Jeremy Harper: College Football, Big Money & (Probably) Losing


Jeremy Harper college footballI don’t know much about boxing, but like me you’ve likely heard of Muhammed Ali’s “Rope-A-Dope” strategy in a bout versus Joe Frazier in 1975. Basically, Ali won by getting beat-up for several rounds, leaving Frazier too exhausted to defend himself at the end.

At the Group of Five level of college football, scheduling opponents is a bit like Rope-A-Dope; you’re willing to take your lumps early to win the end game.

The Arkansas State Red Wolves recently announced that, in 2018, the team will travel to Tuscaloosa to face perennial national champion Alabama Crimson Tide. For this service, the University of Alabama Athletic Department will cut a $1.7M dollar check to A-State.

Some people call these “paycheck games.” Less charitable critics call them “body bag games,” but not without reason. Consider the make-up of the Crimson Tide, a team comprised chiefly of behemoths, giants and cyborgs. To play Alabama on any level is to invite an NFL-caliber of bodily harm. On average, an Alabama offensive lineman weighs 311 pounds. Compare that to Arkansas State linemen, who average 286 pounds. Yikes.

So why subject yourself to the abuse? Moreover, what’s in it for Alabama, who can be accused of many things but not necessarily of sadism?

In theory, Arkansas State receives the media exposure that comes with playing a team with the celebrity of Alabama. Win or lose, it’s good for recruiting and for boosters, who want to see their alma mater topple a Goliath. In return, Alabama hosts an opponent that (on paper) should be handled with limited risk to themselves. Bama gets a win. The Red Wolves are handsomely compensated.

Arkansas State commands a $1.7M paycheck because the Red Wolves are not a garden variety cupcake. Today’s national champions are weighed heavily on the quality of their opponents. While some programs choose to stuff their schedules with struggling FBS opponents and plucky FCS teams, savvy programs are luring tougher opponents into their well-appointed lairs with barges heaped with wealth. Arkansas State, Sun Belt Conference winners 4 of the last five years, meets that standard of quality.

Alabama isn’t hurting for money. In 2014, the University of Alabama athletic department pocketed a $33M surplus (and didn’t feel the least bit guilty about clandestinely orchestrating the temporary demise of UAB, a small in-state rival). The Crimson Tide can afford to host guests lavishly.

Conversely, Arkansas State has bills to pay. Indoor practice facilities,  stadium upgrades, and escalating coaches salaries cost money. The Red Wolves are not above playing the role of ringer if it means building on the future.

Because its a business model that works. The Red Wolves have played college football paycheck games since paycheck games were called paycheck games. For nearly a decade, Arkansas State has lined up big payouts that have aided the program’s rise from FBS cellar dweller to participants in five straight bowl games. But not without paying a price of its own.

  • 2018, $1.7M, Alabama
  • 2017, $1.65M, Nebraska
  • 2016, $1.3M, Auburn
  • 2015, $1.3M, USC (L 55-6)
  • 2014, $1M, Tennessee (L 34-19)
  • 2013, $1.1M, Auburn (L 38-9)
  • 2012, $1M, Nebraska (L 42-13)
  • 2012, $950K, Oregon, (L 57-34)
  • 2011, $1M, Virginia Tech (L 26-7)
  • 2011, $850K, Illinois (L 33-15)
  • 2010, $1M, Auburn (L 52-26)
  • 2009, $900K, Iowa (L 24-21)
  • 2009, $750K, Nebraska (L  38-9)

After facing Alabama in 2018, Arkansas State will have collected $14,50,000.00* in fees since 2009. But in that time, the Red Wolves have failed to collect a single win. (Perhaps this is why P5 programs continue to do business with A-State?)

Scheduling a strong Group of Five program is not without risk for Power Fives. Last year, the Arkansas Razorbacks paid the Toledo Rockets a cool $1M for a humiliating home beating. Just three years earlier, Arkansas shelled out another $950,000 to be upset by ULM. It happens. David stuns Goliath. And it’s bound to happen for Arkansas State.

The deals made between Arkansas State and a host of Power Five programs have strengthened the Red Wolves. It has provided facilities, funded upgrades, and raised salaries. In 2008, the Alabama Crimson Tide dispatched Arkansas State 35-0.

In 2018, Alabama might not be so lucky.

Alabama Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa College Football


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