The University of Oregon got a lot of flak for its 2018 nonconference football schedule. It was called the “softest” schedule in the Pac-12 for featuring three lower-tier football teams that didn’t have anything approaching a winning record last year.
It was soft. It was also expensive.
UO spent more than any other Pac-12 college team this year for its nonconference schedule — sometimes scornfully called “body-bag” games because of the mismatch between teams. Bowling Green received $900,000, Portland State received $500,000 and San José State received $1.6 million, according to contracts obtained by Eugene Weekly.
For UO, there’s not much of a downside to its nonconference games — playing other college teams outside of the Pac-12 conference. Nonconference home games are a way to generate money for the UO Athletic Department from ticket sales and other services while giving the football team home field advantage. These games are especially helpful during the even years (like 2018) when UO has more Pac-12 games played on the road.
In addition, a nonconference game against the Ducks gives the visiting team a big check for its own athletic department.
This year, however, UO had to pay a higher price to play at home for their first three games of the year. It cost the UO Athletic Department $3 million to bring in teams to boost its self-esteem — although San José State gave UO a good sweat.
The high cost was an aberration of scheduling, says Eric Roedl, deputy athletic director at UO.
Originally, the UO was planning on playing Texas A&M instead of San José State, but a clause in that agreement allowed Texas A&M to back out if it left its football conference. In 2011, Texas A&M announced it would leave the Big 12 conference for Southeastern Conference. The university voided its contract with UO in 2016, Roedl says.
Other contracts obtained by EW have a penalty clause if the game is canceled. Texas A&M didn’t have one.
“It was a unique agreement,” Roedl adds.
UO had to find another school to replace Texas A&M. The objective with football nonconference game scheduling is to minimize costs. When you don’t have much time to find another university, though, you lose leverage in the negotiating process.
“It is the most we paid out in guarantees,” Roedl says.
As a result, the UO had to pay $1.6 million to bring in San José State, who the Ducks beat 35-22.
That UO paycheck is tied with Auburn University for the most San José State has ever received. That will change when Auburn pays San José State for a $1.85 million payout in 2020, says Steve O’Brien, deputy director of athletics at San José State.
For San José State, this money is well received. The $1.6 million UO shelled out to play Sept. 15 is basically five percent of the operating budget for San José State’s athletic department, O’Brien says.
After paying costs associated with having the team travel, leftover money can go toward funding student-athlete scholarships, tutoring services or staff salaries, O’Brien adds.
The games also serve as a redistribution of wealth in a way, so the minority of football programs doesn’t hold the majority of the financial resources.
It’s not just about the money, though. The game offers the university’s football program a chance to be exposed to a different talent tier, as well as getting an opportunity to play in front of NFL team recruiters.
Of course, there’s always a potential downside for the visiting team. For example, playing a team that performs at a higher level could lead to team injuries.
On the other hand, it could result in embarrassment for the bigger team. Some may point to Fresno State’s win over UCLA in its nonconference game, and San José State showed that UO had some problems — losing by only 13 points. Despite UO’s win, O’Brien sounded chipper on the phone about the close score.
UO athletic director Rob Mullens told The Athletic, a subscription-based sports website, that the best judge for the strength of a nonconference game schedule is to look at ticket sales. However, the UO has seen an 8 percent decline in season ticket sales, which Mullens said wasn’t just because of this season’s nonconference games, although that is probably a factor.
Declining season tickets is a nationwide trend, Roedl says. Nevertheless, he says UO made up the money spent for nonconference football games from ticket sales, merchandise, parking and other game-day sales.
For the UO, that money is necessary to support the football program. Roedl says the program is the financial driver of the Athletic Department, accounting for 70 percent of the department budget.
“We’re competing nationally as a top 10-type program, but we don’t have a top 10 revenue base to fund this program,” Roedl says. “We’re not spending as much in a typical year as a lot of schools are.”
Although Athletic Department officials say more money was spent this year, UO will make money back when it plays Auburn in 2019 at the AT&T Stadium in Dallas, Texas. The $3.5 million payout will make up the money lost in sending a large paycheck to San José State, says Jimmy Stanton, senior associate athletics director for UO.
In the meantime, UO is looking to book its nonconference schedule all the way up to 2030 with scheduled opponents intended to sharpen the UO’s football program and generate the revenue to support the program, Roedl says.
In the following years, he says, UO will avoid a recurrence of this year’s of high-cost game guarantees. In 2020, the school will pay $1.95 million and $1.575 in 2021.
Contracts for future nonconference games do not have the clause that allowed Texas A&M to get out of the game penalty-free.
This year, other Pac-12 universities paid far less than the almost $3 million UO spent this year, according to contracts obtained by EW from other universities.
Only three other Pac-12 teams spent more than $1 million: Washington State University paid $1.25 million, University of Arizona spent $1.35 million and Arizona State paid $1 million.
Oregon State University, on the other hand, received $1.7 million from Ohio State University.
University of Southern California and Stanford, which are private schools in the Pac-12, declined to share their financial information.