COLUMBIA - Each December, South Carolina deputy athletics director Charles Waddell sits in meeting rooms, discusses the football program's next bowl trip, and his challenge is renewed.
South Carolina budget for 2014 Capital One Bowl
Equipment and supplies: $32,902
Tickets absorbed by institution: $130,416
Tickets absorbed by conference: $317,818
Other (laundry, massage therapist, practice officials, security): $26,541
Total expenses: $1,610,140
Total revenue: $1,476,800
Note: South Carolina absorbed $448,234 in unsold tickets for the 2014 Capital One Bowl, but $317,818 of that payment was allocated by the SEC. The difference gave South Carolina a profit of $184,478.
It's easy to lose money on bowl games, Waddell said. Airfare gets more expensive with each passing year. Gas pumps drain more from the wallet. Technology improves, enticing fans to stay home and limiting ticket sales.
Expenses skyrocket, rarely slowing down enough for revenues to catch up.
"It's very tough right now," Waddell said. "When you throw everything in, if you break even you're doing a hell of a job."
South Carolina did a little better than that at the Capital One Bowl last season, generating a profit of almost $200,000. Its profit came in part because of an assist from the SEC.
The athletics department reported $1,610,140 in expenses to the NCAA for its trip to Orlando, Fla., exceeding its bowl revenue of $1,476,800, according to documents The Post and Courier obtained through an open records request. USC absorbed $448,234 in unsold tickets, but $317,818 was allocated by the conference, Waddell said.
The SEC regularly assists schools with ticket expenses. South Carolina received $242,085 from the SEC for the 2013 Outback Bowl and $220,207 for the 2012 Capital One Bowl. This year's payout from the SEC pushed the athletics department into the profit margin, with South Carolina making $184,478 from the bowl trip.
Waddell, who leads South Carolina's bowl planning, said a school's bottom line often depends on exterior factors.
"It's very difficult, and it depends on where you're going, what the bowls have set up for you or how much the bowls assist you," Waddell said. "As salaries go up and bonuses go up, and the number of people (on the trip) increase, it's very challenging. In some instances overall, you have the schools not going to the bowls walking away with more money at the end of the day because they're not incurring a lot of the costs that we do."
Hefty bowl expenses are the norm in college football, and they often lead schools into debt. Florida State reportedly lost almost $500,000 from its trip to Pasadena, Calif., for the BCS National Championship Game against Auburn in January. Auburn reported more than $3 million in expenses for its trip.
Clemson reported a net loss of $24,543 in terms of direct revenue generated ($1,881,730) minus school expenses ($1,906,273) from appearing in the 2012 Chick-Fil-A Bowl in Atlanta. Clemson has reported a total expense sheet of more than $2.9 million from the 2014 Orange Bowl in Miami, but the school's 2013-14 fiscal year has not concluded, meaning net revenues are yet to be determined.
South Carolina didn't have to fly its football team and athletics department across the country last winter, but there were plenty of expenses. Athletics director Ray Tanner said he followed a thrifty budget when planning the trip. Not every school does the same.
When Alabama played in the 2011 Capital One Bowl it lost approximately $400,000, according to al.com. The Crimson Tide reportedly spent $2.91 million on the trip. In its two trips to the Capital One Bowl since then, South Carolina counted a total profit of $701,389, which includes $516,911 from the 2012 bowl.
Turning a profit is nice. It isn't South Carolina's goal.
"I'm pleased with where we are," Tanner told The Post and Courier. "We try to do the right thing for our football program and their staff to enjoy that trip and provide that experience for the student-athletes. I don't think it's a time that you make a lot of financial decisions that doesn't reward the student-athletes for achieving on the field. I think it's sort of the norm that when you take a bowl trip, you try to operate in the black a little bit.
"The amount of revenue that you get to go on the trip, the expenses, we stay within those guidelines. We don't exceed that."
South Carolina made its third straight bowl trip to the state of Florida last season, beating Wisconsin 34-24 in the Capital One Bowl. Tanner said the previous experiences offered a "prototype" when organizing the school's most recent trip.
One of the major differences between South Carolina's trip to the 2012 Capital One Bowl and last season's game was how it traveled to Orlando. The athletics department spent $482,923 on transportation fees for a traveling party of about 800 that included players, coaches, band members and faculty. The school booked two chartered flights from Columbia to Orlando, something it didn't do in 2012.
Waddell said the traveling party bussed to Orlando in its first trip to the Capital One Bowl. With holiday traffic, the drive stretched to almost nine hours. He believed smoother logistics made the extra airfare expenses worth it.
South Carolina also spent $406,907 on meals and lodging, $141,223 on awards, $52,599 on entertainment and $18,811 in promotions, along with other costs.
"We just try to manage it as best we can," said Waddell, who works closely with South Carolina director of football operations Jamie Speronis when planning bowl trips. "You're moving the team down there for pretty much a week. You're moving the whole operation - the staff, the offices, the hotel, meeting rooms. You've got to transport the kids from here to there, and you better keep them busy. You don't want them ending up on the front page of the sports page getting in trouble if you don't have things set up for them when you're down there. So it's a huge undertaking."
The Capital One Bowl paid participating schools $4.6 million this past year, but South Carolina shared 70 percent with the SEC. The $1.375 million South Carolina kept was counted as bowl revenue, combining with the SEC's travel allowance and corporate incentives.
South Carolina will receive part of the base bowl payout from other SEC schools this summer.
The SEC wasn't alone in handing South Carolina an assist. Waddell said the Capital One Bowl offered 100 free hotel rooms. He doesn't recall other bowls extending the same help.
"That's an excellent touch," Waddell said. "If you throw that extra $150,000 to $200,000 on there, then we're back in the red."
Waddell doesn't see the challenge of planning bowl trips softening in coming years. The new college football playoff could add an extra variable, sending schools to unfamiliar bowls. Athletics directors could ask their conferences for an extra $50,000 to $100,000 in future years, Waddell said.
But Waddell said bowl games will never stop being attractive to football programs, no matter the cost. He said bowls excite fan bases, ensuring ticket revenue for the following season. They also help schools build their brand, and bowl appearances make an impact on the recruiting trail. Players want to play for programs that annually go to bowl games, knowing the award awaits at season's end.
"It's such a big plus," Waddell said. "Those guys that are staying at home, if you asked them whether they'd spend a couple hundred thousand extra dollars just to be more appealing, they'd say, 'Yes.' Think about how much you're spending in recruiting, and you're still paying your coaches anyway. You may not be paying them bonuses, but there's a cost (to not going to a bowl). It just may not be a direct cost."