Losing ‘guarantee games’ could further hinder smaller schools

With the country’s non-Power 5 schools already scrambling to make ends meet during the coronavirus pandemic, the possibility of losing football paydays could be crippling

Like many smaller football programs, North Carolina A&T relies on the money it gets from guarantee games against Power 5 schools — including the $375,000 it received to play Duke last season — to remain financially viable. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

On Sept. 1, 2007, Appalachian State pulled off what is generally considered the biggest upset in college football history when it went to Michigan and beat the fifth-ranked Wolverines 34-32 in front of 109,208 stunned fans at the stadium known as “The Big House.”

The Mountaineers were a member of the Football Championship Subdivision at the time and were supposed to be little more than season-opening fodder to help prepare the powerful home team for the tougher games it had ahead.

As it turned out, they got more than just the $400,000 they were guaranteed just for showing up in Ann Arbor.

App State has since graduated to the Football Bowl Subdivision and become one of the premier programs in the Sun Belt Conference. But because of the economic structure of college athletics, it must still resort to playing frequent “guarantee games” to help make ends meet.

Just last year, the Mountaineers took in $1.2 million in revenue to beat both North Carolina and South Carolina on their respective home fields. Future schedules have them traveling to Wisconsin, Miami, Texas A&M and Clemson for equally lucrative paydays.

Those games and the money that comes with them are the lifeblood of non-Power 5 programs across the state. In most cases, money taken in from football provides the funding for non-revenue sports such as soccer, tennis, swimming, volleyball and golf.

It’s a revenue stream, however, non-Power 5 and FCS athletic directors are concerned might soon dry up — or disappear completely — as schools are forced to make drastic changes caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Some of those schools, including App State and East Carolina, have already eliminated sports programs to help address the shortfall. Depending on how long the crisis lasts and how it affects the coming fall season, everyone may have to start making adjustments.

“We’re absolutely keeping our finger on the pulse of what’s going on around the country, and we’re absolutely in unprecedented times for which there is no playbook,” App State AD Doug Gillin said during a recent Zoom conference with the media. “I think at the end of the day, every university is going to have to make its own decision.

“The longer this goes on, the harder those decisions are going to be to make or the harder decisions you’re going to have to make potentially.”

The degree of difficulty, at least in the here and now, will depend on when — or if — the 2020 football season begins and how it will look once it does.

“This football season is going to be unique,” said ECU AD Jon Gilbert. “For us, with the situation we’re in, I’m equally as concerned with some of our home-and-homes. It’s important for us to go to South Carolina this year to play that game because they return to us next year and that would be a big revenue game for us.”

All indications are pointing to an on-time start, with the NCAA set to vote on a proposal that would allow for a six-week preseason starting in mid-July.

But even then, there are questions to be answered.

If the games are played with crowds limited by social distancing — or worse, without fans at all — guarantees such as the $400,000 NC Central will get for playing at Ohio on Sept. 5 or the $375,000 due Gardner-Webb for playing at Georgia Tech on Sept. 12 could be drastically cut.

If the season ends up being shortened and limited to only conference games, a scenario ACC Commissioner John Swofford and others have suggested, then those paydays will disappear completely.

“As a small private school, we count all the revenue streams we’re able to generate from athletics,” said Chuck Burch, Gardner-Webb’s vice president for athletics. “It goes into the university’s big pot, for the lack of a better word, and it’s used to make our budgets as we project for the coming year.

“We’ve already taken a big hit because the NCAA’s revenue stream (because of canceled winter and spring sports championships) is significantly less than its historically been.”

The current financial climate and the uncertainty surrounding it is especially tough on Historically Black Colleges and Universities such as NC Central and NC A&T.

Central is scheduled to play at Ohio University for a $400,000 guarantee on Sept. 5. The loss of that windfall should the game not be played — along with another $4 million in student activities fees put in jeopardy if fans aren’t allowed to attend home games — would be catastrophic to an already cash-strapped athletic program.

Things have become so tenuous for HBCUs that A&T — which got $375,000 for playing at Duke in 2019 — recently decided to leave the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, a league it helped start a half-century ago, to become a member of the mainstream Big South.

“This move makes great sense for our student-athletes, for our fans and for our bottom line,” university chancellor Harold L. Martin said.

Making sense of the bottom line is just as important for schools on the paying end of the guarantee game process.

Although ECU does have a payday on its future schedule when it travels to Michigan in 2023, its scheduling philosophy is primarily based on a home-and-home philosophy with Power 5 opponents. The rest of its schedule is filled out by paying lesser opponents to play at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

Last season, the Pirates paid out $705,000 for games against Gardner-Webb and William & Mary. It is scheduled to pay $300,000 to Norfolk State this fall. That’s a major expenditure for a program that last month eliminated men’s and women’s swimming and diving along with men’s and women’s tennis to help cut into an estimated $10 million budget deficit.

To make up the difference, Gilbert and his counterpart at App State Gillin have indicated that their schools will look to take on a more regional scheduling philosophy in the future. That, said Gardner-Webb’s Burch, is only a starting point for programs even lower on the Division I food chain.

“It’s great to jump on a plane and fly, but the guarantee is normally about the same when you take a bus and minimize the travel,” he said. “It’s better when you can save your expenses. If you minimize your travel, you maximize your profit.”

Western Carolina AD Alex Gary, whose school made $525,000 for taking a 66-3 beatdown at Alabama last season, said there’s more to scheduling guarantee games than just the size of the check involved.

“They’re not all about money,” he said. “There are other things like recruiting advantages, the amount of fans and alumni we might have in a particular area. Whenever we can bring our brand to a community like Atlanta or Knoxville or somewhere in a reasonable driving distance for us, that all goes into the decision where we play those guarantee games.”