CHARLOTTE -- A misconception about bowl games is that they produce considerable profits for programs. The truth is the reward for earning bowl berths is often the risk of financial loss for athletic departments.
Clemson's trip to the Gator Bowl two years ago netted a $2,449 profit. Despite a $1 million check for making the Music City Bowl last season, the Tigers cleared a modest $120,000 on the trip.
Postseason trips are expensive as colleges pay to lodge their teams, bands and cheerleaders in addition to picking up the tab for their unsold ticket allotments.
"There is a perception problem; it's not a windfall," said Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips. "You just want to be able to break even. Sometimes you don't even break even. But there are significant benefits. It is a great experience for the kids ... you get some extra practice time. And anytime you can get on national television it continues exposure for your program, which is very significant value. But a financial windfall? No."
Clemson might have faced a significant loss this year had it been sent to a distant location, but the trip to Charlotte lessened the travel burden for fans. Clemson associate AD Katie Hill said Wednesday the Tigers had sold 7,000 of their 12,000 tickets for the game.
Had Clemson been forced to travel farther it could have faced more unsold tickets, which programs are required to purchase. Connecticut earned a BCS berth in the Fiesta Bowl, which is located in Glendale, Ariz. But Connecticut has sold only 4,600 of its 17,500 ticket allotment and faces a $2 million bill in unsold ticket commitments.
Tens of thousands of tickets typically go unsold at various bowl games. It has many questioning whether the postseason product has become too watered down, diluting interest.
"I can't refute that argument," Phillips said. "Back when I played there were very few bowls. To get to postseason play you had to have an awfully good team and have had an awfully good year. ... You can't argue that it hasn't watered down (the postseason). On the positive side it does expose your university and your team."
While there are exposure benefits, the games remain expensive for programs.
Last season, Clemson sold 2,686 tickets for the Music City Bowl and had to pay $255,000 to pick up their unsold ticket commitment, nearly 5,000 seats. Lodging and food for Clemson totaled $355,855. Feeding and lodging the band and cheerleaders cost $48,067, and the school paid $133,107 in transportation costs.
Meineke Car Care Bowl executive director Will Webb said he has not had discussions with other bowl officials about adjusting the financial burden for programs. Webb said Wednesday the bowl had sold about 40,000 tickets. The game averaged 61,000 fans the previous two years, helped by the fact that North Carolina played in the bowl both years.
"We want it to be a win-win for everyone," Webb said.
While programs struggle to break even, bowl officials enjoy plush salaries.
According to Sports Illustrated, Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl executive director Gary Cavalli made $377,475 in 2009. Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan made $607,500 in 2007. The 2007 Chick-fil-A bowl brought in $12.3 million in revenue but paid out just $5.9 million to Clemson and Auburn.
To make the lower-tier bowl trips possible, conferences typically use their BCS paydays ($21 million per conference) to subsidize the rest of the conference's bowl games.
All ACC bowl payouts are placed in a collective pool, then spread equally. The ACC bowl payout to non-BCS bowl qualifiers is $1.1 million this season. ACC champion Virginia Tech will receive $1.7 million.
In a worst-case scenario in the ACC, a team could lose the equivalent of their bowl allowance ($1.1 million this season) before the conference would step in to pick up costs, Hill said.
"I think the conference would do whatever it could to mitigate damages so a school is not going to be penalized for becoming bowl eligible," Hill said.
Virginia Tech reportedly lost $1.7 million for playing in the 2009 Orange Bowl. Ohio State lost $80,000 by going to the Rose Bowl last season, according to Sports Illustrated.
After a severe recession, with athletic departments cutting staff and expenses, the question arose this week: what if teams begin declining bowl invites?
Check out the Clemson blog at postandcourier.com/blogs/tiger_tracks and follow Travis Sawchik on Twitter (@travis_sawchik).