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Big Red Business: Non-conference foes facing loss of big Nebraska payouts

When non-conference foes come to Memorial Stadium each season, the visitors can count on two things: A warm, respectful greeting from Nebraska fans, and most importantly, a hefty payout for making the road trip.

These football paychecks are essential to the athletic departments of this season’s three non-conference opponents, Central Michigan, South Dakota State University, and Cincinnati. Unlike Nebraska, these three schools operate with smaller athletic department budgets already stretched thin to cover football and all other team sports.

With the pandemic crisis threatening to derail all or part of the college football season, Nebraska and other wealthy Power Five schools should be able to plug most of the financial holes and live to fight another day. But it’s a different scenario for the Chippewas, the Jackrabbits, and the Bearcats, where the loss of anywhere from hundreds of thousands of dollars to more than a million would have a major impact on their athletic programs.

If non-conference games are chopped from Nebraska’s schedule, Central Michigan would be the hardest hit opponent. It is scheduled to receive a $1.3 million payout.

Just last week, the Mid-American Conference school dropped its track and field program to help balance the athletic department budget, which was already bleeding. So further cuts could be in order if the Nebraska game is canceled.

Nebraska is scheduled to pay South Dakota State $515,000 for its Sept. 19th game, while Cincinnati’s contract is for $400,000 a week later.

The Bearcats’ payment is lower because it’s a home-and-home series, with Nebraska scheduled to receive $400,000 for a 2025 game at Cincinnati. It is standard for home-and-home contracts to include an offsetting payment, said Nebraska athletic department spokesman Keith Mann.

Add it all up and Nebraska will save $2.215 million in guarantees if the non-conference schedule is eliminated this season. But that’s not the bottom line. Nebraska would lose out on a lot of television, tickets, concessions and parking revenue from playing an abbreviated schedule. And the $2.2 million would be needed to offset revenue declines in other areas of the budget.

This season, 39 major college football schools have scheduled a total of 49 so-called “buy” games with smaller, non-conference opponents, worth an estimated $65 million, according to an Associated Press analysis.

Nebraska’s one-game payout to Central Michigan for the Sept. 12 game would appear to be one of the largest. In contrast, Akron will receive $1.1 million for a game at Clemson and Iowa is scheduled to pay Northern Illinois $1.1 million for a Sept. 26 game in Iowa City.

“Any time you talk about half a million, a million and a half, two million, and you’re talking about the budget our size here, which is just over $30 million, you’re talking about a significant dollar amount of projected revenue that has to be made up,” Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier told the Associated Press.

The checkbook topper reportedly is $1.9 million by Auburn to Massachusetts for a Nov. 14th game. In addition Arkansas State is getting $1.8 million to play at Michigan this fall.

Here’s how the financial scenarios could play out at Central Michigan, South Dakota State, and Cincinnati. As of now, all plans are tentative.

Central Michigan and head coach Jim McElwain are scheduled to get $1.3 million to play at Nebraska.
Central Michigan and head coach Jim McElwain are scheduled to get $1.3 million to play at Nebraska. (Getty Images)

The Chippewas  

Last week, Central Michigan announced it was dropping its indoor and outdoor track and field programs as a cost-cutting move that would save the school more than $628,000 annually.

The decision directly impacted 36 student-athletes; two full-time assistant coaching positions also are being eliminated.

The Mid-American Conference school has been struggling to deal with declining enrollment exacerbated by the coronavirus. Central Michigan’s athletic department, like many Group of Five schools, is not self-sustainable and relies more on financial support from the university.

“The declining enrollment impacts our financial bottom,” Michael Alford, the school’s athletic director told the Detroit Free Press last Tuesday. “We are facing additional financial challenges. When I look at the different models, probably six or seven, trying to make it work, it’s just impossible to make it work without this reduction” in the track program.

In terms of potential of additional cuts caused by the potential loss of the Nebraska paycheck, the athletic department “ is committed to working with CMU leadership to identify areas of savings that will result in a balanced budget, not only in athletics but across the university, spokesman Robert Wyman said.

If South Dakota State weren't able to play at Nebraska, they would take a net hit of nearly $500,000. Their annual budget is $20 million.
If South Dakota State weren't able to play at Nebraska, they would take a net hit of nearly $500,000. Their annual budget is $20 million. (Getty Images)

The Jackrabbits  

The Sept. 19th Nebraska game is South Dakota State’s highest guarantee game of the season, the only road non-conference game of its schedule and the only game against a Division I FBS opponent in 2020, said Jason Hove, the school’s assistant athletic director for sports information.

“We tend to schedule one FBS game a year against a Power 5 school,” Hove said.

South Dakota State’s total athletic department budget for the 2020-21 academic year is estimated to be about $20 million, so $515,000 from Nebraska covers a lot of costs.

“We are anticipating to incur about $35,000 in travel expenses to Nebraska,” said Hove, “so (this) would roughly be a $480,000 net loss.”

Could television revenue dip too? All of the school’s Missouri Valley football conference games are channeled to ESPN or ESPN3, either through Midco Sports NEtwork or through a provider arranged by the conference or host school, Hove said.

Nebraska and Cincinnati will each get $400,000 for their two-game series.
Nebraska and Cincinnati will each get $400,000 for their two-game series. (David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports)

The Bearcats

Nebraska’s $400,000 check is Cincinnati’s largest payout for the upcoming season, said Nick Bowes, the athletic department’s chief financial officer.

“If we did not play the game, there would certainly be a loss,” he said, “but there would be travel savings that would offset some of it.”

Bowes said the athletic department is working through various scenarios to identify savings opportunities within the department in certain situations where revenue would be lost.

“This would just be another item where we would have to set priorities to offset the decrease,” Bowes said.

While Nebraska’s operating budget is more than $142 million, Cincinnatis’ is about $68 million, including $14 million for football.

The school is entering the first of a 12-year, $1 billion American Athletic Conference television deal, which Bowes said will pay four times more annually to the conference than it previously did.

Still in play

There are hopeful signs that college football will return this fall, either with full or abbreviated schedules.

Notre Dame, a football independent, is lobbying conference commissioners to consider an abbreviated schedule that preserves traditional non-conference rivalries.

But if conferences opt for shortened or rearranged schedules, they will likely prioritize conference games, which typically have more value both financially and competitively, conference commissioners told the Associated Press.

Steve Rosen writes about the business of sports for HuskerOnline. Questions, comments, story ideas? Reach Steve at sbrosen1030@gmail.com.