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Insiders use the college bowl system to loot American universities

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By comparison, "Most highly efficient charities will spend 75 percent or more," says Megan Davison of CharityWatch, a Chicago group that helps donors find the most effective charities. "A program that spends 60 percent will get a C grade from us."

So what grade 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 CharityWatch.

But while bowls violate every principle of philanthropy, state and city politicians are happy to look away. The games' nonprofit status allows them to skirt taxes, but they 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 such as Chicago and Boston.

The Orange Bowl tells the IRS it doesn't pay lobbyists to influence Florida politicians, yet its forms show it gave more than $55,000 on several occasions to registered lobbying groups, Sanderson says.

The bowls then 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 such as the Cotton simply ignored a reporter's requests for comment.

The wiser Hancock downplays the beneficence angle, well aware 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 in the host town 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 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 ADs 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 such as 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, which include that Caribbean cruise on the Majesty of the Seas. Wahl, the Orange Bowl's spokesman, says the cruise was in fact a business trip for the dozens of ADs on board.

"It's really an opportunity for us to bring key stakeholders together, whether conference people or folks from the schools, to come down to South Florida and to get a taste of what we have to offer," he says.

Yet he admits his game has to "vie constantly to maintain the position in the BCS. It comes up for renewal every four years." And there's nothing like a free luxury cruise to butter that renewal.

Wetzel contends that athletic directors simply aren't bright enough to know they've been bought, seeing these freebies from friends as just another part of college football's grand tradition. So they're not inclined to get too inquisitive over contracts. And this allows their so-called friends to utterly rip them off.

The biggest scam is the bulk ticket purchases. Depending upon the bowl, schools are required to buy anywhere from 10,000 to 17,500 up front. So begins the seasonal hemorrhaging.

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink
Pete Kotz