The Business of College Football Guarantees
Week 2 of the 2022 College Football season was one of the most unforgettable weekends in the history of college football. It wasn’t because the newest national champion was crowned, a notable bowl game lived up to its expectations, or a long-time rival was defeated – it was quite the opposite. Highlighted by App State and Marshall, it was a Saturday eclipsed by underdogs. Going on the road to play some of the most storied programs in the country is no easy task for any school, let alone a couple of “no names.” Nevertheless, both teams took home not only the pride of beating Top 10 teams on national television, but some pretty hefty paychecks as well.
These paychecks are known as “guarantees” and have impacted college athletics for many years. The first “guarantee game” dates back to 1916, when Cumberland College traveled to Georgia Tech and was defeated 220-0 (yes, you read that right). Cumberland agreed to the trip because Georgia Tech paid $500 and travel expenses to its financially struggling athletic department. Over 100 years later, checks for guarantee football games regularly go into the millions. This year, Marshall received $1.25 million from Notre Dame to travel to South Bend, and App State received $1.5 million from Texas A&M.
What’s in it for the Paying School?
It’s Chump Change
While one athletic department paying another more than $1 million to come play one football game may seem absurd, for many Power 5 schools, cutting guarantee checks has little financial impact in total. For example, in 2022 Texas A&M is expected to record $147 million in annual revenue for football alone, tying them for the richest college football program in the country. So forking over $1.5 million to App State is pennies on the dollar when taking into consideration the total amount of money the football program brings in. Comparatively, App State athletics in its entirety only generated roughly $28 million in annual revenue for 2021, a $119 million difference to the SEC powerhouse.
Because Notre Dame is a private institution, it is not required to disclose financials like state schools must, making it significantly harder to find specific dollars related to athletics. However, in a 2022 Sports Illustrated report, Notre Dame was ranked as the 3rd most valuable Power 5 school. Keeping this in mind, it’s reasonable to assume that its annual athletics revenue is similarly situated to that of Texas A&M. Marshall reported a 2021 annual revenue of almost $32 million, placing them in a similar financial bracket as App State.
While the millions of dollars generated every year from football programs and athletic departments as a whole do not reflect the amount of money allocated to each school’s upcoming athletics budget, there is a correlation. Typically, the higher the revenue stream, the greater the spending budget. For money-rich schools like Notre Dame and Texas A&M, this makes guarantee checks for a respective $1.25 million and $1.5 million simply chump change.
Another Home Game
A guarantee game typically permits the paying school to play at home, forcing the receiving school to travel. This allows for the paying school to easily recoup its investment even if the department covers the traveling expenses of the receiving team. But with the paying team at home, its investment is typically made back (and then some) through ticket sales, concession revenue, etc. In the 2018-19 fiscal year, Texas A&M reported that $48.9 million of its $212.7 million total athletics revenue came from ticket sales alone. The majority of that $48.9 million, as with most Power 5 schools with strong football programs, comes from football. If, for example, Texas A&M plays six regular season home games out of a 12 game season, this amounts to an average of $8,150,000 in ticket sales revenue per game. Based on ticket sales alone, one added home football game provides more than enough income for Texas A&M to make back the $1.5 million paycheck to App State.
In 2021, Notre Dame reported its football team as a whole (ticket sales included) generated an astounding $65,308,589. Divided among an estimated six regular season home games, Notre Dame averages $10,884,765 in total revenue per game. So, paying $1.25 million to Marshall still leaves the Fighting Irish profiting almost $10 million.
Records are Everything
Lastly, and also of great importance for the paying school, is the almost certain win that will result. Teams (especially those in the Power 5) place major importance on having a stellar record in hopes of impressing the College Football Playoff Committee and/or qualifying for a bowl game. Making the College Football Playoff (CFP) or qualifying for a bowl (eligibility for bowl games requires at least six wins) not only fulfills a goal for many college football programs, but also unlocks another revenue stream as both the CFP and bowl games pay out their participants. Since the majority of guarantee games occur at the beginning of each football season, the coaching staff can use these matchups as the last opportunities to fine-tune plays and strategies in a game setting, while not jeopardizing a loss early in the season. However, thanks to the successes of Marshall and App State, the country was reminded of the unpredictability of college football and the devastating impact an underdog upset can have on team’s CFP/bowl aspirations.
What’s in it for the Receiving School?
Short-Term Financial Boost
Potentially obvious, the schools receiving these exorbitant million-dollar paychecks also have an interest in playing. As alluded to before, not many schools outside the Power 5 conferences even come close to matching the revenue generated by Texas A&M and Notre Dame. Marshall reported a 2021 annual revenue of $32 million with App State not far behind at $28 million – nothing compared to Texas A&M’s $147 million. Thus, accepting $1.25 and $1.5 million dollars respectively goes a long way in benefiting small school athletic departments financially.
For App State, not only did its athletic department receive $1.5 million from Texas A&M, but its campus was selected as the next destination for ESPN’s College Gameday following the dramatic victory over the Aggies. Although difficult to quantify in dollars, being the host site for College Gameday will likely generate a financial boost for both App State itself and for its home of Boone, North Carolina.
In addition to reaping the short-term financial benefit of a guarantee check, the national exposure from playing a school such as a Notre Dame or Texas A&M can lead to long-term financial gain and brand exposure for smaller schools. A matchup versus a Power 5 opponent gives a smaller school the unique chance to be seen by the millions of college football fans who tune in to watch the top competitors each week. Rarely are top college football programs not on national television, so smaller schools revel in the nationwide exposure for the few hours the game is aired.
Everyone knows the Notre Dame’s and the Texas A&M’s of the world, but most college football fans are not as familiar with, or have even heard of schools such as Marshall or App State. The national exposure received provides an opportunity for the school to make itself known and to shed light on its features that may be appealing to prospective students. This is increased tenfold if the smaller school is able to pull off the upset – there is no way College Gameday would’ve even thought to consider Boone, North Carolina if it weren’t for the Mountaineers’ upset. Ultimately, the national exposure can lead to an increase in student enrollment which means more tuition dollars pumped into the university.
As a byproduct of the national exposure, guarantee games are also used as a recruiting incentive for smaller schools. Being able to pitch to recruits that they might play on national television under the lights at an SEC powerhouse like Texas A&M and in front of 100,000+ fans is a selling point to lure recruits.
Additionally, the national exposure can generate notice from professional scouts. Whether it be NFL scouts or scouts from a Power 5 school, guarantee games and the exposure they offer to athletes from smaller schools can offer an instant opportunity for athletes to be noticed. In general, athletes from Power 5 schools have no problem with recognition as almost all of their games are broadcast on some sort of major network whether it be ESPN, ABC, FOX, etc. But to athletes of smaller schools, having a great performance on national television could catch the eye of someone with the power to take their career to the next level – someone who may have overlooked them otherwise.
All in all, scheduling one or two of these games per year makes sense for both sides. For now, guarantee games are here to stay, as are the million-dollar checks. However, if the rumors are true, things could get interesting if the Power 5 finally breaks off from the NCAA to form a new league. Scheduling conflicts would most certainly arise, but only time will tell of the impact a separate super league would have on both large Power 5 schools and small, financially limited schools.
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