More than 20 college football programs opted out of bowl games this year, with many of them polling their players and citing COVID-19 in their decisions.
Few, however, brought up the financial implications of this year’s bowl season. Bowl game economics, for those not guaranteed the multi-million dollar payouts from the College Football Playoff games or top-tier bowls, are no sure profit center even in the best of times. The earnings from many of the usual 41 postseason games are often close to, if not less than the cost of participating. The potential short-term financial losses, however, are much more palatable during a non-pandemic year. In 2020, it made even less sense than normal—particularly without fans to excite.
In the case of Kansas State, there wasn’t even much of a choice to make. The school announced on Dec. 16 that, despite being eligible for post-season play, the football team was unable to field enough players for a bowl game. The Wildcats’ associate athletic director Jim Bach, who deals with the athletic department’s business operations, thinks that participating a bowl this season would have likely cost around $800,000.
Bach provided Sportico a breakdown of expenses from Kansas State’s last seven bowl appearances, and based on those price tags, Bach’s back-of-the-napkin estimate for this year is less than a typical postseason trip in a normal year, even with the projected added costs related to COVID precautions.
Bach notes that, compared to previous years, money could have been conserved in several spots: The school would not have sent the band or cheer squad; the typically bloated bowl game travel party would have instead been confined to “what we typically send to an away game”; and travel days would have been cut from at least five to one or two.
“Promotions, awards and equipment are not huge numbers, but I would anticipate that we would have still tried to do something for the players, despite reducing the travel time,” Bach explained. In addition to those ancillary costs, Bach estimated that team and staff travel would still come in at upwards of $400,000, meals and lodging another $250,000.
According to Bach, COVID tests for Kansas State athletes cost $80/per test when administered by the team, and $100 when done by their partner provider, Urgent Care for Kids. With reduced travel time in mind, Bach ballparked the tab at $18,000 for the 225 tests the school would’ve needed for the bowl game, even if all were administered internally.
But the expenses, of course, aren’t the only factor, nor the most important one. Most bowl games are drastically reducing their participant compensation as ticket sales and sponsor dollars dwindle. The Alamo Bowl’s payout this year, for example, was slashed by $5.6 million to $2.65 million total, to be split between Colorado and Texas.
One quarter of last year’s bowl game payouts were already less than or just about equal to Kansas State’s projected expenses for 2020; even more games likely would have fallen into that category this year.
Even recent bowl earnings would’ve been cutting it close: Kansas State reported just under $1.3 million in bowl revenues from football during the 2018 fiscal year after the Wildcats’ appearance in the 2017 Cactus Bowl, according to financial reports obtained by Sportico, almost $300,000 less than the $1.58 million it cost the program to participate.
Two seasons later, the team earned a spot in the 2019 Liberty Bowl in Memphis, a trip that rang up to $1.57 million. While last year’s financial reports are not yet available, recent participants (including Oklahoma State, Missouri, Iowa State, Memphis and Georgia) have claimed anywhere from half a million to $1.3 million in revenues from their bowl games.
This year’s 4-6 Wildcats would likely have been looking at an even smaller payout than those earned during their last two postseason trips—falling further short of covering the projected expenses.
Another, harder-to-measure factor was the emotional cost of extending the season. Many schools put the postseason question to a player vote, and more than a few teams decided they’d had enough after living in quasi-sequestered conditions.
USC, the Pac-12 runner-up, cited continued COVID spread throughout the country and within the Trojans’ team in its official release opting out of a bowl game, said the program “did not even consider any costs” when Sportico inquired.
“It was solely on our guys wanting to be home for the holidays with their families,” said Jason Baum, USC’s athletic spokesman. “The cost had nothing to do with it. If our guys voted to play in a bowl, we would have.”