The Stony Brook football team will kick off its season with a visit to nationally ranked University of South Florida on Saturday. Regardless of the outcome of the game, the university already is a big winner. Financially, that is.
Stony Brook will receive $425,000 just for showing up to play the 19th-ranked Bulls in Tampa, according to the game contract between both schools, which was obtained by Newsday via a public records request.
Stony Brook athletic director Shawn Heilbron said the payout — known in college sports vernacular as a “guarantee” — represents the largest in school history.
“It’s an opportunity,” he said, “that the college football setup affords a school like us.”
Every year at the start of the college football season, football programs that compete in Division I’s top tier — called the Football Bowl Subdivision — want to get their teams off to a winning start.
So these programs turn to schools in Division I’s lower tier — known as the Football Championship Subdivision — and offer hundreds of thousands of dollars to go on the road and, well, likely lose big.
It’s an age-old setup that college athletic administrators and sports business experts agree works because each side almost always gets what it wants.
“A school like South Florida starts their season dreaming of going undefeated so that they are in contention to play in a lucrative bowl game, which is why they are willing to pay a smaller school like Stony Brook a substantial sum to play this game,” said Marc Edelman, a sports law professor at Baruch College. “It’s a game they’re almost certain to win.”
As for Stony Brook’s motives, Heilbron said the school benefits in three ways: revenue, exposure for the school and experience for the players.
“We’re trying to get the Stony Brook name out there nationally,” he said. “Competing against FBS programs is an avenue to do that.”
Stony Brook coach Chuck Priore added, “For kids coming out of high school, they want to play those games. Putting one of those on your schedule is a recruiting tool, certainly. It gives you a chance to compare where you’re at. I like them early in the year as a motivational tool.
“And then there’s a little money involved, too.”
Open dates to fill
Stony Brook can play up to 11 games in a season. Eight of those games are against the team’s conference opponents in the Colonial Athletic Association. No money is exchanged between schools for conference games, according to CAA associate commissioner Rob Washburn.
That leaves three open dates to schedule. There’s no rule stopping Stony Brook from scheduling three non-conference games against FBS teams, but most schools will avoid that because non-conference results are a factor in the at-large bids in the 24-school FCS playoffs, Washburn said.
Of the 12 CAA football teams, Washburn said only Maine is playing two FBS opponents (Central Florida and UMass) this season.
Stony Brook’s two other non-conference games this season are at home against Wagner and Sacred Heart. Stony Brook is paying Wagner $100,000 and Sacred Heart $90,000 to play, according to Heilbron.
Competition to play best
On the highest level, college football has grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry on the heels of television contracts with what’s commonly referred to as the “power five” conferences.
Top programs such as Alabama, Michigan and Ohio State generate roughly $50 million in annual ticket revenue. Experts say that’s why it’s important for FBS schools to not only schedule an extra winnable game but one that’s played in front of another sellout crowd at home.
With these deep-pocketed FBS schools looking for early-season opponents, there is increasing competition for schools such as Stony Brook.
“These games,” Heilbron said, “are becoming harder and harder to schedule.”
FBS schools are scheduling these games years in advance, with some big programs already committed to games as far as a decade out, Heilbron said.
The contract between Stony Brook and South Florida was negotiated nearly five years ago, in November 2012. Many of the officials involved in the deal no longer are at each school.
South Florida’s coach at the time, Skip Holtz, was fired after the 2012 season and now coaches at Louisiana Tech. He did not respond to a request for comment. In Holtz’s South Florida debut in 2010, the Bulls beat Stony Brook, 59-14.
South Florida’s athletic director then was Doug Woolard, who retired in 2014. In a brief telephone interview, he said, “We did so many of those non-conference deals, golly, we played Florida State and Maryland, we played Notre Dame, so I really don’t remember much of the particulars about the deal with Stony Brook.”
Stony Brook’s athletic director then was Jim Fiore, whose contract was bought out by the university in 2013. Fiore said in a telephone interview that the South Florida deal came about because he had a relationship with Woolard and a deputy athletic director at the time.
“By then, we had gone to full scholarship in FCS and we figured that by 2017, we would be in good shape to make it a competitive game,” said Fiore, who works for a Manhattan-based private aviation company that contracts to fly Division I football programs. “We felt like $425,000 as a guarantee and thought Tampa would be a good trip for our team and supporters.”
Seawolves excited for USF
Stony Brook players say they’re excited to play against a nationally ranked team with a quarterback — Quinton Flowers — mentioned as a preseason Heisman Trophy hopeful in a stadium that’s also home to the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. South Florida defeated San Jose State, 42-22, in its season opener Saturday.
What’s not on their minds, the Stony Brook players say, is money earmarked for their school.
“As players, we’re aware, but it’s not something we think too much about,” junior quarterback Joe Carbone said.
Junior linebacker Shayne Lawless added, “We hear about it, but that’s coach P’s business. We know that goes back into the program, gets worked back into the budget somehow to support us.”
Heilbron says the revenue is important for a department that’s trying to get away from relying on state funding. And the football program, nearly a decade into its tenure as an FCS team, is still finding its footing as a revenue generator.
According to the Stony Brook athletic department’s 2016 financial statement submitted to the NCAA, the football program generated $201,397 in ticket sales, $20,102 in concessions, $18,158 in sports camps and $1,937 in advertising and sponsorships.
So it’s easy to see why $425,000 in a game guarantee goes a long way.
“This brings a significant revenue boost to our annual operating budget that for us makes a big impact,” Heilbron said.
Stony Brook already is contracted to play at Air Force next year ($335,000 guarantee), Utah State in 2019 ($365,000) and perennial national powerhouse Oregon in 2021 ($625,000).
Besides, there’s always that chance of an upset, one that would make national news. History says it’s highly unlikely but not impossible.
Last year, North Dakota State, an FCS team, beat 13th-ranked Iowa, 23-21. Iowa paid North Dakota State $500,000 for the game.
In 2007, Appalachian State beat Michigan, 34-27, and was paid $400,000 to do it. A few years later, Appalachian State made the jump to FBS.
“Programs can be made by scoring an upset in one of these games,” said Rodney Fort, a sports economics professor at Michigan.
Heilbron isn’t thinking that far ahead. “Right now, we need to win at the level we’re at,” he said.
But players can dream.
“We’re ready to go against anybody at any time,” Lawless said. “Who knows? Maybe they sleep on us. Maybe we show up and they’re not ready to go. Maybe they’re underestimating us.”