College bowl system loots universities

U of M and others spend millions while insiders profit

So what does one receive for donating just 3 percent? "We would give them an F grade and call them pathetic and urge the general public not to support them," says Daniel Borochoff, president of Charity Watch.

But while bowls violate every principle of philanthropy, state and city politicians are happy to look away. The games' nonprofit status may allow them to skirt taxes, but they do deliver built-in tourist traffic.

To ensure no one asks too many questions, the bowls fete these same politicians with receptions, comped tickets, and sideline passes. The Fiesta Bowl even paid for luxury legislator junkets to cities like Chicago and Boston.

Bill Hancock, executive director of the BCS
Bill Hancock, executive director of the BCS

The bowls do their best to cloak this strange approach to philanthropy. Both the Orange and Sugar bowls claim they do wonders for their cities' charities; for reasons unexplained, they just don't include those donations on their books. Meanwhile, bowls like the Cotton simply ignore a reporter's requests for comment.

Even the small number of bowls set up as for-profit enterprises claim to be charitable in spirit. At the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Houston, one of seven games owned by ESPN, spokesman Zac Emmons is happy to note that $400,000 has been donated to the DePelchin Children's Center over the past five years. He just isn't authorized to reveal what percentage of the game's revenue went to charity—or how much executive director Heather Houston is paid. And ESPN network publicist Rachel Margolis won't talk numbers either: "We usually don't disclose any information related to revenue or wages for any of our bowls," she says.

Equally trapped in an altruistic mirage is the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco, sponsored by the food giant Kraft. The bowl insinuates that it's part of Kraft's marketing campaign to give away 25 million meals a year.

Spokesman Doug Kelly claims the bowl "donated the equivalent of 120,000 meals" in 2010. That's likely an overstatement. The game's own website says it gives away just one meal per ticket sold, and the Kraft is known for hosting pastures of empty seats.

So it's not surprising that Kelly gets defensive when asked what percentage of the revenue goes to the hungry. "That's proprietary," he responds.

He's politely informed that, as a charity, the bowl is obligated to make such figures public. After all, Sports Business Journal reports that the game's CEO, Gary Cavalli, makes $377,475 a year, likely making him the hungriest of all.

But Kelly is in no mood to provide details of the game's supposed largesse. He suddenly claims that he's been speaking off the record and that he can't be quoted.

The wiser Hancock downplays the beneficence angle, well aware that it's riddled with blather. Instead, he emphasizes the tourism advantages to host cities. He's right, of course. By forcing schools to write mammoth ticket checks—and contractually coercing teams to stay longer than they need to—bowls do wonders for warm-weather economies.

"There's no question bowl games benefit charities in their community," Hancock says. "From my perspective, the economic development to the community is significant. It's a blend. I think the people who talk about the bowls as nonprofits exclude the economic development end."

Left unmentioned is why University of Missouri students would have wanted to subsidize Tempe when the Tigers played the Insight last year. Or why Washington state residents would have been thrilled to see their tax money burned in San Diego when the Huskies appeared in the Holiday Bowl. That's the problem with the insiders: The system rewards them so lavishly, they simply can't fathom that others might resent paying the freight.


COLLEGE PRESIDENTS COULD EASILY put a stop to the shell game—if they had the will, which they don't. They tend to be a lot like coaches, a job-jumping species forever on the hunt for more prestigious posts. This march to greater altitudes requires staying within the good graces of trustees and big donors, who enjoy free bowl vacations as much as everyone else. Besides, many presidents wield less institutional power than their own coaches, as Penn State's pedophilia scandal revealed.

So they behave like congressmen, allowing their schools to be pillaged to preserve their political capital. Better to kick these decisions to athletic directors and conference commissioners.

And that's where the pitfalls begin.

"The bowl directors are a lot smarter than the athletic directors, because anyone who would agree to this deal is getting whomped," says Yahoo columnist Wetzel.

It's not that A.D.s are necessarily stupid. Let's just say they're incurious and not especially self-aware.

Most have spent years, if not decades, being chummy with bowl execs. When they're invited to events like the Fiesta Frolic, a weekend of splendor and golf in Phoenix—price tag: $387,421—they don't believe their allegiance is being purchased. It's just a swell time among old friends.

The same goes for the Orange Bowl's Summer Splash events. Last year's featured an "all-inclusive, three-night, four-day complimentary getaway" for 40 insiders and their guests, according to the invitation. They sailed the Caribbean, docked at a private island, and spent their days parasailing and "sipping delicious Coco Locos on a hammock." Don't forget the free pedicures.

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My Voice Nation Help

Defenders of this corrupt system seem to be misreading the article. The author makes it clear that the schools break even. The point is that they only break even on the highest-revenue game of the year, one that they could easily put on themselves. Instead most of that money goes into the pockets of bowl and athletic dept officials. Why?

Jeff Swenson
Jeff Swenson

How does this article change after the author is informed that Minnesota is not responsible for bowl game tickets that are not sold. The Big Ten Conference pays for all unsold tickets for all teams that reach a bowl game.

East Coast Doug
East Coast Doug

Sports - the new opium of the masses. Truely a waste of time.


What a worthless story; it implies that that the U of M lost money by going the Insight Bowl.

The Big Ten payout and expenses for these bowl are all essentially predetermined within reason, and the University would have a hard time losing if they went or not.

The article is total BS and lazy journalism.


Your reasoning has some merit. However, I do want to point out that the University of Alabama has received 17,000 tkts for their game ( I wanted 2 ). I am unable to secure tickets for their game and those on stubhub currently have an asking price of approx $1400 per tkt. They could probably sell out the LA Superdome with just Alabama fans if given the opportunity. Your story may apply to many teams, but I believe you would be surprised how many teams have tens of thousands of loyal fans that attend every game.

Jeff Swenson
Jeff Swenson

Then how are Universities being "looted" and the U of M and others "spend millions"?


You're missing the point. Like Wetzel said, even if the schools are being reimbursed for the losses by their respective conferences, said conferences are STILL BEING FLEECED. Millions of dollars are STILL BEING GIVEN to these bowls for absolutely NO REASON. It's a huge, huge scam.