NCAA Football: Why the Big Guys Pay Their Little Brothers to Play

T here is no question as to why the University of Michigan or the University of Alabama would pay an Appalachian State University or a University of Buffalo to come to their stadium and play a good ol’ game of football – another win, more profits, and no “home and home.”[1] But what incentives does this matchup provide to the little guy? Why would a university within a sub-Division I conference agree to travel to a powerhouse school and receive a beating? The answer lies where it commonly does in college sports: money.[2] Some teams, like University of Buffalo, reason that the money they earn from such matchups goes toward improving their athletic facilities, but others, like Florida Atlantic University, simply say that accepting losses from strong athletic programs brings exposure to its players and provides them with excellent experience playing against skilled opponents.[3] Furthermore, even these so-called “guaranteed-games” are no longer an ensured “W” on a team’s record.[4] For example, in 2007 the University of Michigan paid Appalachian State University $400,000 to come play at the Big House and to ensure a win for the Wolverines in their season opener, only to result in one of the biggest upsets in college football and the beginning of a terrible season for Michigan.[5]

The ultimate question becomes: Should the NCAA require that teams stick to their divisions when creating schedules instead of allowing top athletic departments to exploit weaker schools? This change could lead to a more exciting full season of games and also a more realistic view of a team’s performance throughout the season, as opposed to victories against un-matched opponents at the beginning of the year and then struggling when they meet their conference rivals later in the season.[6] In reality, this change is likely, at least in the Big Ten, with Commissioner Jim Delaney having publicly announced that he would like teams to begin banning Football Championship Series games starting in 2016.[7] However, this is just a suggestion by Delaney, not a Big Ten rule, and only time will tell if Big Ten teams actually follow his guidance and refrain from scheduling “guaranteed-games” and beat-downs on non-conference teams.

A different aspect of college football and profit-seeking athletic directors is the rise of teams traveling to neutral sites to kickoff their seasons. While teams incur a significant cost by going to play at the Cowboys’ Stadium or at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, the payments they gain in terms of television rights, advertising, memorabilia, and the like are more than enough to draw them to these various locations. So while Michigan took a brutal loss against Alabama in the 2012 game opener in Dallas, there is no doubt that the university’s athletic director would make the same decision again, having gained $4.7 million for Big Blue.[8]

As long as athletic departments at large universities want to recruit the best prospects and turn a profit, and as long as they do not have to worry about paying their players in the process, games between mismatched opponents will continue and less famous teams outside of Division I will retain the opportunity to upset schools like Michigan and Oregon State University.[9] After all, getting paid to lose is what has helped teams like Florida State become relevant, so there may even be an upside in taking one for the team.[10]

Allie Maron is a current Harvard Law School Student (Class of 2015).
Suggested citation:
Allie Maron, NCAA Football: Why the Big Guys Pay Their Little Brothers to Play, Harv. J.Sports & Ent. Online Dig., November 20, 2013, http://harvardjsel.com/2013/11/littlebrothers/.


[1] Playing teams that are less than mediocre allows teams to become steps away from bowl eligibility before playing a division game. Also, by paying smaller schools to come play less money than bigger named schools, universities are able to drive a bigger profit from home games. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/23/sports/ncaafootball/23college.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

[2] See http://jss.sagepub.com/content/36/1/68.full.pdf+html. Discusses the evolution of college athletics into a profit-seeking industry and a “commercial athletic marketplace” and how coaches’ compensation may reflect the financial stability of an athletic institution. See also Derek Bok, Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=jp333nuZrToC&oi=fnd&pg=PR1&dq=the+business+of+college+athletics&ots=7IFEwPYVoI&sig=iKMipQE5iWMIyHeVbi9EdTt1Oak#v=onepage&q=the%20business%20of%20college%20athletics&f=false pages 35-57 discussing the commercialization of college athletics.

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/23/sports/ncaafootball/23college.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[4] http://www.nj.com/rutgersfootball/index.ssf/2013/09/for_rutgers_and_others_in_college_football_out-of-conference_games_like_eastern_michigan_are_the_cos.html

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2007_Appalachian_State_vs._Michigan_football_game

[6] Teams would then also face the challenge of trying to determine who plays at home, as teams want to have as many home games as possible to increase profits and revenue. http://www.nj.com/rutgersfootball/index.ssf/2013/09/for_rutgers_and_others_in_college_football_out-of-conference_games_like_eastern_michigan_are_the_cos.html.

[7] Id.

[8] http://sports.yahoo.com/ncaa/football/news?slug=ycn-10140149

[9] This year, seven FCS teams beat FBS teams that were paid to come play at their schools on opening day of college football. http://espn.go.com/college-football/story/_/id/9624936/seven-fcs-teams-pull-23m-upsets

[10] http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/23/sports/ncaafootball/23college.html?pagewanted=all

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