You can disagree with the Orange Bowl selection — few football aficionados and no oddsmakers would consider Northern Illinois more worthy than Oklahoma or Florida — but the Huskies’ Jan. 1 date with Florida State (a two-TD favorite) in Miami offers Northern Illinois and the Mid-American Conference its proudest football moment.
Good for them!
Of course, there is the problem of those 17,500 tickets that the Orange committee dropped on the folks in DeKalb. Consider that the Huskies, for all their 12-1 success, had an average attendance of barely more than 15,000 fans in a 24,000-seat stadium.
Fact is, they’ve been winning games under Joe Novak, Jerry Kill and Dave Doeren (newly signed at North Carolina State) with less notice than any program cracking the Top 25. Nor did a $36 million Convocation Center, built in 2002, help in basketball. They’re headed for their seventh straight 20-loss season, falling early to neighbors UIC, Loyola, Milwaukee and DePaul. The Huskies averaged 856 official paid for their first three home basketball games.
Back to football. Northern Illinois, having qualified for five straight bowls, has made it an expense item on the annual budget.
They’re prepared to lose money, if necessary. Last year before going to Mobile, where the Huskies beat Arkansas State 38-20, Northern Illinois had to house the players for three weeks on campus prior to the Jan. 8 date.
“The costs vary from year to year,” said Donna Turner, associate director for communications. “This BCS invitation is the biggest of five straight, and we hope it is not a once in a lifetime event. This is different. Our merchandise sales are up, and our applications are up 33 percent from last December.”
It is here that we step back and come to an understanding. Reports dealing with finances and attendance numbers are inherently inaccurate, whether it is the fiction about athletic departments “acting separately” from their universities, the origin of funds for political campaigns, or the budget of any major enterprise.
Turner noted that while some reports list $18 million (per team) as the payout for four major bowls, this is not necessarily accurate.
As readers, you should always accept the numbers as generalizations.
That said, we forge ahead.
Good times had by all
Win or lose on New Year’s night, Northern Illinois will come out smiling. To begin with, there’s that $18 million and national TV. And while that $18 million must be shared with five non-automatic qualifying conferences, the MAC will get its hands on roughly $7 or $8 million (remember, we’re generalizing). And MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher has emphasized that Northern Illinois will come out a financial winner, even after travel and meal expenses, lodging at the Fontainebleau Hotel and paying for all those unsold (from the 17,500) tickets. Also, there will be an allocation coming from the annual arrangement between the five lesser conferences.
But every year we hear horror stories about financial disasters. Most recently, in the 2011 Fiesta Bowl, UConn sold fewer than 3,000 tickets and reportedly fell nearly $3 million short (multiply $200 X 15,000; another generalization?). UConn claimed total incurred expenses at $4.3 million against the school’s $2.5 million payout from the Big East. West Virginia reportedly lost $1 million in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, and Virginia Tech claimed a $2.2 million setback in the 2009 Orange Bowl.
It takes fans, and 17,500 is a big number, particularly when Miami is so far from DeKalb. As of the weekend, they had distributed less than half of those tickets, 2,600 being handed to students free. And don’t forget the band, which leaves Saturday by charter.
This helps explain why bowl committees, when they have a choice, are particular about who they invite. Some fans travel. Boise State packed the Fiesta Bowl. But some fans, as is the case at Northern Illinois, don’t even show up for the home games.
So while teams strive to reach December, financial shortfalls are routine. Only the five big bowls have huge payouts. For example, while Illinoisans took pleasure in the 20-14 defeat of UCLA in San Francisco a year ago, there’s no way the UI could make ends meet on that trip. Navy and Arizona State replace UCLA and the UI as this year’s Kraft Hunger Bowl contestants, and they will receive $837,000 apiece. You can be sure the federal government is standing behind the Midshipmen.
But if Big Ten schools lose money on some of these minor bowls, they make it up elsewhere. For example, despite the 2012 absence of Ohio State and Penn State, and even though the conference has no second team in the lucrative BCS, seven Big Ten qualifiers will bring in an estimated $32 million in bowl payouts this year. And the Illini will receive a portion even as they stay home.
Let’s move on
This is a good football season for Big Ten fans to forget.
Two traditional powers are sitting out the bowl season with sanctions. Michigan absorbed an opening 41-14 setback at Alabama, a signal of what was to come. Notre Dame defeated its three Big Ten opponents. The UI’s conference losing streak reached 14, and Iowa lost its last six. Purdue won its last three games but still fired Danny Hope, paying the new coach twice Hope’s salary. Michigan State, seemingly on the rise, slipped to 6-6.
Wisconsin embarrassed Nebraska by running up 70 points in the title game, and Bret Bielema showed his disdain for the Big Ten by promptly leaving for Arkansas. Arkansas?
If the Rose Bowl had its way, they’d look elsewhere ... but the arrangement dating to 1947 brings Wisconsin, 4-4 in league play, to Pasadena. The conference’s seven qualifiers are all bowl underdogs.
Is anybody happy? What are we left to think?
We can always fall back on the cycle explanation. Or is the Midwest simply rusting out. Are we headed back toward a Big 2 and the Little 10 period? Quality recruits are swarming to already well-stocked Michigan and Ohio State programs. And nowhere else. Scout.com, in foretelling the future, shows Michigan and Ohio State attracting five 5-star and 27 4-star recruits while, in the latest demonstration of what tradition means, Nebraska has eight 4-star prospects and the other nine members show 14. That averages less than two per team for the “other nine.”
Penn State is headed for a difficult period of limited rosters. Nebraskans are beginning to doubt Bo Pelini, while many Iowans believe Kirk Ferentz has run his course. Illinois is falling back on junior college recruits. And Badgers fans are wondering if Wisconsin’s unique style will work with Gary Andersen.
And now we see Rutgers and Maryland coming in the distance. Will that make it the Big 2 and the Little 12?
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com