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‘Money games’ going away, time for the Mid-American Conference to face reality about football budgets – Terry Pluto

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 8/7/2020 By Terry Pluto, cleveland.com

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Kent State’s football team was supposed to play at Penn State, Kentucky and Alabama early this season.

Let’s repeat that: Kent State was supposed to play Penn State, Alabama and Kentucky in FOOTBALL from Sept. 5-26.

All the games were on the road. To take a beating in those three games, Kent State was to be paid $5 million to help with its athletic budget.

All of those games are gone because of COVID-19 wiping out parts of schedules. They will be doing “who knows what” when and if college football actually plays.

The University of Akron was supposed to play at Clemson on Sept. 19 for $1.1 million. That game has been canceled.

Last season, Kent State played at Arizona State, Auburn and Wisconsin. The Flashes lost those games by a combined score of 133-23. But they were paid about $3.7 million.

Kent turned around and had a 5-3 record in the MAC and beat Utah State 51-41 in the Frisco Bowl. So this is not to diminish how the program has grown under coach Sean Lewis.

Relying on “money games” is common not only for Mid-American Conference football programs, but also lesser Division I conferences such as the Sun Belt, the American and Conference USA.

According to a story by Allen Moff of the Kent-Ravenna Courier, Kent State made the decision in 2018 to play three “money games” with Power Five conference teams per season.

That’s a high price to pay for any MAC football program. Not only are you likely to take a pounding on the scoreboard, there also is an added element of injuries when facing teams that are bigger, faster and stronger.

According to a story by Associated Press writer Ralph Russo, “This season, 39 major college football programs have scheduled 49 ‘buy’ games estimated at $65 million...12 MAC teams are playing 18 ‘guarantee’ games this season.”

Central Michigan has lost games at Nebraska and Northwestern to the virus...and more than $2 million in guarantees. Eastern Michigan won’t receive its $1.5 million for games at Missouri and Kentucky,

There will probably be a legal battle as big-time schools certainly won’t want to pay $1 million or more for games not played. The MAC schools in money games will want the cash because it’s needed for their athletic departments.

Lawyers will be trying to settle these disputes.

THEY STILL LOSE MONEY

Even with their $3.6 million in payouts from three football games in 2019, Kent State student fees still covered nearly 50% of the $29 million athletic budget.

Keep in mind MAC football is not exactly a big draw on most campuses.

According to the NCAA, the MAC averaged 15,530 fans per home game. That ranked dead last among all Division I football conferences.

Furthermore, if you’ve been to a few MAC games recently, you know that 15,530 figure is optimistic at best. Perhaps they “distributed” that many tickets, but that’s not close to the number of fans actually in the stands.

Occasionally, a MAC team upsets a Power Five opponent. Sometimes they give the home team a decent game. But so often, these are blowouts.

But with COVID-19 wiping out the money games and cutting enrollments at most MAC colleges, the amount of money coming from student fees will also go down.

Kent State is already cutting its athletic budget by 20%.

The University of Akron is a financial mess on so many levels with widespread layoffs. Some sports also have been cut. The budget issues at that institution are at crisis level.

WHAT TO DO?

The virus is sending a message that many in the MAC already know: Too much money has been spent on sports, with football chewing up the largest chunk.

According to a 2018 Knight Commission report, the average MAC school spends $8.7 million on football.

About a month ago, I talked with MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher.

He discussed the painful process of schools examining the budgets and making cuts.

I asked about dropping out of Division I, at least in football.

“That’s not something our membership wants to do,” he said. “Look at our league. It’s been one of the most stable in Division I. We don’t have schools coming and going.”

He’s right about that. Schools like being part of the MAC.

He also was correct when he told me that dropping down to the Football Championship Subdivision (the old NCAA Division I-AA) doesn’t save that much money in football. They lose the cash from television and guarantee games. He also believes attendance will also fall.

MAC schools each receive about $850,000 from ESPN for their games, which often are television on weekday nights late in the season in lousy weather with few fans in the stands.

THE ECONOMIC VIRUS

COVID-19 has changed almost everything in every aspect of life and business.

Even if there is a vaccine found soon, will more than 100,000 fans be immediately willing to return to pay mega dollars to watch football at the elite schools?

Or will they decide to “stay safe” and watch it on TV? And who knows when it will be “safe” for the big schools to pack their stands with fans?

How will that impact “money games” for opponents such as the MAC?

They spend too much money on the sport in an age when the economy is suffering from its own virus, and recovery will not come quickly.

SOME GOOD QUESTIONS

Why should the MAC schools spend $8 million annually on football?

Why pay the average head coach more than $500,000?

Why have 85 football scholarships, simply because that’s the NCAA limit for Division I football.

Figure about $30,000 per scholarship. Suppose that was cut to 60 instead of 85, something every MAC team has to follow. How about a cap on the head coach’s salaries in the league? That makes it fair if every MAC school has to follow it.

Pro leagues have salary caps for players. The NFL plays with 53 active players each week. Are 85 scholarships really needed? Can’t non-scholarship walk-ons fill in?

Paying more than $8 million a year for football in the MAC costs too many dollars and makes very little sense. Other non-Power Five conferences also should face that reality.

Now is the time to be creative and make some hard decisions.

RECENT TERRY PLUTO COLUMNS

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