Moneyball, NCAA style
To build a program, teams willing to take big beatings for a big paycheck
Posted: Friday September 24, 2004 3:48PM; Updated: Saturday September 25, 2004 11:41AM
When the Trojans of Troy University kick it off against South Carolina, the Saturday night affair will be all about exposure and a fat paycheck. Moneyball. Just like when the underdogs pay a visit next month to LSU.
Lord knows, the smart money will have Troy as underdogs in both frays. But what matters to a program with scant Division I-A roots is the big boys are putting up nice coin to lure them on campus, as in close to $500,000 a game. That's why trips are booked to Florida State in the 2006 season and Georgia a year later. And why extra smelling salts got packed before venturing to play at Nebraska, Miami, Maryland and Minnesota in recent falls.
"Well, we've been in some pretty snaky places as they say down south,'' cracked Troy head coach Larry Blakeney, a former quarterback and longtime assistant coach at Auburn. "And we've taken a few thumbing here and there and found some mismatches. But a long the way we ought to know what a I-A program looks like across the field. And we've probably gained from the higher competitive level. We've also endured and incurred some injury that hurt us a little bit last year. I think we had nine surgeries and a broken arm, which is a little high.''
So it isn't all fun and games, but sometimes you shock the house, like Troy did earlier this month at Marshall. Or you set somebody up to come visit your place, promising two trips to their expansive digs if they'll take a game in your cozy, new 30,000-seat stadium. That deal sent then No. 19 Missouri back home with $150,000 in travel expenses after an embarrassing 24-14 loss.
Welcome to the backroom of college football, where athletic directors from Troy's Johnny Williams to Andy Geiger at Ohio State and DeLoss Dodds at Texas struggle to balance department budgets while often bleeding every cent from their major revenue producer. Acting as a booking agent goes with the job description. And scheduling the right mix of so-called money games isn't to be overlooked, both for the haves and have-nots.
It's proven invaluable seed money for the Troy program, which 10 years ago generated $250,000 as a Division I-AA program and last season produced almost $3.5 million -- $1.6 million in game guarantees -- in its third season playing with the big boys. Money has been plowed back into an $18 million stadium project (Movie Gallery handed over $5 million for naming rights), plus another $10 million in facility upgrades for other sports.
"I told Johnny [Williams], 'Hey, man, it doesn't matter who you match us up against, just be sure you get a half-million for it,''' Blakeney offered. "I want our market value to be worth going and enduring some of this stuff.''
Obviously, what you bring to the game influences your asking price and shot at a return date. Southern Mississippi played often and well on the road, even before Brett Favre set foot on campus, that it has been able to negotiate a two-for-one deals with the likes of Texas A&M and Nebraska -- with Southern Miss prevailing 21-17 in Lincoln two Saturdays ago. And a $500,000 payday waits at Alabama next month.
Over the next four years, athletic director Richard Giannini also has road dates booked with the SEC elite -- Florida, Tennessee, Auburn and LSU. Every one is in the $650,000 to $700,000 range, which is considerably richer than the $150,000 paid for going on the road in Conference USA.
Teams in some of the power conferences, with their 90,000-plus-seat stadiums, can afford to pay big bucks to bring in non-conference opponents. And the assumption is they're paying for a pretty sure thing when they invite somebody from a lower-tier conference.
"Yeah, in our case, beating a Nebraska does scare people off, especially if you try to get someone to come to your place,'' Giannini said. "Teams count wins. And normally when you play at home you look for your W's. And schools aren't going to go on the road and risk getting beat.''
So the little guys go about playing David to the college game's Goliaths, and get paid well for doing so.
At the University of Houston, where athletic fortunes haven't been the same since the demise of the Southwest Conference, athletic director Dave Maggard hustled last spring to book a $550,000 payday and what resulted in a 63-13 thrashing at Oklahoma two weeks ago. In a continuing bid to build ties with the Big 12 Conference, look for Houston to soon announce a two-for-one arrangement with Nebraska. The first game would be played next fall at Reliant Stadium, the pro facility in Houston, followed by trips to Lincoln, Neb., in 2006 and 2009.
And what about TV money?
The Cougars already had a home-and-away set with the fourth-ranked Miami Hurricanes when Maggard was hired two years ago, but the first game got shuffled to Thursday night at the request of ESPN. Houston officials agreed to the move only after they were guaranteed a second TV game later this season at Southern Miss, which translates to more money for Conference USA and Houston.
The Miami game, won 38-13 by the 'Canes in sluggish fashion, was played at Reliant Stadium not because the on-campus stadium lacked enough seating. But as Maggard explained, "We made a pretty good deal with Reliant. I will tell you it is two-and-a-half times what we would have made here at our place -- at least.''
So don't believe folks who tell you money isn't generated in big-time sports. It certainly is. How it's spent is another question, of course.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.