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But only about half of the 35 bowls offer payouts large enough to cover team expenses. So the conferences use money from more lucrative bowl games to cover losses from the barkers.
"You don't lose money going to bowl games, at least not in the Big 10," says Minnesota football spokesman Andy Seeley.
But that's true only in a technical sense. In the Gophers' case, the Big 10 covered the university's $1.3 million blemish from the 2009 Insight Bowl. What insiders don't mention is the humungous pyramid of cash schools are leaving on the table.
"They should go take economics 101," says Dan Wetzel, a Yahoo sports columnist and co-author of Death to the BCS. "Lost profit is lost money to any other business in the world."
And these losses are staggering.
Last year, the nation's bowls paid schools roughly $270 million. Just for playing middlemen and providing 70-degree temperatures, bowl execs grabbed a larger cut, north of $300 million.
Even bowl apologists admit that by implementing a playoff system, like every other NCAA sport does, schools could generate three to four times what they're bringing home now. That's because TV networks will pay far more for a playoff game than they will for straight-to-DVD thrillers like the Beef O'Brady's St. Petersburg Bowl.
Under a playoff system, the schools' collective take might even approach $1 billion annually. It's the kind of money that could fill budget gaps in nearly every Division 1 athletic department.
Yet there's one small barrier that stands in the way: A playoff system would ensure that schools would be taking home the money, not the insiders who make these decisions.
So college football is left with lopsided accords like Minnesota's. When the Gophers were requiring a Big 10 bailout for those large red numbers in Tempe, Insight CEO John Junker was paying himself nearly $600,000 a year, with added perks like country club memberships as far away as Oregon and Oklahoma. Coaches and athletic directors make a similar killing.
Three years ago, the University of Florida beat Oklahoma for the national title. The Gators may have generated untold riches, but the school itself managed just a $50,000 profit—enough to pay for a team banquet and perhaps another part-timer for the groundskeeping crew.
Florida's coaches and athletic officials were bound by no similar restraints. They took home $960,000 in bonuses.
That's the beauty of the system: No matter how money is torched, the insiders always get paid.
"THE MONEY IS NOT the reason we have the system we have," says Bill Hancock, executive director of the BCS. "It rewards the athletes at the end of the year with a celebration."
It's a common refrain among the sport's elder statesmen, and the gentlemanly Hancock speaks with the earnestness of a true believer. There's little doubt players have earned a respite after the ceaseless beat-down that is a football season. Especially since they receive but a fraction of the towering wealth they generate.
Minnesota's Seeley describes bowls as an educational experience, a chance for young men to spend a week learning about another part of the country.
But considering that schools are giving away more than $300 million a year to bowls, it may be the most expensive week of touring amusement parks and children's hospitals ever conceived. And it presumes the schools couldn't do it better without making someone else rich.
Take Junker, the system's most egregious sponge. He was the CEO of the Insight and Fiesta bowls until he was fired last spring. His games may have technically been charities; he just considered himself the neediest recipient of all.
According to lawyers hired by the bowls' board to investigate malfeasance, he blew $33,000 on his own birthday party in Pebble Beach. He spent $19,000 on country club memberships in three different states. When he wasn't running up $1,200 bills at strip joints, he was bidding $90,000 in a charity auction to play golf with Jack Nicklaus.
It all came from money that could have gone to America's colleges. More alarming, Junker's spree ended only after he was outed by the Arizona Republic for illegally reimbursing employees for donations to his political allies.
Most bowl executives have equally inflated views of their own value. Orange Bowl CEO Eric Poms pays himself $506,000 a year, and kicks nearly $1 million more in salaries to four lesser execs. Outback Bowl President Jim McVay takes in $808,000 annually. The bosses for the Cotton and Alamo bowls make $419,000. Just for staging one game per year.
Meanwhile, the nation's colleges put on ten times the number of events back home at just a fraction of the cost.
Bowl executives defend themselves by claiming to run charities. That may be true in terms of their IRS status, but charity implies giving to someone other than yourself. In the world of college bowl games, that hasn't happened for more than 60 years.
Studies show that as far back as 1947, bowls were giving less than 1 percent of their receipts to the needy. Today, their benevolence ranges from just 1 to 3 percent.
By comparison, "Most highly efficient charities will spend 75 percent or more," says Megan Davison of Charity Watch, a Chicago group that helps donors find the most effective charities. "A program that spends 60 percent will get a C grade from us."