The Northern Illinois University football team traveled to Shreveport, La., to play in the Independence Bowl on Dec. 28, 2008. The Huskies lost, 17-10, to Louisiana Tech.
That’s not all they lost. After all of the scheduled payouts and expenses from the bowl experience, NIU is left with a deficit of $154,125, which will be covered by internal athletic funds, NIU Athletic Director Jeff Compher said. Those internal funds include money from payouts to play on the road against teams in other conferences, like last season when NIU was paid $750,000 to play Tennessee in Knoxville, Tenn.
The deficit won’t impact any immediate plans the athletic department had, Compher said, noting the expenses of going to a bowl game was factored into the department’s budget.
“We have some dollars there that we got from guarantees from other sources that can pay for that trip,” Compher said. “We have to dip into the other accounts that we have. I think this was done with a lot of care.”
Despite the deficit, many at NIU believe the trip was more than worth it.
On National Signing Day, when NIU football coach Jerry Kill announced his recruiting class for the upcoming season, he said the bowl positively affected recruiting.
“Well, I think there’s no question that it had an impact,” Kill said. “It was on national TV, we were the only game in town, and even though we lost the game, we played very well. I think people saw that. I get phone calls from throughout the country, so you can’t put a price on what exposure does to you.”
A long road
How NIU arrived at its bowl deficit shows the complications of the infrastructure of the college bowl system.
The Huskies ended the regular season with a 6-6 record, the minimum required number of wins to be bowl-eligible. With 34 bowl games and 68 slots for eligible teams, NIU players, coaches, administrators and fans constantly watched the scores of other college football games, hoping that the few teams with five wins would lose their final games and not be eligible for a bowl.
The Mid-American Conference has tie-ins with three bowls that provide guaranteed spots to the top three MAC teams in three different bowls: the Motor City Bowl, the GMAC Bowl and the International Bowl.
This year, the MAC had six bowl-eligible teams. Based on its record, NIU was the fifth of those six teams and had to look for a bowl outside of the MAC tie-ins. It also had to look for a spot with a bowl that couldn’t fill its primary or backup agreement.
As he did every week, Compher spoke with MAC Commissioner Rick Chryst, who was assisting MAC teams negotiate with bowl committees to try and secure spots in bowls for as many conference teams as possible.
“I was really relying on Rick Chryst and his negotiations,” Compher said. “I talked to Rick a lot in those three-to-four days leading up to it. It really came down to that Sunday when we found out.”
Match-ups for bowl games were announced Dec. 7. On that Sunday, with a total of 72 bowl-eligible teams, only four would miss out on a bowl. By Sunday morning, NIU still hadn’t secured a spot.
Enter Western Michigan, the MAC’s fourth-place team that was also looking for an at-large spot. By the time Notre Dame selected the Hawaii Bowl on the afternoon of Dec. 7, the only two open options were the Texas Bowl and the Independence Bowl.
The Texas Bowl was set to have a payout of $700,000, while the Independence Bowl would have a payout of $750,000 to at-large teams, Compher said. Despite a lower payout, Compher said Western Michigan was more interested in a better match-up, which they felt they would get by playing the 9-3 Rice team at the Texas Bowl, as opposed to the 7-5 Louisiana Tech team in the Independence Bowl.
Money, Compher said, was a point that needed to be talked about, though. Compher said he and Western Michigan athletic officials did not talk directly during bowl negotiations, but both did talk with Chryst.
“We weren’t going to make more than they were going to make,” Compher said. “I was in agreement with that because I wanted to go to the bowl. I didn’t want that to be the sticking point to where maybe we didn’t get a chance to go to a bowl.”
To give NIU a shot at the Independence Bowl – where NIU deputy athletic director and former Independence Bowl executive director Glen Krupica proved to be a major difference in NIU securing the spot – Western Michigan agreed to play in the Texas Bowl. Both MAC teams would be guaranteed a $300,000 net revenue from their bowls and NIU would pay the MAC, which would in turn pay Western Michigan. NIU wound up paying $29,380 to Western Michigan.
Selling the bowl
Once in a bowl, NIU then had to sell it. The school received 12,000 tickets to sell, with a promise of keeping all revenue from the sales. Only about 2,000 were sold, though, netting $38,880 for the school.
But NIU had to first pay for the allotment, which cost $420,620.
Athletic department officials were concerned before NIU even knew it was going to a bowl game about selling even 2,000 tickets.
“I think they’re excited about the possibility,” Krupica said before the bowl announcement in December. “But I think they realize it’s going to be quick; that’s for sure. They have to strike while the iron’s hot. You’ve got a five-to-seven-day type of window to market the thing, and that’s it.”
Compher said history – like when NIU had a 10-2 season in 2003 and didn’t get invited to a bowl game – played a factor in how the athletic department approached marketing a bowl-eligible Huskie team.
“What we didn’t do a great job of, and I think there’s some residual effect of the 10-2 season, when they didn’t go to a bowl, we didn’t want to get people’s hopes up, because of that,” Compher said. “And so we kind of underplayed it and then at the end we had to put all of our efforts into doing it the right way and getting the word out.”
To help market the game in what Compher said was a rush of days leading up to the game, Northern Illinois spent $12,439 on promotional costs.
There were other expenses too. Before the Huskies even left for the bowl, the athletic department budgeted for a $38,660 deficit so they could house and feed players after final exams and came in just under that amount. NIU practiced indoors at the DeKalb Park District’s Sports & Recreation Center in preparation for the bowl, which cost $1,500 to use and $696 to mark the field.
NIU also left a day early, which Compher estimated cost an extra $15,000-$20,000 with hotel and food costs but allowed the team to practice outdoors.
Some money is also allowed to be spent on gifts for players. NIU spent $37,562 on a team bowl package that included a warm-up suit, hooded sweatshirts and rings that Compher estimated cost around $130 each.
“They’re pretty nice actually,” Compher said. “They’re not 14-karat gold rings or anything, but it’s got ‘Independence Bowl’ on it and then the year. It has their number. It’s pretty nice. The team really wanted rings and we definitely wanted to do that and they weren’t very much. “
NIU cut costs on the trip where it could. It bused down the band instead of flying down. It came in under budget in lodging, entertainment, equipment truck expenses and some per diem expenses.
In the end, Compher said it was worth it. And he said he learned a lesson that can be applied the next time the team heads to a bowl game – use the university’s ability to generate revenue from ticket sales to the school’s advantage.
“What we found out,” he said, “is that it’s better to get people’s hopes up and better to prepare than to try and make up a lot of ground after the announcement has been made and it’s somewhat of a surprise.”
After adding up expenses and revenues from the 2008 Independence Bowl, Northern Illinois Univeristy came away with a deficit of $154,125, which will be covered by internal athletic funds.
Here is a general breakdown of the deficit.
Total expenses: $934,791
Independence Bowl payout: $750,000
Ticket revenue: $38,880 (approx. 2,000 tickets sold)
Other revenue/expenses paid for: $21,166
Money paid back to MAC: $29,380
Total net expenses to NIU: $154,125
Source: NIU Athletic Department