For years now, smaller schools around the nation have been traveling to play bigger and better opponents on the road early in the season. These guarantee games have benefits for both schools. The bigger school gets a guaranteed home game on its schedule, a chance to fill the stadium and sell concessions, and an almost certain victory moving them one step closer to bowl eligibility. The smaller school is guaranteed cash, sometimes over $1 million, which can be put toward improving the school or athletic facilities. Increased exposure and the recruiting benefits of having a big school on the schedule is also crucial. For example, it might sway a prospective student athlete when informed he will be playing a game at the Big House in Michigan during his sophomore season. For those reasons, guarantee games are beneficial for the administration and athletic departments of both schools.
But how do these games affect the players on the smaller school team? Are they suffering a humiliating defeat and risking injury so that their university can accept a payday? Is it truly competition, a fundamental element of sports, when a small school is likely to be blown out by 60 or more points? In fact, guarantee games are great for the small school players in addition to their universities, here is why.
NCAA Football Players can Benefit from the Payday
In 2005, the University at Buffalo made $1.5 million for playing three guarantee games. They finished the season with 1 win and 10 losses. However, the money from those three guarantee losses was spent on new locker room furniture and a new weight room. In that case, the money from the guarantee games was a direct benefit to the players
One of the concerns surrounding the recent O’Bannon ruling is that the $5,000 minimum cap required under the ruling will benefit the bigger, wealthier schools. That is to say, assuming the NCAA wishes to limit the amount of name, image, and likeness money schools may pay players it may not cap that limit below $5,000 for any player (As an aside, the cap is roughly based on the amount of a currently available Pell Grant and is an extremely odd part of this ruling considering it is an antitrust case, but that is another story altogether). Further assuming the NCAA sets the cap at the minimum, bigger schools will theoretically have the funding and desire to pay every recruit the additional $5,000 permitted under O’Bannon on top of the cost of attendance. Smaller schools will not be able to afford to do so and further, will not be allowed to pay in excess of $5,000 to a single recruit to try and woo him from a bigger school. Therefore, the wealthier schools gain a recruiting advantage under the minimum cap because they can pay even second-tier recruits, who smaller schools may have had a chance at getting, above the cost of attendance.
However, the money earned by small schools through guarantee games could free up other athletic money earned through name, image, and likeness to go to recruits. While that name, image, and likeness money might previously have been needed for other costs, the money from the guarantee game might be used toward those costs instead. Therefore, under O’Bannon, guarantee games might allow smaller schools to use name, image, and likeness money to pay a greater number of their recruits above the cost of attendance.
NCAA Football Players get a Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience
For a high school football player, it would be a dream to play for Southern California, Michigan, or Alabama. The reality is, only a few will get the chance to play in a national caliber program. For those that do not get that chance, playing in those schools’ stadiums as an opponent is the next best thing. Getting beaten badly is beside the point to some extent and not humiliating whatsoever. It will give many college athletes the experience of playing on the biggest stage in the game, against the very best players in their game, and they will likely be treated like a big school athlete.
For example, when I was playing college baseball we visited Arizona State and Oklahoma State, two highly ranked baseball programs with big-time facilities. While playing centerfield at Arizona State, I looked toward the left field wall to see Barry Bonds’ name and number honoring him as an ASU alum. I realized I was roaming the same outfield that he once played in. At Oklahoma State, we played in the amenity-filled AAA ballpark in Oklahoma City, we got to stay in an amazing hotel, and ended up splitting the two-game series with them. When I look back on college ball, those are two of my favorite memories.
For small school players in guarantee games, walking into the Big House in Michigan, the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, or Bryant-Denny in Alabama will be the chance of a lifetime. Someday many of those players will be telling kids and grandkids they played at USC against a future NFL star or Heisman trophy winner. The outcome of the game will not matter in their stories, nor will the money exchanged. The experience of competing against the best will be their most valued memory.
That’s why they Play the Games
In 2007, Appalachian State of the Football Championship Subdivision, essentially the second tier of college football, played a guarantee game at Michigan. Michigan was an 11-time national champion, had roughly triple the enrollment of Appalachian State, and offered 22 more football scholarships. The game was to be so lopsided that the Las Vegas sports books did not set a betting line. Appalachian State beat the Wolverines 34-32 in what will go down as one of the greatest wins in school history. Wins like that are rare for the small school in a guarantee game, but that is why they play the games. For players on small school teams the experience is wonderful, but they are still playing to compete and approach the game as though it can be won.
Upset Watch in NCAA Football
Here are a few matchups from the first few weeks of the 2014 season to look out for:
8.30.14: Appalachian State @ Michigan
South Dakota State @ Missouri
Louisiana Tech @ Oklahoma
9.6.14: Sacramento State @ California
Eastern Washington @ Washington
Nicholls State @ Arkansas
Author: Kevin Cave, JD