Nov. 18, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- As the metamorphosis of Conference USA membership takes shape, the altered landscape that realignment has brought arrives in concert with big changes in major college football.
It’s out with the Bowl Championship Series – thankfully -- and in with the College Football Playoff, starting next season.
And that’s a very good thing for Marshall and other Conference USA members, C-USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky said during a Nov. 8-9 visit to Huntington for Herd men’s basketball and football games.
The assured access of one lower-tier team into the six-bowl postseason system run by the Playoff system is an improvement, as is the revenue that the CFP will provide, even below the power conference level.
The BCS is finished after this season, and the American Athletic Conference – think old Big East – will join C-USA and the Mountain West, Mid-American and Sun Belt in a tier below the five power conferences.
That bunch has been labeled the “Group of Five,” in some quarters. Banowsky said whatever you call it, the 60-plus schools in the pack – including 14 once the C-USA dust finally settles to start the 2015 football season -- will be better off.
“We’re in the middle of our restructuring right now, so it will be interesting to see what it is called, but we’re all going to be FBS,” said Banowsky, in his 11th year as commissioner of the suburban Dallas-based conference. “There are the power conferences and the aspiring power conferences, and we’re one of those aspiring power conferences … and all of us want to figure out a way to move into the upper echelon.
“One thing different, the revenue should be great. There’s great growth out of this new contract, relative to what the BCS was, everyone did better -- like four times the amount of revenue to be generated by the new system compared to the old system.
“So, we got an incremental gain in our revenue, which is really good, and we expect to distribute at least $1 million a year to each school in the conference from just that platform.”
Banowsky didn’t have the numbers in front of him and didn’t want to get into guesstimates, but multiple reports in recent months have put the distribution to C-USA and its four brethren at $86.5 million annually.
That money – and the number will grow, Banowsky said – will be distributed via three pools.
“It will depend on, in some way, how well we do, how much the conference receives,” Banowsky said. “There’s an element of it that’s equal sharing and an element that is performance based, and then an element that’s goes to the conference of the one team that goes into the playoff system.
“It’s going to start there ($86.5 million) but it’s going up north of 100 million … We figure $1 million apiece (per C-USA school), and hopefully we’ll do better if we have great teams, and we’ll be able to perform in the playoff system.”
In Pool 1, each of the five conferences receives $12 million (a $60 million total). C-USA would split that among its 14 members (13 next season, before Charlotte begins playing in FBS in conference football in 2015).
Pool 2 is conference performance-based. The $20 million will be divided among the five conferences based upon across-the-board strength in a single season. The top league would get $7 million, and no. 5 gets $1.5 million, with the others graded in between.
That $20 million pool figures to be where the growth for $86.5 million will be deposited.
Banowsky said the C-USA revenue from the first two pools will be split equally among the 14 football members in future years.
Pool 3 – at $6.5 million – will go to the conference that has its team advancing into one of the six “playoff bowls” – Rose, Sugar, Cotton, Orange, Fiesta, Peach (Chik-fil-A). It would be up to the conference to decide on any split, or whether the playoff participant would keep all of the revenue.
“It’s a substantial amount,” Banowsky said. “It’s not $10 million, but it’s not $1 million, either … In our case, in our case, we would cover all of the expenses of the team that goes to the big (playoff system) game and those expenses will be more significant than those for another bowl, obviously.”
Should a team from C-USA or its fellow tier leagues finish in the top four nationally (as chosen by a selection committee), that conference would get an additional $6 million for playing in a national semifinal.
So, if a Marshall, Rice, Middle Tennessee or UTSA leads C-USA to a No. 1 conference ranking (among the five) and reaches one of the six biggest bowls, then C-USA is looking at a revenue year of at least $25 million from just the College Football Playoff system.
The maximum C-USA received in any recent year from the BCS system was in the $3.5 million range.
Meanwhile, Banowsky is more than optimistic about the bowl future (2014-19) for Conference USA, which has agreements with nine bowls across the six-year period and will have a guaranteed five or six slots every year.
C-USA is losing its long-time relationship with the Liberty Bowl, which will host the conference champion for the final time this season, and pays $1.44 million per team. The Military Bowl also will be out of the C-USA loop starting next season, too.
However, the conference has deals with bowls in the Bahamas, Dallas, Miami, New Orleans, Hawaii, Boca Raton and St. Petersburg, Fla. New Mexico and a secondary deal with the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La., should the SEC (No. 10, with that league likely to have an extra pick in the top six bowls, too) or ACC (Nos. 7-9 pick) not fill their berths.
“I’d say we’re going to do pretty well with the new bowls,” Banowsky said. “The big bowl we have right now is the Liberty Bowl so we have a pretty healthy differential between our expenses and the payout in the Liberty Bowl, but the other bowls are going to compete pretty well in the aggregate.
“We don’t have any games where we’ll lose money. All the games will net revenue to us, and I think we’ve got a really nice array of games, great destinations. A lot of it will be a function of how many tickets we sell and how many fans our teams travel.
“As for our champion, I think we’re going to float the champion, because we need to see what the matchups are going to be. We have a game down in (Heart of) Dallas against a Big Ten team potentially, have a game against an ACC team, possibly. I think we’ll float the champion and see how things go and pick the best matchup possible.
“With those nine partnerships, every year we’ve got five or six guaranteed tie-ins, and a really good secondary in Shreveport, and it’s highly likely there will be an opening in that game every year because it’s right at the bottom of the SEC lineup, so that’s almost as good as a primary, we think.”
As a group, the AAC, MAC, Sun Belt, Mountain West and C-USA created four new bowls (C-USA has ties with three of those – Miami, Boca and Bahamas) after the so-called power conferences began filling more berths than in the current system.
“We had to decide whether to put ourselves in a place where year-in, year-out, we’d hope there would openings and then try and find holes for surplus teams, or whether we wanted to just go out and build our own destiny, find destinations that are great locations, come up with business models that really work for us,” he said.
Banowsky said C-USA is not changing one piece of its bowl plans – the “incentive” that provides the first $100,000 in ticket sales by the school to be retained by that institution.
“The Playoff revenue will provide a $1 million minimum for each of our schools, and when you add in all the other bowls, it will go up from there,” Banowsky said. “The teams in our bowls will do significantly better than they’re doing right now. That ($100,000 ticket) formula has worked really well. It has given our schools incentive to sell tickets, and we’ve covered all of their expenses, so I think our schools are happy with that one.”
Banowsky said C-USA, even with two more football programs in 2015 than it had in 2012, didn’t want to try and nail down eight or nine postseason slots and then have to bail because only six teams reached bowl eligibility.
“We’ve kind of maxed out at six over the last few years, some years fewer than that,” the C-USA commissioner said. “This year, we have six slots and we may have seven or maybe even eight teams and we’re beginning the process of identifying where those (available bowl) opportunities may be.
“What I don’t want to do is get into a position where we have more bowls than we do teams and I have to pick up the phone and call a bowl and say, ‘I’m sorry I can’t bring you a team,’ and then they’ve got to go out and try and scramble and figure it out.
“We’ve been pretty good in the past trying to navigate that space, so rather than oversubscribe and then disappoint, we’re going to try and hit it right on the mark, and then be nimble as we get to the end of the year.”
In interviews in the Henderson Center and Edwards Stadium over two days, Banowsky had plenty more to say about the conference and the Herd. I’ll get into some of that in another column in the near future.