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College football's version of the gig economy gets rolling Thursday, as teams across the country begin the annual ritual of playing one-time, non-conference games in exchange for huge payouts.
This season, well over $175 million will change hands just for teams getting on the field for these so-called "guarantee" games, according to an analysis of more than 275 contracts for matchups involving teams in the NCAA's top-level Bowl Subdivision.
While some of these agreements involve series of games on equal and relatively modest terms, the real money is elsewhere.
It's in about a dozen contests at off-campus sites, such as the weekend's featured matchups: No. 6-ranked Washington vs. No. 10 Auburn on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, and No. 8 Miami (Fla.) vs. No. 24 LSU at AT&T Stadium on Sunday night in Arlington, Texas. Those games will provide the participating schools a combined total of more than $50 million in appearance fees that come with strings, including a need to sell tens of thousands of tickets schools agree to purchase from third-party organizers.
Meanwhile, millions more will come directly from the schools with the wealthiest athletics departments. In at least 45 instances this season, one of those schools will pay at least $1 million to a lower-scale opponent while aiming to fill vast stadiums and — at least theoretically — get an impressive victory with minimal risk of defeat.
Then there is Liberty, which is paying Old Dominion $1.32 million to play a game Saturday in Lynchburg, Virginia, that will be its first as an FBS school.
More than 15 games this season will give the visiting team at least $1.4 million.
"The market just continues to go up," Iowa athletics director Gary Barta said. "I'm hearing stories of other schools paying $2 million for games (in the future). You continue to wonder where the market is going to stop."
The greatest payout this season is the $2 million Colorado State is getting from Florida for a game Sept. 15 that the schools created as part of package under which coach Jim McElwain fulfilled the $7.5 million buyout he owed for leaving the Rams to join the Gators after the 2014 season. McElwain and Florida agreed to part ways during the 2017 season, and he is now an assistant coach at Michigan — which will be paying $2 million for not playing a non-conference game against Arkansas. In 2016, Michigan canceled a two-game series that was to have started this season in Ann Arbor and been completed at Arkansas next year, which is when Michigan's payment will be due.
More conventional transactions for home-site games this season top out at $1.7 million. That's the price for four contests, including Oregon State's visit to Ohio State on Saturday. Even that game has a distinction, however. It's the only home-site game this season matching Power Five conference schools that is not part of a series.
But when you're Oregon State and you're struggling to compete financially within the Pac-12 Conference, or when you're a school in one of the FBS conferences outside the Power Five, you take to the road.
Kent State will collect $3.65 million by playing three of its first four games this season at Illinois, Penn State and Mississippi (its first Mid-American Conference game also is on the road, so the Golden Flashes will play one home game in September). Next season, Kent State is set for paydays of $1.9 million from Auburn and $1.5 million from Arizona State. And in 2020, it is due a total of $5 million for games at Arkansas, Kentucky and Alabama.
Middle Tennessee State — this season's adjunct member of the Southeastern Conference — will get just over $3.1 million from Vanderbilt, Georgia and Kentucky, but the Vanderbilt game is the last of a four-game series that involved two at MTSU. The Blue Raiders have lost the first three games of that set against Vanderbilt, but in the first game they lost by just 17-13. And last season, they became a Power Five team's nightmare, beating Syracuse in a game for which Syracuse paid MTSU $950,000. In an even sweeter turn for MTSU, its defensive coordinator, Scott Shafer, was Syracuse's head coach from 2013 through 2015.
Northern Illinois also pulled a lucrative upset last season, getting $820,000 from Nebraska and a win in Lincoln. In addition to that payout, NIU had gotten just over $1 million from Nebraska when a 2016 game between the teams set for Chicago was canceled.
The guaranteed payouts and chances for stunning wins give some schools ample reason to incentivize their coaches to play them.
This weekend, Bowling Green coach Mike Jinks will pick up a $25,000 bonus for playing a guarantee game worth at least $400,000 (the Falcons are getting $900,000 to play at Oregon), and he can get another $12,500 for a win over a Power Five team.
Wyoming's Craig Bohl can get $100,000 if the Cowboys beat a Power Five team — and Washington State visits Laramie on Saturday.
Contributing: Christopher Schnaars
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