Florida Atlantic is assured of setting one Sanford Stadium record Saturday night: The Owls will pocket the largest paycheck of any visiting team in Georgia football history.
Georgia will pay Florida Atlantic $1 million for making the trip to Athens — a reflection of the rising cost of scheduling presumed easy victories against FBS nonconference opponents that don’t require a return engagement on their campus.
UGA scheduled the game and agreed to the seven-figure payout after canceling a two-year, home-and-home series with Louisville to accommodate last season’s opener against Boise State in the Georgia Dome.
“We were fortunate [FAU] was available to play on this date,” Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity said this week. “But to make the date work, there was an expectation we had to pay a million dollars. That has kind of become the going rate.”
He isn’t complaining. Even after the record payout, UGA will clear about $1.7 million from the game, according to figures in the school’s athletics budget.
The game, which gives Georgia seven rather than the formerly customary six home games this season, is budgeted to bring in about $2.7 million in ticket revenue, $160,000 in concessions profits and $7,500 from novelty sales. After the FAU payout and about $200,000 in other game expenses, the rest flows to the bottom line.
Even for a UGA athletics department that expects to generate $92 million in revenue this fiscal year, the night’s windfall will be significant. It is more than enough, for example, to cover the annual budgets of the soccer ($667,000) and softball ($790,000) programs.
Georgia will have only six home football games next season, when it plays at Clemson in a tradeoff for a 2014 game in Athens. “We’ll have to be creative in the budget next year to make up that difference,” McGarity said.
FAU won’t sympathize.
To help balance its budget, the school is playing road games against highly ranked SEC opponents on back-to-back Saturdays — this one against No. 7 Georgia and next week against No. 1 Alabama, which will pay the Owls another $1 million.
Payouts have increased because of a supply-demand imbalance: fewer mid-major FBS teams looking to play for pay than big-budget teams willing to pay for play. Two seasons ago, Georgia got Louisiana Lafayette to play in Athens for $875,000. But this season’s opener against Buffalo required a $975,000 payout, UGA’s highest until this week.
(Georgia doesn’t pay SEC schools or Georgia Tech for playing in Athens because those games are reciprocated when the Bulldogs go on the road. Also, FCS opponents — such as Georgia Southern, which plays at UGA on Nov. 17 — command much smaller payouts than the likes of Florida Atlantic. Georgia Southern will get $475,000 for the game in Athens.)
Economics may explain why the paycheck games are scheduled, but the scoreboard and the attendance usually reflect the arguments against them.
Florida Atlantic, a Sun Belt Conference team that went 1-11 last season, is a 43-point underdog to Georgia. And although such games occasionally backfire on the home team (see: Appalachian State over Michigan in 2007 and Louisiana Monroe over Arkansas last week), they usually produce unsavory results (see: Oklahoma State 84, Savannah State 0 two weeks ago) and diminished crowds.
“I don’t think it’s good for college football, but I understand the reality of why schools have to play those games budgetarily,” FAU coach Carl Pelini told the Associated Press.
Georgia has sold out 92,746-seat Sanford Stadium for Saturday, selling the last few hundred tickets early this week in the aftermath of the victory at Missouri. It won’t be a surprise, though, if a noticeable number of students and season-ticket holders are no-shows.
McGarity’s scheduling philosophy, which he brought with him when he returned to Georgia in 2010 after 18 years at Florida, generally is to have seven home games, only occasionally dipping to six in order to play a marquee opponent on a neutral field or in a home-and-home series. With eight SEC opponents and Georgia Tech on the schedule each season, McGarity believes that playing the other three games at home against lower-level opponents — two from an FBS mid-major league and one from the FCS level — best positions Georgia to make a run for the SEC Championship game.
It is uncertain if that philosophy will stand in the coming era of a four-team national playoff, where strength of schedule will be a factor in selecting the field. Georgia’s next opening on a schedule is in 2015, and McGarity is awaiting clarity on playoff criteria before filling it.
Money games are nothing new to Florida Atlantic, which has played — and lost to — Florida, Michigan State, Auburn, Texas, Nebraska and South Carolina in the past few seasons.
Pelini wants FAU to find value beyond dollars in the trip to Athens.
“I want our players to share my vision, and I want my administration and school administration to share my vision,” he told reporters in Boca Raton, Fla. “To go up and play a team that is perennially a top-20 team and see not just [what’s] on the football field but the organization itself [and] how their players act on the field, how their players prepare, how they execute and how their athletic staff administration as a whole conducts the game-day experience — all those things are positive for a school like FAU [to see] because that’s what my vision for this program ultimately would be.”