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Cotton Bowl president Rick Baker had a record year in 2015.
After hosting the Cotton Bowl Classic on Jan. 1, Baker helped organize two other huge college football games in Arlington, Texas — the national championship Jan. 12 and then a national semifinal at the end of the next season Dec. 31.
To compensate him, the non-profit Cotton Bowl Athletic Association awarded him $1.2 million — a record for a bowl game boss, according to tax forms compiled by USA TODAY Sports. That included bonuses of $560,000 and is up by nearly $1 million from his total compensation in 2005.
And that's not so unusual for his line of work.
So much money has been flooding the college football system in recent years that even tax-exempt bowl game executives have seen their pay explode from 2005 to 2015, the most recent year of available data.
• In Atlanta, the president of the non-profit Peach Bowl, Gary Stokan, made about $684,000 in 2015, part of a deal that included first-class travel, travel for companions and social club dues. In 2005, he made about $266,000.
• In Tampa, Outback Bowl boss Jim McVay earned $993,458 in 2015, including $426,750 in bonuses. Ten years earlier, he earned about half of that. This year, his game is part of a 40-game postseason that starts Saturday and ends Jan. 8.
"Everything has grown," longtime bowl advocate Wright Waters said of the larger college sports economy.
Such growth is fueled in large part by money from ESPN, including about $470 million a year it pays to televise the College Football Playoff format that started in 2014.
But after reaching new heights in recent years, such riches have opened these organizations to renewed criticism, especially with Congress taking aim at excessive compensation for tax-exempt businesses. It also reveals another stark contrast between the compensation earned by those who run college sports and the players who perform in them. In annual bowl games, players get a free trip and related benefits and are limited to $550 in gifts from bowl organizers, such as wrist watches and sunglasses.
"It's completely immoral," said Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA football player and longtime advocate for improved player benefits in college sports. "When you have that disparity and contrast it with a bowl executive director making a million dollars, when these players put their bodies on the line year-round and generate the money for that bowl game, it's upsetting."
Huma's beef isn't with the bowl directors. It's with the larger NCAA system that restricts player compensation while others in college sports keep seeing their bank accounts stuffed with cash, especially coaches and even including tax-exempt bowl game executives.
In 2015, top bowl executives earned about $490,000 in average and median total pay, according to data compiled by USA TODAY Sports from 18 of the oldest tax-exempt bowl organizations whose tax forms were publicly available. That's up about 27% for the same organizations in 2010, when the median and average were both around $386,000.
The list (below this story) does not include the pay packages of employees at 17 bowl games owned by for-profit companies, which are not required to disclose such data.
At the bottom of the non-profit scale is the $100,000 listed for Mike Gottfried of the Dollar General Bowl in Alabama. At the top are several of the bowl executives who run games that are part of the lucrative Playoff format, which features a rotating cast of six bowls: the Cotton, Peach, Fiesta, Orange, Rose and Sugar, whose boss, Paul Hoolahan, earned $794,805.
The bowl organizations decide how much to spend on employees. And the Cotton Bowl Athletic Association says Baker earned his $1.2 million.
"What I can tell you is that Rick is the dean of bowl executive directors," said Michael Konradi, spokesman for the Cotton Bowl. "This will be his 30th year. Additionally, it's also important to point out that we are the operational arm for all college games here at AT&T Stadium."
Konradi said Baker was unavailable for comment and noted he has helped run five college games this season. Next year, he is scheduled to help run six, including the Big 12 championship.
Baker leads an association that had 77 employees and 100 volunteers in 2015. His pay also covers his work on a related events committee that had $8.3 million in combined revenue from the national championship game, according to tax records.
"A good portion of his bonus was related to his efforts to lead the local organizing committee responsible for bidding on and hosting the inaugural CFP national championship," Konradi said.
Likewise, other bowl organizations run multiple events that promote tourism. They make money selling media rights, tickets and sponsorships. Then they pay out money to conferences and schools — $622 million last season, including $441 million from the Playoff alone, according to NCAA financial records reviewed by USA TODAY Sports. That led to a $517 million collective "profit" for the conferences and schools after $105 million in bowl expenses.
"A lot of those guys have huge numbers of volunteers that they manage," said Waters, head of the Football Bowl Association, an industry trade group. "They've got staffs to accommodate, and they work all year. And when you compare that number to the people they do business with, it's right in line with what they're doing."
Waters refers to major-college athletics directors, many of whom make more than $500,000 per year. Other comparisons aren't perfect but show a wide range of differences within this industry and compared to other large non-profits.
'Fair and reasonable'
Take the Rose Bowl, the oldest and most iconic bowl game. The game's executive director, William Flinn, earned $376,438, including $10,000 in bonuses and other benefits in 2015. That's less than several lesser bowl organizations paid their bosses, such as the Alamo Bowl ($536,344).
The game is run by the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Association, whose primary events are the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl game. In 2015-16, its tax form showed $95 million in revenue, with about $70 million of that paid to participating conferences. That's compared to the roughly $33 million in revenue showed by the Cotton Bowl and its related organizations, according to 2015-16 tax forms.
Flinn recently retired and has been replaced by David Eads, a former Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce executive who said his pay package is in the same range. Eads said a committee of the Rose association's board of directors determines pay by looking at comparable compensation for similar positions in the region — a practice also used by other bowls.
The idea is to determine "what's fair and reasonable and equitable," Eads said. "That's what they're really looking at for my position here."
The rising pay for the non-profit bowl executives also is commensurate with the collective rise in revenues for their organizations — about 28% from 2010-11 to 2015-16, according to tax forms compiled by USA TODAY Sports.
The bowl organizations that participate in the Playoff format each year get 15% of Playoff revenue after expenses, Playoff executive director Bill Hancock told USA TODAY Sports. But that's not necessarily a big factor in rising revenue for bowl organizations.
The Rose association's revenue has gone up in part because of escalators in its television contract with ESPN, Eads said. He said "the economics are little bit stronger" when the game is not in the Playoff rotation, as it is this season as a Playoff semifinal on Jan. 1. That's because that semifinal revenue is shared with the Playoff and its member conferences.
Big coaches' bonuses, too
Another outside comparison is the American Red Cross. It collects and processes about 40% of the nation's blood supply and had $2.6 billion in revenue in 2015. It paid its president about $534,000 including benefits.
It's a completely different kind of organization than a bowl association. But differences in missions aren't much of concern to Congress as it targets what it considers to be excessive pay for tax-exempt organizations. Its recent tax reform bill would put a 20% excise tax on compensation over $1 million paid to any of their five highest paid employees.
And the debate about player compensation isn't going to fizzle when bowl bosses are making around $1 million and coaches are getting huge bowl bonuses, too.
Louisville coach Bobby Petrino earned a bowl bonus of $368,750 for landing his team (8-4) in the TaxSlayer Bowl, where the game's top executive earned about $500,000 in 2015. That's in addition to Petrino's $3.9 million regular pay and ranks highest among bowl bonuses for games not affiliated with the Playoff, according to records compiled by USA TODAY Sports.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart makes $3.7 million but also is getting a $500,000 bowl bonus for landing his team in the Rose Bowl semifinal vs. Oklahoma. He'll get another $100,000 for winning that game and then $400,000 more if he wins the national title, according to his contract.
Huma, the founder of the College Athletes Players Association, sees it as yet another example of the unfairness of the system. NCAA rules generally limit their compensation to the costs of attending college, including scholarships.
"It's not just this storybook ending that these coaches like to paint," Huma said of bowl games. "These coaches are getting bonuses. The executive directors are getting escalating pay. I don't know exactly what they do, but think about the regular season. There are games all the time" for players.
College football players practice for, and play in, 12 or 13 games before getting a new round of practices before the bowl game. Some players already have decided bowl games aren't worth the injury risk and decided to skip them to turn pro, including Texas offensive lineman Connor Williams, whose team plays in the Texas Bowl in Houston on Dec. 27.
Bowl practices come "at the end of the season when your body is already beat up," Huma said. A bowl game "extends the season, and some of these players end up in places that aren't so exotic."
The bowl business is still booming nonetheless, even the day after the annual games, Eads said.
"When we complete New Year's Day here, with the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl game, planning immediately starts for the upcoming year," Eads said. "I've got a membership association of 935 individuals.
"We have activities all year long, and we're into constant planning. There's never a down time. We're like any organization. With a $95 million budget, we have a lot of work to do."
Contributing: Steve Berkowitz
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