So it would have been, if the Buckeyes actually got to keep the money, which they did not. The $18.5 million went to the Big Ten, where it was added to a pool of bowl revenue that was then sliced into 12 shares—one for each team, one for the league office. That still left Ohio State with a tidy $2.2 million to spend, which the Buckeyes did. Ohio State's team travel costs were $352,727. Unsold tickets ran the school a cool $144,710. The bill to transport, feed and lodge the band and cheerleaders came to $366,814. Throw in entertainment, gifts and sundry other expenses, and the Buckeyes lost $79,597.
Why do the schools put up with this? Why are universities so willing to engage in what WAC commissioner Karl Benson deemed "bad business deals?" Because it works out nicely for coaches, who land tidy bonuses for even minor-bowl glory. ADs, too, reap a windfall for a bowl invite. The going rate: one month's extra salary for an appearance in even the lowliest game. Oregon's Rob Mullens receives $50,000 if the Ducks go bowling. Kentucky's Mitch Barnhart collects $30,000.
"A few years ago our ADs came to me and said, 'You've got to start some bowls,' " Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson says. "I said, 'You'll lose money.' They [each] said, 'I don't care.' "
The truth is that the lower-tier bowls exist because athletic directors are willing to prop them up (in the process forfeiting their universities' money), and because most conferences pool all their bowl payouts, using the bigger-money BCS games to cover the losses incurred in the smaller games. Thus does the Rose Bowl help subsidize the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl—a bowl bailout system that indeed spreads the wealth. Bowl directors privately admit that fewer than half the bowls could survive without the financial support from the schools.
Meanwhile, the sad sack programs that fail to qualify for a bowl often end up in the best financial position. As former Michigan AD Bill Martin said after the 2009 season, "The fact we didn't go to a bowl game the last two years means we actually made money."
The success of non-BCS programs such as Boise State, TCU and Utah has brought attention to the inequities in the system, and some authorities have taken notice. Utah attorney general Mark Shurtleff is investigating the BCS for possible antitrust violations. Last week he traveled to Washington to persuade Justice Department officials to join him in an antitrust action. He also met with Alan Fishel, a partner at the law firm Arent Fox, which has been retained by Boise State and the Mountain West Conference.
High on Fishel's radar last week were rumblings from the Big East about expanding from eight football-playing members to 10. It's quite likely, Fishel notes, that the down-on-its-luck Big East will finish the season with no teams in the Top 25. Yet, thanks to its status as one of the BCS's six automatic-qualifying (or AQ) conferences, it will "make around 10 to 13 million more from the BCS this year than some non-AQs who will have teams very high up [in the polls]."
The Big East will reap this windfall "not because they're great negotiators," says Fishel, "but because a cartel came together to do this. They colluded, and others got marginalized in a manner that my colleagues and I believe is illegal."
If the Big East is using what Fishel calls "its ill-gotten benefits" (its remunerative place at the BCS table) as a way to recruit teams from other conferences (TCU is one of the schools reportedly being considered for membership), "there's something terribly wrong with that, in our view."
In this year of No Conspicuously Dominant Team, TCU could easily be the best, most complete squad in the country. Yet, in this flawed system, the Frogs find themselves in the unseemly position of having to hope another team stubs its toe. They deserve better. Undefeated No. 4 Boise State deserves better. And so do college football fans.