How Insiders Use the College Bowl System to Loot American Universities

By the time the 2009 football season rolled around, the University of Minnesota hadn't won a Big Ten title in 42 years. The Gophers largely spent those decades serving as target practice for the league's higher powers, yet they weren't without occasional bursts of second-string glory.

One arrived two years ago. Minnesota finished 6-6, collecting the minimum wins needed to earn a slot in the Insight Bowl in Tempe.

Their bragging rights would be slender. Every year, 70 of Division I football's 120 teams get bowl invitations, making faceless games like the Insight akin to summer camp participation awards.


Tim Elfrink contributed to this report.

Minnesota would face Iowa State, a 6-6 team from the Big 12. The teams were charged with providing three hours of TV programming for hardcore fans and shut-ins just before New Year's. The ratings would be measured in decimal points.

But within the U of M football offices in Minneapolis, there was cause for celebration, however muted. Though the game orbited well outside the realm of consequence, it was still a chance to reward players, boast to recruits, liquor up boosters, and feed a small army of university suits with a paid vacation in the Arizona sun.

The accounting office no doubt held a much different view. It surely knew that, like nearly all bowls, the Insight was designed to plunder all it could from a college treasury.

The bloodbath began the moment the contract was signed. Minnesota was obligated to write a check for 10,000 tickets, which were supposed to be resold to fans. Never mind that even the best of teams struggle to unload such sums. For middling squads like the Gophers, it was nothing more than a way for the men in funny yellow blazers who ran the Insight to grab piles of money from a public university.

Minnesota managed to sell just 901 seats. After kicking another 900 to the band, administrators, and cherished hangers-on, the school was forced to eat $476,000 worth of useless tickets.

The contract also required the team to show up a week early, if only to burn as much school money as possible at the restaurants and retailers of Greater Phoenix.

One would think school administrators would protest such gall. But one would be wrong. They were quick to see the advantages of a luxury vacation on the school's dime. So they happily signed off.

The school's traveling party was larded up with 722 people, including players, band members, and faculty. Airfare alone ran $542,000. Toss in hotels and meals, and the school had blown $1.3 million before the opening kickoff.

The ballsiest part of all: None of it was necessary.

Minnesota and Iowa State sit less than 200 miles apart. Their teams were providing the game. Their bands supplied the halftime entertainment. In fact, the Insight offered nothing — save for warm weather — that the schools couldn't have done better themselves.

Had the game been played in Minneapolis, the teams could have sold more tickets and put on a profitable game, since Big Ten matches typically generate $1 million to $2 million — not knee-bending losses.

Yet none of this was ever considered. Thanks to an alliance of unblushing incompetence and corruption, college football long ago decided to outsource its most valuable asset — its post-season earnings.

The scheme plays out each year on the ostensibly pristine fields of amateur athletics. Bowl executives grant themselves breathtaking salaries. The games, meanwhile, provide coaches, athletic directors, and the suits who nominally supervise them with an unending stream of bonuses.

Everyone else picks up the tab.

There's a reason cities hosting Super Bowls or rounds of March Madness bid with buffets of giveaways just to land the tourist traffic: If you want a taste, you have to pay.

College football is the only sport that gives away its postseason revenues. Its business model is akin to Walmart keeping its profits for the first 10 months of the year, then letting Value World host its holiday sales.

This is an especially hazardous form of capitalism for the nation's universities, which have been bloodied by ever-diving state funding combined with double-digit tuition hikes. And contrary to popular belief, their athletic departments just widen the damage.

Depending upon the year, only about 20 of the 120 athletic departments featuring Division I football actually pay for themselves. The rest require students and taxpayers to ride to the rescue.

Minnesota is typical. From 2006 to 2009, the Gophers went to three Insight Bowls. Their bill for unsold tickets alone was well over $1 million. At the same time, their athletic department needed a $25 million infusion over five years just to break even.

These kinds of losses could be allayed if college football simply cut out the middlemen — the bowls — and took its postseason in-house by adopting a playoff system. Instead, universities have chosen to hand their money away in a deal that's at best moronic, and at worst an epic swindle.

The racket works like this: Through required purchases of anywhere from 10,000 to 17,500 tickets, schools essentially pay for the right to appear in a bowl. The bowls keep the ticket and sponsorship money. Bowl execs also negotiate their own TV contracts.

After taking 50 percent to 60 percent off the top, the bowls then write checks to the teams' conferences. The conferences, in turn, split that money among their schools. (Profits from the five Bowl Championship Series games are spread to varying degrees among all conferences.)

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Unironically agreed


These monies should be helping poor undocumented Mexican migrants get a free university education.


These monies should be helping rising school tuitions.


Mr. Kotz, the writer of this article, calls this type of robbery to Universities "Capitalism" he is wrong. This is Socialism at it's finest. You take the college football teams and offer them a bone like a bowl game and force them to adhere or be left out. Administrators make the decisions as to where the money is spent. Or better known as the governing body of the school. It's not coming out of their pocket so what the heck. They get a free trip for a week on the school's dime. Sounds very much like our current Presidential Administration, can we spell "too many vacations" President Obama? Pure Capitalism would be a "Free Enterprise System" We don't like what you are doing so we are going to hold our own bowl game in a neutral site closer to our two schools. Wrong, NCAA says you can't do that, because they are socialist leaders and they have their own selfish agenda to acomplish and if they let these schools go rogue, so to speak then the paper tiger of the NCCA will come crashing doww on themselves and the fans and schools will see them for what they are. The Schools athletic parallel to the Federal Reserve.


oh this was no surprise to me ...from the day this bowl plan came out and 5 buds were drinking at watering hole on 20st and camelback saying the monies this would bring to the right few people ( to bad none of them was us) Since the bowl decides everything from how much they give back to the school and how much they keep


This article does a good job of explaining the excesses of the bowls but a lot of its conclusions are really stupid.

It misses the point that part of the idea of the bowls is having alumni (many of whom donate money) get to see their university's team play in some fun or different part of the country. Why the heck would anyone want to watch Minnesota and Iowa State play in freezing Minnesota in December or January? Holding a game there between two 6-6 teams wouldn't even happen. So it is absurd to present that possibility as a money saving option.

Also, anyone who thinks that playoffs will eliminate the bowls is smoking a bowl full of something. Playoffs might eliminate the BCS but it wouldn't eliminate the bowls. In all likelihood, the playoffs would just end up taking place at the existing bowl sites. And even if the playoffs took place somewhere other than the bowls, the bowls would still invite teams that didn't make it into the playoffs. Teams like a 6-6 Minnesota wouldn't even make it into the playoffs unless you had an absurd number of rounds (which won't happen). So why would they turn down going to a bowl if they weren't in the playoffs?


Thanks for the great reporting! 2014 BCS deal expiration can't come soon enough!

Matt Schley
Matt Schley

What? You didn't read anything you wrote, did you? How can you call this "socialism"? Socialism implies that the poor get benefits from the rich. In this system, however, the rich are getting even more money from everyone (taxpayers, students, athletic departments).

It's "capitalist" (not really, but much closer than "socialist") because the rich (people who run the bowls) are taking taking advantage of the people (schools) being forced to use their services because there is no alternative postseason (i.e. a monopoly).

(this is no longer aimed toward the previous poster)

I realize this is a type of government, not a market, but I would compare it more to an oligarchy. The powerful few (bowl execs, conference commissioners, and NCAA) take money from everyone, and those people are essentially forced to pay for these bowls. Of course, school administrators could decide not to pay to go to these games. If that happened, though, boosters would get upset. Then the proverbial crap hits the fan. Either the boosters quit giving money, the administrators get fired because of pressure from the boosters, or both.

The school administrators are forced into wasting a load of taxpayer money because the NCAA, the bowl system execs, and boosters are all idiots. The fact that this system has not been scrapped yet shows that NCAA football is all about making money (for the people in charge). They don't care about the majority, and they don't care about the integrity of the game. There is a reason why every successful professional sports league that I've ever heard of had some type of playoff. It's the best way we know of to find a "true" champion.

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