Longform

Insiders use the college bowl system to loot American universities

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The deal starts with a presumption of failure. Even powerhouses such as Ohio State rarely sell that many tickets. When the Buckeyes played the Fiesta Bowl in 2009, they failed to sell more than 7,000 seats. Price for this bath: $1 million.

Auburn, last year's national champion, was still stuck with $781,000 in unsold tickets from the title game.

What's worse is that the seats depreciate from the moment of purchase. Though crowds for most games are a smattering of capacity, the schools still pay bloated face-value prices. Their "friends" aren't about to grant them bulk discounts.

So when the colleges can't sell these seats to their fans, the market is flooded with more than 200,000 bowl tickets a year.

Prudent fans of UCLA, for example, know better than to buy hefty-priced seats from the school. After all, a ticket broker will soon be pushing the same seats for dimes on the dollar. Stub Hub once famously sold tickets to the Music City Bowl in Nashville for just 19 cents.

So while Connecticut may have won the Big East championship last year, it still failed to sell 14,729 seats to the Fiesta Bowl. The bowl charged the Huskies prices ranging from $111 to $268 a ticket. Stub Hub, meanwhile, was offering them for 20 bucks.

The ticket scheme alone leaves schools awash in red ink. Virginia Tech lost $400,000 on last year's trip to the Orange Bowl — despite getting $1.2 million from the Atlantic Coast Conference. Though Auburn claimed last season's BCS crown, financial records show it still lost $600,000 — even after a $2.2 million bailout from the Southeastern Conference.

Some bowls have also found a way to scam schools on hotels. Because the bowls usually arrange lodging, athletic directors assume their "friends" are negotiating the best group deals. But that's not always the case.

Under Junker's rule, the Fiesta Bowl required schools to purchase 3,750 room-nights at about $200 a pop. According to the contract, the schools had to pay whether they used them or not.

But what Junker wasn't telling his "friends" was that he had arranged a side deal with the Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. In exchange for funneling teams to Scottsdale resorts, the city's tourism arm agreed to kick the Fiesta Bowl $8.2 million over the 20-year pact, according to a contract discovered by the Arizona Republic.

The Sugar Bowl — which pays executive director Paul Hoolahan $645,000 — also received "voluntary commissions" from New Orleans hotels. Other bowls have been accused of similar arrangements.

Resplendent in dusty-orange jackets, the Orange Bowl's top brass gathered next to the pool at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino last week alongside West Virginia's head coach Dana Holgorsen and Clemson's Dabo Swinney.

In a few weeks, Holgorsen's and Swinney's schools will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to send athletes, bands, students, and boosters hundreds of miles to play a football game at Sun Life Stadium.

The coaches smiled, the bowl's anthropomorphic fruit mascot Obie danced, and Jeff Roberts — a local vice president of Goldman Sachs and the bowl's chairman — gave the company line.

"We're more than just a football game and a tradition," he said.

But for the first time in decades, that "tradition" is decidedly under attack. Consider Taylor Morgan. He's a board member of Playoff PAC, the same group that reported the Orange Bowl to the IRS. His group also filed federal complaints against the Rose Bowl and the Fiesta Bowl, whose head, Junker, lost his job in part because of their research.

"These bowls receive millions of dollars in federal and state subsidies," Morgan says. "They don't donate money to their communities. They don't do anything of substance in a charitable sense other than line the pockets of their friends and executives."

Add in books such as Wetzel's Death to the BCS, a step-by-step account of this wholesale soaking, and bowl execs were suddenly being publicly strafed for their sins.

The system is also facing attack on the antitrust front. Only the six biggest conferences — plus Notre Dame's athletic director — have voting rights within the BCS. The BCS picks the teams for the top five bowls. These six leagues also receive the largest revenue cuts, leaving the five remaining Division 1 conferences at their mercy.

Sports economist Andrew Zimbalist likens it to Major League Baseball allowing the Yankees, Red Sox, and Phillies to decide who makes the playoffs — and guarantee themselves the biggest paydays. So he and 21 other economists filed a complaint last spring urging the Justice Department to investigate the BCS for antitrust violations.

What's more, despite having access to the nation's best mathematicians, the BCS can't even get its rankings right, many critics argue. Famed sports statistician Bill James has said the rankings are based on "nonsense math." Hal Stern, a professor at the University of California-Irvine, has even called for a BCS boycott in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis.

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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