The Big Ten and Pac-12 announced the cancelation of non-conference football games earlier this month. The decision, made in hopes of preserving the conference slate, is expected to have crippling effects on Group of Five (G5) and FCS schools that rely on ‘buy-game’ revenues. New Mexico State Athletic Director Mario Moccia said that games scheduled against UCLA ($1.2 million, canceled) and Florida ($1.535 million, still on) were “critical to the entire enterprise” and without those funds his athletic department would struggle to make ends meet (the two games represent +/- 25% of 2018 generated revenue).
But while G5 and FCS schools are bound to be more eager than ever to play lucrative ‘buy games’ moving forward (particularly if they assume debts in order to cover the lost revenues in 2020), a pair of Power Five (P5) athletic directors (we’ll refer to them as AD1 and AD2) tell JohnWallStreet by Sportico those opportunities—and the corresponding seven-figure paydays—are likely to become harder to come by. The expectation is that P5 conferences will increase the number of conference games played during the next round of media rights negotiations (which means fewer non-conference games) and that the cost or value of those remaining ‘buy games’ will decline.
Our Take: To be clear, the financial impact of the anticipated shift in scheduling philosophy is unlikely to be felt for several years. Most schools have ‘scheduled out’ at least five years into the future and the obligations associated with those games will need to be met (unless a school can find someone else to pick up the contract)—even if the number of conference games goes up and forces the cancelation of a scheduled buy-game.
It’s believed that even in a best-case scenario (i.e. the season is played without interruption) that the financial repercussions of the 2020 season (think: lost gate, lost media rights revenue for games canceled) will “challenge the budgets of [programs nationwide] for at least the next several years.” AD2 said that the need to make up the lost revenues is “going to drive [the P5 conferences] to add more conference games—even the SEC where there are schools hell-bent against a ninth conference game.” He cited the Pac-12 and Big Ten decisions as the first step in that direction. Simply put, the money is too great for the P5 schools not to replace a non-conference game with an extra conference game or two. More conference games equate to more television revenue.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be room for non-conference games on the schedule; there will just be fewer of them—which means fewer ‘buy-game’ opportunities for G5 and FCS schools. AD2 said that the shift in scheduling philosophy will likely result in “fewer teams playing [college football]” (because some won’t be able to survive without the lost revenue). For perspective, 40% of the $7.54 million Louisiana-Monroe (a random low-budget Sun Belt school) generated in 2018 came from guarantee games ($2.8 million). It would be logical to assume with fewer openings on P5 schedules and fewer schools competing for those opportunities that “the market [price for guarantee games] would remain about the same.” But there’s an argument to be made that with G5 and FCS schools needing ‘buy game’ revenues more than ever, their willingness to schedule them will increase dramatically (some have historically been hesitant to take games that hurt their chances of success on the field). In theory, an increase in schools’ willingness to be bought could offset the loss of football programs at the D-I level and “stabilize the market—or even drive it down.”
A lack of competition amongst buyers could also depress the value of ‘buy games’ moving forward. Sure, schools like Alabama—they’ll pay NMSU $1.9 million next season—and Texas will continue to pay up, but it’s fair to assume that at least some P5 schools will be taking a close look at various line items on the post-COVID expense report. If/when they decide the money being spent on out-of-conference games could be better spent elsewhere, the pool of programs looking to ‘buy’ wins will decline. While a softer market is good news for those who intend to continue trying to guarantee on-field success (in theory the games should cost less), it would further decimate G5 and FCS schools already suffering from having fewer ‘buy game’ opportunities.
P5 schools may also become more selective in their buy-game opponents—placing an increased emphasis on location. AD1 explained how “everything has become so national” and how he “expects schools to consider reverting back to a more regionalized scheduling model [in COVID’s wake].” AD2 agreed, saying if his football team could “get on a bus, it might make more [economic] sense” to spend on a 2-for-1 with a G5 or FCS school (because of the reduced travel costs). Remember, most schools really are not recruiting nationally, so there is little reason (other than perhaps playing in an alumni-rich market) to get on a plane during the non-conference portion of the schedule.
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