How the football schedule is designed to make money

Doug Brown

The careful and strategic scheduling of nonconference football games is essential to any athletic department seeking to find the right balance between wins and paychecks.

This year’s schedule has the Flashes opening the season at Alabama and facing Kansas State two weeks later; an agenda that will make Kent State football $600,000 more than last year.

For schools like Alabama, the 2009 national champion and perennial SEC power, it’s in their interest to schedule a weaker team in the season opener at their 102,000-capacity stadium, essentially “buying” a win. A blemish on their record makes it nearly impossible to collect on the $18 million payout for the BCS national championship game.

For schools like Kent State, it is in their best interest to be that weaker team; they swap an expected loss on the road for over $1 million.

Alabama’s athletic department was the second most profitable in the nation last year, raking in $26.6 million, mostly thanks to football. Kent State lost money.

“You get $1.2 million from Alabama, that’s a big payday,” said Laing Kennedy, Kent State’s athletic director from 1994 to 2010. “That’s essential for the finances of the athletic department, we need to do that.”

To Kennedy the scheduling strategy is simple: one game against a BCS power with a major paycheck (Alabama), one against a lesser BCS team for less money (Kansas State), one winnable game against another FBS team (Louisiana-Lafayette), and one game KSU-paid for game against an FCS team (South Alabama) for a likely-win at home.

The best realistic scenario would be to finish the nonconference schedule with a 2-2 record, Kennedy said. It would make more money than a 4-0 record with no major payouts.

In fact, to schedule this year’s Alabama game, it took some maneuvering from the athletic department. Three years ago, while Laing Kennedy was athletic director, Kent State had signed a contract to open the 2011 season on the road against Purdue, not Alabama, which would have earned the Flashes $375,000.

When Kennedy retired last year and Joel Nielsen took over as athletic director in the fall, that arrangement changed. Alabama had a schedule opening and reached out to Kent State — after all, Alabama coach Nick Saban is a KSU alum — in October and offered more than a million dollars for the game in Tuscaloosa. Nielsen took the bait; it would be the largest single-game payout in Kent State football history.

To get out of the Purdue game, Kent had to pay their program $425,000 to void the contract, earning a net of $775,000 with the switch and forcing the Boilermakers to scramble to fill their schedule.

“This is a new one, having someone opt out of a contract just over 10 months before a game,” said Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke in a press release on October 20, 2010 (nearly two and a half years after the game was scheduled). “I am personally surprised because of the positive relationship Purdue and Kent State have had through the years. We will get on the phone immediately to begin the process of finding a new opponent.”

2011 Football Schedule

September 3 – @ Alabama (Tuscaloosa, AL) – 12:20pm – SEC Network

September 10 – LOUISIANA LAFAYETTE – 7pm

September 17 – @ Kansas State (Manhattan, KS) – TBA

September 24 – SOUTH ALABAMA – 3:30pm

October 1 – @ Ohio (Athens, OH) – 2pm

October 8 – @ Northern Illinois (DeKalb, IL) – 3:30pm

October 15 (homecoming) – MIAMI – 3:30pm –

October 29 – BOWLING GREEN – 1pm

November 4 (Friday) – CENTRAL MICHIGAN – 6pm – ESPNU

November 12 – @ Akron (Akron, OH) – 2pm – SportsTIme Ohio

November 19 – EASTERN MICHIGAN – 1pm

November 25 (Friday) – @ Temple (Philadelphia, PA) – TBA – ESPNU or

On December 1, Purdue agreed to pay Middle Tennessee State $850,000 — with half the money coming from Kent State’s buyout — to play them in the season opener.

“Joel (Nielsen) felt it was necessary to get that big pay day, and I understand the logic of that,” Kennedy said. “I was kind of leaning towards winning some games.”

Purdue went 13-23 in the past three seasons with losses to MAC teams Toledo in 2010 and Northern Illinois in 2009. Alabama went 36-5 in the same period, with a national championship in 2009.

In addition to Alabama, Kansas State is also paying Kent State a significant sum of money to host the Flashes, earning $575,000 for their September 17 game in Manhattan, Kansas. Kent State will then pay Louisiana-Lafayette $150,000 and South Alabama $250,000 for the home games on September 10 and September 24, respectively.

The athletic department will receive $950,000 from the 2011 non-conference football schedule — an increase of $600,000 from last year’s games against Penn State and Boston College on the road and Murray State and Army at home.

Contact Summer Kent Stater reporter Doug Brown at [email protected].