College Football Guarantee Games Reap Post-Pandemic Cash, for Now




 

The Kent State football team has tallied just one win through four games this season, but the Flashes are collecting financial victories as they slowly recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kent State received $5.2 million for three non-conference games this month against Washington ($1.8M), No. 18 Oklahoma ($1.5M) and No. 1 Georgia ($1.9M)-all of which were double-digit losses. That's about 25% of Kent State athletics' entire operating revenue last fiscal year ($19.6M). After similar payout games were disrupted in 2020, Group of Five programs like the Flashes appreciate the much-needed boost to their coffers.

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"The predictability is great," Kent State athletic director Randale Richmond said in a phone interview. "Knowing what budget number you have coming in is definitely a blessing because of the predictability, you know what other revenues you need to go get. But will the guaranteed games be there at this clip moving forward? Who knows?"

Guarantee games are non-conference matchups that features one school or institution playing another program a flat rate to travel to their stadium or a neutral venue. And most of these games are contractually scheduled years in advance. Eastern Washington, for example, will receive $750,000 to play at Florida on Sunday; the game, scheduled back in 2016 for the 2020 season, was postponed to this year, and then shifted a day because of Hurricane Ian.

While no significant change in the volume is imminent, the future of these contests is more unclear than ever as the NCAA continues to transform. The games are dependent on a variety of factors, including the major realignment of Power Five conferences, television partners making more specific scheduling requests as they bid for rights and the expansion of the College Football Playoff.

The SEC already has inked a $300 million per year extension with ABC and ESPN that kicks in after the 2023 season. The Big Ten followed up this summer with a $7 billion media rights deal with CBS, FOX and NBC. Meanwhile the Big 12, which recently partnered with Endeavor, has opened up media rights negotiations, while the Pac-12's deals with ESPN and FOX expire in 2024. Conferences and media partners may look to increase the number of high-level matchups.

This, in return, potentially means airing fewer games featuring lower-tier schools.

Many of the smaller FBS schools and the FCS programs revel in participating in these guarantee games; not only does it give the team the chance to recruit in areas of the country they normally can't due to budget constraints, but they also afford their players an opportunity to play in historic, cavernous stadiums against some of the nation's most storied programs.

And sometimes, these programs even walk away with both the paycheck and a victory. This month, Appalachian State took home $1.5 million to play in College Station, where they edged Texas A&M 17-14. Middle Tennessee State also received $1.5 million to play at Miami (Fla.) where it won 45-31 last week. Georgia Southern secured a $1.4 million bag in a stunning win over Nebraska, 45-42.

These opportunities are now being threatened as television partners and superconferences are resisting setting schedules years in advance, with a renewed focus on maximizing flexibility. There's also a belief that the next rounds of media rights negotiations may call for fewer non-conference games, subsequently forcing Power Five athletic directors to question the value of guarantee games.

Former ESPN senior vice president Rob Temple believes more conference games is just one of many variables that go into scheduling and says schools' collaboration with media partners is key to unlocking new value and flexibility. "Everybody has an interest in quality and selection more than ever," said Temple, now CEO of FishBait Solutions. "That's going to impact matchups and different types of games."

For now, the financial models of many Group of Five and FCS programs are dependent on the influx of cash from these guarantee games, especially in the wake of pandemic-related revenue losses.

"I can speak for a lot of FCS athletic directors, and they'll tell you that these [games] are mandatory for us," North Carolina Central University (NCCU) athletic director Louis "Skip" Perkins said in a phone interview. "How do you turn down $600-$700,000 for one game? You're not going to make that at home game, homecoming maybe, if you're lucky, but that's what it comes down to."

Despite the ever-evolving landscape, some around the industry believe the one-off non-conference games won't dissolve.

Nick Carparelli, executive director of Bowl Season, believes if Power Five member schools elect to play  additional conference games, then there will potentially be less incentive to play quality non-conference opponents and more value in buying home games against smaller FBS and FCS programs.

"[Guarantee games] have been around a long time, and I think they're here to stay," he said in a phone interview. "It works for both parties."

NCCU, a member of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), will travel to the Rose Bowl to play UCLA next season. The Eagles will get $750,000 to play one of the newest members of the Big Ten in a matchup officially announced last year.

Perkins emphasizes that while the money earned from these games is critical, small programs need to be "careful" about who they're playing, since a demoralizing and physically painful loss to a powerhouse can be more hurtful than beneficial. When finding the right guarantee game, it's a two-way street. "You don't want to sell your soul to the devil for a seven-figure payday," he said.

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