In the wake of the Big Ten and Pac-12 each announcing they were jettisoning their 2020 non-conference schedules due to the coronavirus pandemic, much of the regret came from the loss of some marquee matchups: Alabama versus Southern Cal, Notre Dame versus Wisconsin, Ohio State versus Oregon.
In the end, though, let’s be honest — Alabama will survive missing that non-conference game.
But will Bowling Green?
The Falcons losing games at both Ohio State and Illinois doesn’t move the meter too much on a national scale. In Bowling Green, Ohio, though, it’s seismic.
BGSU stood to make $2.2 million from those games — $1.2 million from the Buckeyes and $1 million from the Fighting Illini. Such is life for most schools in the Group of Five, the cadre of conferences whose schools sit in the Football Bowl Subdivision but don’t enjoy the prime-time ESPN broadcasting slots. They can be found on the bigger networks on weeknights, on the smaller networks on weekends, or having their fans watch their games on Facebook.
Less lucrative broadcasting slots mean less lucrative broadcasting contracts. Group of Five schools hope to get a couple million dollars a year from their TV deals, rather than the tens of millions the Power Five conferences receive. The smaller schools have to find other ways to fill their coffers.
So they strike deals with the Goliaths of the sport, agreeing to travel to their campuses and usually take a trip to the woodshed for a high-six-figure or low-seven-figure payday. The term for those is “guarantee games.”
The only guarantee now is that some aren’t getting played. And as fluid as college football’s situation is now, there could be more erased from the schedule.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 each made their decisions. The ACC hasn’t yet, but reports have the conference considering a conference-only slate as well. If that happens, Conference USA member Marshall loses a home game against Pittsburgh.
For schools like Marshall that were able to bring power-conference teams to their campuses, that’s a marquee, season-ticket-selling home game that goes away. For schools signed to guarantee games, that’s a million dollars or more that could disappear.
And that’s a massive chunk of the athletic budget. Bowling Green’s total revenues from the 2018-19 season were $26 million, the smallest total in the Mid-American Conference. Now shave another $2 million-plus from that total. Northern Illinois had games at Maryland and Iowa. Colorado State had a home game with rival Colorado and a game at Oregon State that won’t happen.
It took a late fundraising rush to save Bowling Green’s baseball team, which the school nearly shuttered due to the revenue losses that came from the pandemic. What happens to these smaller schools if those big-money games go away?
They could sue those power schools, but would they receive the full amount of the contract or a smaller settlement? And would that settlement be worth the time and money needed to file the suit?
Bowling Green Athletic Director Bob Moosbrugger said all the FBS conferences, big and small, should all sit down at the table and find an answer together.
“Ten FBS conferences have signed a college football playoff agreement with an expectation that we will work together for the good of college football,” Moosbrugger said after the Big Ten announcement. “If we are to solve these challenges and be truly dedicated to protecting the health and safety of our student-athletes, we need to do a better job of working together.”
But before these bigger schools start thinking about the good of college football as a whole, they’re thinking about the good of their own campuses. The power schools have instituted furloughs and paycuts themselves. And their logic behind conference-only contests has merit. That way, if that conference has to make a broad proclamation about the football schedule, everyone has to follow it. There is no negotiation between conferences on what the rules will be.
The big boys are fine with conference-only slates. Michigan still plays Ohio State. Oregon still plays Southern Cal. Bowling Green-Akron doesn’t have the same sparkle.
These pandemic-fueled changes are a shot across the bow of the smaller conferences. It’s a sign that the power conferences aren’t afraid to move forward without them for at least next season. And if it’s not too painful next season, who’s to say they don’t extend the practice?
(That might not be the smartest play. Guarantee games for the power schools often mean guaranteed wins. Those wins can keep bowl streaks — and coaching tenures — alive. In that regard, the big boys will want as many small-conference teams as possible to survive.)
At least in the short run, these decisions show how wide and how deep the gulf is between the power conferences and small conferences. And there’s no saying how interested the power conferences will be in bridging that gap in the future.