Big Red Business: Measuring Bethune-Cookman’s $800K road trip
Chalk up some much-needed “W’s” for Bethune-Cookman University.
While Nebraska may be favored to defeat the Wildcats when they come to Lincoln on Saturday, the small, historically black college from Florida will come away at the very least with numerous measurable and immeasurable victories.
Here are some of the ways Bethune-Cookman wins, regardless of the outcome of the game. On that point, keep in mind the Wildcats (4-4) have more victories than Nebraska (1-6) this year:
* Nebraska is paying the Daytona Beach school a guaranteed $800,000 to fill a void in the Cornhuskers’ home schedule after the home opener with Akron was washed out by severe storms and lightning.
It is one of the largest -- if not the largest -- paycheck the school has ever received for scheduling one road game against a non-conference opponent. And it may be the second-largest payout to any school in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, topped only by Ohio State’s $900,000 check to Florida A&M in 2013, according to the conference. Ohio State won that game 73-0.
*That money will help Bethune-Cookman strengthen its athletics budget, which is in the $10 million to $15 million range based on conference estimates.
Assuming Bethune-Cookman’s athletics budget was at the high end, an $800,000 check would represent more than 5 percent of its athletics revenue, and provide a windfall since this game wasn’t on the original 2018 schedule. For Nebraska, $800,000 represents a fraction of its $138 million 2018-2019 athletic department budget.
*Bethune-Cookman needs the money. Last week interim president Hubert Grimes said the university was facing a “crisis” because of a myriad of financial problems. He denied reports that the school may be forced to close.
The financial problems prompted student rallies on campus this past week.
*Bethune-Cookman’s players may never forget the experience of playing in front of as many as 90,000-plus fans at Memorial Stadium. Even if Memorial Stadium is not jam-packed for this game, it will easily be the largest crowd the team from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference has played in front of this year.
And at the end of the day, the athletes are getting something out of the experience other than football. It’s part of their college education.
*The game provides plenty of media exposure not only for the 114-year-old university, but also for the entire conference, which includes Howard, Florida A&M, Norfolk State, Maryland Eastern Shore, and South Carolina State University. It’s a conference that has produced many great NFL players and Hall of Famers, such as Bob Hayes, Deacon Jones, and Willie Lanier.
Bethune-Cookman will get its name out in other parts of the country, especially since the game will be televised on the Big Ten Network with an 11 a.m. kickoff.
Dennis Thomas, commissioner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, knows all about the lore of Nebraska football from his own college football playing days. In an interview, he rattled off names such as Bob Devaney, Tom Osborne, and Rich Glover. He talked about Boyd Epley and Nebraska’s visionary weight training and conditioning program.
So he wasn’t surprised that his phone has been ringing more than usual from members of the media since the Nebraska game was added in late September to Bethune-Cookman’s schedule.
“I’ve heard from national and local (Nebraska and Florida) media,” Thomas said. “There’s something about (playing) Nebraska.”
Officials from Bethune-Cookman’s athletic department, including long-time athletic director Lynn Thompson, declined to discuss the financial impact of the Nebraska game, or answer any other questions for this story.
“We’ve played Power Five teams in the past,” said Bryan Harvey, an athletic department spokesman. “However, as a university policy being a private institution, we don’t release any of our financials.”
Bethune-Cookman facing 'crisis'
The Nebraska game comes at a critical juncture in the timeline of Bethune-Cookman, which was founded in 1904.
While refuting reports that the school will close, Grimes said the university is dealing with numerous financial issues that have been years in the making, including a bad dormitory deal that is expected to cost the university millions more than anticipated.
The new dorm, originally estimated at $72.1 million, is now expected to cost $306 million over payments spread out over the next 40 years, according to media reports in Florida.
“Our problems reflect the culmination of years of inadequate accountability, suspect governance, and quite frankly, inexcusable management decisions,” Grimes said.
Bethune-Cookman was put on probation earlier this year by its accrediting organization. Meetings with those officials were scheduled for late last week.
Bethune-Cookman has toughened its non-conference schedule in recent years with match-ups against larger Division I and Power Five schools.
Dating back to 2011, the school has played Miami four times and Florida State once. The Wildcats have also played Central Florida, Florida International, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, and Coastal Carolina.
Earlier this season, Bethune-Cookman lost to Florida Atlantic 49-28. Overall, it is 2-10 against larger Division I schools since 2011, with wins against Florida International in 2014 (14-12), and again in 2013 (34-13).
What were the financial payouts?
Some of this information is sketchy. But a two-year deal with Miami in 2011 and 2012 and a 2013 deal with the University of Central Florida reportedly brought in a total of $1.2 million, or $400,000 per game, Bethune-Cookman said at the time.
Bethune-Cookman’s two-year contract with Florida International for 2013-2014 games were in the “same range” of the $400,000 per game it received from Miami, the school said then. Also keep in mind the travel costs for those game are much cheaper since Bethune-Cookman could bus to those locations, vs. having to charter a plane into Lincoln.
Scheduling is more than just money
In a 2012 interview with the Daytona Beach News-Journal, Bethune-Cookman’s athletic director explained the school’s scheduling strategy against bigger schools.
When scheduling guaranteed-payout games, or other money-makers and classics -- in which a third party sponsors a neutral-site game -- the school tries to satisfy three criteria, Thompson said.
“One, we look at how much money can we generate off of this event,” Thompson told the newspaper. “Two, will we be in a real good position to be competitive and have a shot? And three, can we do this without shaking up our long-term goals?
“We have to know exactly what we are doing, what our goals are, what our needs, and also we’ve got to measure the opportunity for us to be successful so we can continue to move toward our primary goal, which is to contend. We don’t want to get a lot of kids hurt in the middle of the season, and our primary goal is lost.”
Thomas, the commissioner of the Mid-Eastern conference, amplified on those comments, saying that the paycheck needs to balance the expenses of playing the game and “you want to have a good payday.”
He also said fans should be cautious about automatically assuming that the schools in his conference are playing bigger schools only for the paycheck.
“What are the goals and objectives for a particular institution?” Thomas said. “It’s important for the public to have an open mind. Each institution’s mission and goals and objectives are different in terms of who they want to play."
A seller's market
Nebraska is no stranger to writing big checks to bring non-conference foes to Lincoln. But the Bethune-Cookman game and guarantee “is obviously a unique circumstance,” said Keith Mann, an athletic department spokesman.
“We were looking for an opponent on less than two months’ notice rather than several years down the road, and additionally with multiple cancellations around the country (caused by weather) it became something of a sellers’ market,” Mann said. “Ultimately, we found a mutually agreeable guarantee amount.”
What’s the going rate to bring teams to Lincoln or elsewhere?
“Non-conference guarantees are certainly market-driven,” Mann said. “There are a lot of factors that play into the going rate, and...those guarantees continue to rise each year.”
On large guarantee contracts such as Bethune-Cookman’s, Mann said schools receive a lump sum payment “and use that guarantee at their own discretion.”
This season and over the years, Nebraska has shelled out far more to fill the non-conference schedule.
This year, Nebraska had a $1.17 million agreement with Akron. Whether Nebraska pays the full amount or negotiates something less to cover Akron’s travel expenses has not been determined. Mann said the game contract doesn’t require payment until next March.
Nebraska and Colorado signed a contract in 2012 for a four-game series -- two in Lincoln this year and in 2024 and two in Boulder in 2019 and 2023. The visiting team receives $300,000 per game, according to the contract. Colorado won this year’s game.
In 2017, Nebraska paid Arkansas State $1.65 million to play in the season opener. Northern Illinois received $820,000.
Also, Nebraska’s 2016 and 2017 home and away swing with Oregon paid the visiting school $1 million, based on the contract.
The Southern Mississippi game in 2013 ranks high among guarantees. According to the Omaha World-Herald, Nebraska paid Southern Miss $2.125 million. But that payment was an amended contract for a game that was supposed to be played in Hattiesburg or possibly New Orleans. By contrast, Nebraska paid Southern Miss $700,000 for a 2015 visit to Memorial Stadium.
To put Bethune-Cookman's $800,000 payout more in perspective as an FCS opponent, NU has five scheduled games with FCS schools North Dakota (2022 and 2026) and South Dakota State (2020, 2024 and 2028). The payouts for those five FCS games range from $515,000 to $575,000, which is more the market rate for scheduling FCS schools. Where Group of Five schools like Akron and Arkansas State command anywhere from $1.1 to $1.65 million.
Payouts get higher and higher
Non-conference games have long been a way for big schools to help out small schools’ bottom line while padding their won-loss record and perhaps making the other program’s budget for the year.
The average Big Ten non-league game payment in 2019 is $853,000, more than double what conference schools paid 10 years ago, according to the Des Moines Register.
“It’s case by case, but I’m fairly confident the prices are not going down,” said Bob Vecchione, executive director of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics.
Indeed, there are reports of schools agreeing to pay $2 million or more for games in the future.
This year, Oregon State received $1.7 million to be smashed by Ohio State in Columbus. And Penn State paid Appalachian State, a Sun Belt Conference school, $1.2 million for what turned into a 45-38 comeback victory for the Nittany Lions.
But, sometimes upsets occur.
App State created national attention in 2007 with its victory over Michigan in the Big House. And, of course, Nebraska paid Northern Illinois $820,000 for the privilege of being upset in Memorial Stadium last season. Troy got $1.15 million this year as well for their upset victory of Nebraska in Lincoln.
Lest you think Bethune-Cookman plans to lay down for the Big Red in Lincoln, consider what happened a year ago when UNLV hosted Howard, another member of the Mid-Eastern conference.
Howard, a 45-point underdog, pulled off a 43-40 win, the largest point spread victory in the history of Division 1 football.
“It shocked the world,” Thomas said.
UNLV paid Howard $600,000 for the appearance. Not bad for a weekend in Vegas.
Steve Rosen covers the business of sports for HuskerOnline. Questions, comments, column ideas? Reach Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org.