Every bowl game appearance comes with an allotment of tickets the school is obligated to purchase. This varies by team popularity, stadium size and the importance of the bowl game.
Every school that achieves a BCS bowl bid is required to purchase 17,500 tickets. Penn State University’s allotment for the TicketCity Bowl is 6,500. For the Beef O’ Brady’s Bowl played earlier this week, the allotment for Florida International was only 5,000. Any unsold tickets out of that allotment are a pure loss for the school, and those empty seats are often the driver of huge losses.
In 2008, Virginia Tech sold only 3,400 of their 17,500-ticket allotment for the BCS Orange Bowl, which drove the school to a $1.7 million loss on the game. In last year’s Fiesta Bowl, UConn and Oklahoma could only sell a combined 8,400 of their 35,000 tickets, which cost the teams a total of $5.14 million. According to an analysis by the Wizard of Odds blog, unsold tickets cost teams on average $320,000.
The ability to sell those tickets varies widely. Seating location is a challenge, as allotments can have physical locations like upper decks, corners and end zones. Bowl location is a factor in terms of both enticing fans to travel (Idaho, anyone?) and distance from alumni bases. Mid-week games are harder sells than weekends.
More recently, secondary sellers like Stubhub.com have created competition by offering better seat locations and cheaper prices than the allotments. Another big factor is the quality of play. If you get “stuck” playing a poor or lesser-known team, like Oklahoma did with UConn, good luck motivating your fans. Momentum also is key. A crushing end of season loss, particularly in a conference championship scenario that loses a bigger bowl opportunity, will not excite the fan base.
To make financial matters worse for schools, they also have very high operating costs for the game itself. The traveling party for a bowl game includes the team, staff, school officials, the band, cheerleaders and some VIP fundraisers or alumni. Costs for that party include transportation, per diem, parties, gifts, awards, bonuses, and practice and meeting facilities.
Wizard of Odds calculated the average traveling party to be 568 people. Auburn’s traveling party to the National Championship last year was nearly 1,000 people, which drove them to lose $600,000 even though they won the game. Here’s a statement showing how Central Florida lost $1.1 million at a bowl game.
So why even go to bowl games? It’s about the exposure, not the money. Exposure for fan excitement, alumni involvement, fundraising, even applicant interest. This study published in the journal Research in Higher Education says success in high-profile athletics is a factor in college choice for undergrads.
Bear Bryant, the legendary Alabama football coach, once said, “It’s kind of hard to rally around math class.” No matter how you feel about that statement, it illustrates why teams continue to clamor for bigger and better bowl games every year, despite the huge losses they can be.
Bill Sayer is a financial analyst in the insurance industry and holds a degree in economics. A native of Upstate New York, Bill enjoys watching college football, the NFL, NHL and Premier League soccer from his home in Palmyra. Have a suggestion, link or question?