Three million, five hundred and fifty-five thousand dollars. In numerals, that’s $3,555,000, and that’s a lot of dough. That’s how much Auburn University will pay the University of Southern Mississippi to come play two football games in 2018 and 2020.
It is a dollar sign of the times in today’s college football world.
Auburn, a “have” in college sports, can afford to pay it. Southern Miss, a relative “have-not,” can’t afford not to take it.
The payouts of $1.7 million for the 2018 game and $1.85 million for 2020 are by far the largest single game guarantees USM ever has received to play football games on the road.
Says Bill McGillis, the USM athletic director, “The $1.85 is the largest single game guarantee I know of anywhere.”
By contrast, USM will receive not quite $1 million to play a game at LSU this season.
But Auburn can afford to pay it. Jordan-Hare Stadium seats nearly 88,000 and the Tigers usually play to at or near capacity. Season tickets go for nearly $500. Single game tickets cost as much as $100 per game. Alumni and fans make financial gifts to the school for the rights to buy better seats. We are talking some real money here.
That doesn’t include concessions, apparel sales, parking, etc., and it doesn’t include the $32.7 million each SEC school received from TV/radio revenue this past year, a payout that has escalated dramatically in recent years.
In contrast, Southern Miss has a 36,000-seat stadium, which rarely sells out. Conference USA TV/radio revenue is minuscule compared to the SEC. The entire league receives $2.8 million, less than 10 percent of what each SEC school receives. Indeed, each SEC school receives considerably more TV money yearly than USM spends on its entire $25 million annual athletic budget.
The gap is widening.
USM would prefer to play “home-and-home” games with schools such as Auburn, meaning USM goes to Auburn and Auburn returns the favor by playing at Hattiesburg. Mississippi State and USM played a home-and-home the past two seasons.
But richer programs such as Auburn, Alabama, Tennessee, LSU and Florida gladly pay the single-game payouts and enjoy an obvious competitive edge by playing at home.
These no-return games go by several different monikers. Some fans call them “money games.” More cynical fans call them “prostitution.”
The good news for USM is that the cost for the competitive edge is soaring. The guarantees from Auburn in 2018 and 2020 will fund a significant part of USM’s annual athletic budget.
“Our plan is to play one of these (no return) games a year,” McGillis said. “The reality is that we have to do it.”
First-year head coach Jay Hopson is fine with it.
“That’s a lot of money,” Hopson said. “And we want to play these types of teams, really good SEC programs that are in our area. We have won many of these games in the past. That’s who we are. We believe we can win every time we go out there.”
In past years, USM often played more than one of these big pay-day games. In 1990, Brett Favre’s last season at USM, the Golden Eagles won at both Alabama and Auburn and lost by single point at Georgia and by four at Virginia Tech.
During the Larry Fedora coaching era (2008-2011) the decision was made to quit playing the “money” games and play only home-and-home. It almost paid off, big-time, in 2011. USM finished 12-2 and won Conference USA. Had the Golden Eagles not lost by three points at UAB, they would have played in the Sugar Bowl for a multi-million dollar payday.
The obvious question: If $1.85 million for one money game is so vital, why not play two or three?
The answer: You don’t want to put your team at such a overwhelming competitive disadvantage.
“We would love not to have to do it at all,” McGillis said. “But we will keep it to one a year as long as our fans fill the seats in our stadium and do their part.”
Rick Cleveland writes a weekly sports column running Fridays at Mississippitoday.org.