seminoles are college football's only undefeated team and rank No. 1 in every poll. But FSU rates No. 22 in football revenue, behind Auburn and eight other teams from the Southeastern Conference, not to mention seven schools from the Big 10.
For college football teams recruiting promising high school players, the behind-the-scenes battle is contested with shiny new weight rooms, indoor practice fields and other posh facilities.
"We're keenly aware of the arms race," said Florida State Athletics Director Stan Wilcox. "Our prospective student-athletes are all savvy consumers."
FSU is hardly a pauper -- the school this summer completed a $15 million indoor practice facility for the football team -- but it lacks the torrent of revenue to compete head-to-head with richer teams.
Seminoles fans hope their team can knock off a deep-pocketed rival and create a Moneyball moment -- a term coined for the rich-vs.-poor battle in Major League Baseball, but a concept that resonates in the rich vs. upper middle class realm of college football.
"Florida State, throughout its existence, has never had the kind of resources other schools have had," said Carl Domino, a Palm Beach money manager and former head of the school's booster club. "But we've competed on the field."
An SEC team has won the national championship game seven years in a row, a stranglehold Atlantic Coast Conference champ Florida State aims to break.
"The SEC empire has turned into a monster," said FSU fan Bill Golson, former president of the Palm Beach County Seminole Club. "This shows you can compete."
Golson calls the SEC's success "a self-fulfilling prophecy," an argument that's difficult to dispute. With a team in the BCS title game for eight years in a row, the SEC routinely grabs a share of college football's biggest payday. Last January, the 14-team SEC received a $23.6 million payout by virtue of Alabama's appearance in the national championship game.
"Everybody talks about SEC dominance, and it's really a function of television revenue," Golson said.
While that's true, there's good news for Seminoles fans, said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College: The TV revenue gap between the SEC and the ACC is set to shrink. He said new TV deals will pay the ACC $17 million per team, compared with $20 million for the SEC.
"The ACC is likely to catch up, because it's getting stronger," Zimbalist said.
Following the lead of the Big 10 and the SEC, the ACC will launch its own TV network. Florida State is the richest team in an upwardly mobile conference. The Seminoles lead the ACC in football revenue, and Coach Jimbo Fisher's new five-year, $21 million contract puts him in the top 10 in coaching salaries.
With college athletics' ban on paying players, schools spend their ever-increasing TV revenue on coaches' paychecks and practice facilities.
Even as FSU fans bemoan the SEC's bigger bank accounts, gobs of money don't always translate to wins.
The University of Florida's football program brought in nearly twice as much as Florida State's over the past three years, but the Gators endured a losing season in 2013. Arkansas and Tennessee also ranked in the top 15 nationally in revenue but had dismal records.
Wilcox said the Seminoles' championship run shows a second-tier financial statement can coexist with top-tier performance. "I hope the lesson might be that you can still be successful and have a modest budget," he said.
Favorite on the field, underdog at the bank
No. 1 Florida State is favored to win its national championship contest against No. 2 Auburn, but FSU trails by a wide margin in financial measures:
Football expenses 2010-12
Auburn: $108.7 million
Florida State: $64.2 million
Football revenue 2010-12
Auburn: $228.5 million
Florida State: $113.4 million
How college football teams fare, based on average annual revenue for the past three years:
1. Texas: $103 million
2. Alabama: $82 million
3. Michigan: $79 million
4. Auburn: $76.2 million
5. Georgia: $75.8 million
6. Florida: $74 million
22. Florida State: $38 million
36: Miami: $28 million
64: South Florida: $17 million
71: Central Florida: $13 million
85: Florida Atlantic: $8.1 million
86: Florida International: $8 million