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The college football season gets underway in earnest Thursday, and by the end of the weekend more than $70 million will be headed toward schools' pockets regardless of how many tickets are sold, how many hot dogs are consumed or who wins the game.
Nearly all the games are occurring between teams from different conferences. That means they are not being governed by conference scheduling but rather by individually negotiated contracts. Usually made years in advance, these deals almost always include an appearance payment to the visiting team, or, in the case of increasingly numerous games, a multimillion-dollar payment to each team.
By the time the regular season is over, more than $150 million in these so-called "guarantees" will have moved through the college sports financial system, based on an analysis by USA TODAY Sports of more than 200 contracts for games this season involving teams in the NCAA's top-level Football Bowl Subdivision.
In arrangements mirrored in other college sports, especially men's basketball, many football guarantee games enable one of the wealthiest athletics programs to play at home against a handpicked, less well-heeled opponent that it ostensibly beats. The crowd generates enough ticket and ancillary revenue to not only help fill its coffers but also give the visitors more money than they would get from a home game.
These types of games have been going on for decades. The difference these days, as with most things in college sports, is the amount of money involved. Former college athletics administrator Scott Farmer said that when he was working at Troy, the school received $350,000 for playing Nebraska in 2001, "and people just about fell out. ... Now you have games going for as much as $1.5 (million) to $2 (million)."
Neutral-site games can pay even more. But the basic transactions are like the ones Farmer negotiated while serving as Louisiana-Lafayette's athletics director from 2011 through 2016. In 2016, he scheduled a game at Mississippi for November that will give Louisiana-Lafayette $1.525 million. Two years earlier, he had arranged for the Ragin Cajuns to play at Texas A&M in mid-September for $1.25 million. Those two games will account for 11% of Louisiana-Lafayette's operating revenue in 2017-18, athletics department spokesman Matt Sullivan said.
This is the model under which seven schools affiliated with the Big Ten, Southeastern or Pac-12 conferences are paying at least $1 million to a season-opening opponent from one of the FBS conferences outside the Power Five. Altogether, there are at least 25 games this season in which a Power Five school is set to pay $1 million or more to an opponent.
These types of games can benefit underdog schools' coaches, as well. Wyoming's Craig Bohl gets a $100,000 bonus for each regular-season win the Cowboys record against a Power Five team. Saturday, with star quarterback Josh Allen -- a junior who is widely seen as the potential No. 1 pick in next year's NFL draft -- they have their chance at Iowa. Iowa is paying Wyoming $1 million for the game, which was set up by the schools in 2013.
Appalachian State coach Scott Satterfield gets a $10,000 bonus if his squad plays a Power Five team at that team's stadium, which the Mountaineers will do Saturday at Georgia in exchange for $1.25 million.
At the much higher end of the scale, Michigan and Florida are each scheduled to get $6 million for participating in Saturday's Advocare Classic at the Dallas Cowboys' AT&T Stadium. Alabama and Florida State are each scheduled to get $5 million for playing Saturday night in the first college football game at Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the second of two opening-weekend games being staged there by organizers of the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl.
The contract for the games in Atlanta requires each school to each buy, then sell, 30,000 tickets across a variety of prices -- $50 for students and $125 to $250 for others. The agreement for the game in Texas gave each school at least 25,000 tickets to sell but did not require them to pay for unsold tickets as long as they returned them well in advance.
Those deals come with an array of other requirements and perks, and they cover details such as the conference affiliations of the officiating and video replay crews, the types of stenciling that will appear in the end zones and the rules governing the sale of alcoholic beverages during the game.
Gary Stokan, the president and CEO of Peach Bowl Inc., said there will be a proliferation of such agreements in the future between high-profile teams. Citing his organization's games for the next three years, as well as a recently announced deal between Wisconsin and Notre Dame for games in 2020 at Green Bay's Lambeau Field and 2021 at Chicago's Soldier Field, Stokan said athletics directors like the financial deals, coaches like boosting their schedule strength for the College Football Playoff selection committee, fans like games unlikely to be blowouts, players like the elite competition and TV executives like the prospect of high ratings.
"There's not a downside," he said. "Everyone wins in this type of format."
Contributing: John Schwartz
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