LAFAYETTE — In the first week of September, seven of the Sun Belt Conference’s 11 football teams open the season against teams from one of the “Power Five” conferences: the Southeastern, ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and Big Ten.
While those games are going on, Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson will be paying more attention to Georgia State hosting Charlotte and Idaho hosting Ohio.
Benson and the athletic directors of the Sun Belt’s football schools know that each of those games is a potential million-dollar game for the league.
“As nice as it is exposurewise and as great as it is to win a game against the ‘Big Five,’” Benson said at Sun Belt Media Day, “in the system that we have, the competition against our peer conferences is hugely important. The financial stakes are important enough that those are the games we really need to focus on.”
If UL-Lafayette goes to Lexington and knocks off Kentucky in its Sept. 5 season opener, or if any of the other six league teams can catch opening-game lightning in a bottle and upset a power-conference squad, it would make for great public relations for a league entering its 15th season.
But South Alabama Athletic Director Joel Erdmann knows good PR doesn’t pay the bills. He’d love for his Jaguars to knock off Nebrask, or claim a win over N.C. State when the Wolfpack comes to Mobile in late September.
But the week before that N.C. State game, when USA travels to play San Diego State, may be the most important spot on the Jaguars’ schedule from a strictly financial standpoint.
“It’s not just tongue-in-cheek, hoping that everybody else does well,” Erdmann said. “It’s a legitimate business-related desire for the conference as a whole to do better competitively.”
The reason for all of this is the College Football Playoff, which debuted last year with a four-team bracket to determine the national champion. The CFP’s success on the field in its inaugural year overshadowed the financial boon it provided for each of the 10 FBS conferences.
The Sun Belt is a part of the CFP as one of the “Group of Five” conferences, joining the Mountain West, Conference USA, the American and the Mid-American. And CFP rules mandate that the top-ranked team from those combined leagues is guaranteed a berth in a Jan. 1 bowl game. This year, that will be either the Peach Bowl on Dec. 31 in Atlanta or the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1 in Glendale, Arizona.
As a part of that group, the Sun Belt shares in CFP revenues to the tune of approximately $12 million this year. That payout was a huge windfall to the league and, in turn, to the league’s football-playing members.
“Four years ago, our conference revenue share was around $20,000,” UL-Lafayette Athletic Director Scott Farmer said. “This year, it was over a million dollars, and most of that can be attributed to the College Football Playoff.”
The CFP’s payouts to the “Group of Five” leagues are performance-based, both in the regular season and in bowl games, which is why Benson made football success against the Sun Belt’s peer conferences a priority.
Two years ago, the Sun Belt had the highest winning percentage among the five in peer-league nonconference games, which was a good bragging point but wasn’t a factor financially.
In the CFP model that began last year, finishing higher than fifth out of five — the Sun Belt’s spot last fall — greatly enhances the bottom line.
The Sun Belt did receive $12 million from the CFP last year, but the Mountain West pulled in $23.4 million as the league with the best peer-league nonconference record.
Even a step up to fourth among the five leagues in win percentage this year would bring in approximately $3 million more to Sun Belt coffers, and each succeeding step would add to that total.
“The amount of increase by climbing from fifth to third, or third to first, that’s substantial,” Erdmann said. “That’s as much as a half-million per school for stepping from fifth to fourth, fourth to third. If you can climb to the middle of the pack, or especially to the top, you’re talking about a significant increase in revenue due to better performance.”
The Sun Belt will have to do better than its 4-15 record in 2014 against its “Group of Five” brethren to boost that revenue, but that can happen. One year earlier, the league had a record 21 nonconference wins and had a combined 8-1 mark against Conference USA, the Mountain West and the Mid-American to rank atop its peer leagues.
This season, the 11 Sun Belt teams play 35 games against teams in the other nine FBS conferences. Nineteen of them are against the “Power Five,” and 16 are against the other “Group of Five” leagues, and Benson said that scheduling more peer-league games and winning those games is paramount.
“Our goal is to be the best conference of our five peer conferences,” he said during Media Day activities. “Every commissioner talks about how important nonconference games are and how important nonconference scheduling is, but in light of the CFP model, those are the games we really need to focus on.
“Our presidents and chancellors are getting it, our athletic directors are getting it and our coaches have always gotten it. They know they need to remove the addiction of those money games, and many of them have been able to do that. We’re creating a scheduling structure that will be beneficial to the Sun Belt in the future.”
The Ragin’ Cajuns’ 2015 nonconference schedule includes two peer-league games, against Akron at home on Sept. 26 and at Louisiana Tech on Oct. 3. UL-Lafayette’s only “Power Five” game this year is the opener at Kentucky, for which the Cajuns will receive a minimum $900,000 guarantee.
But Farmer knows that winning the other nonconference games, and getting some help from his Sun Belt brethren, could add even more to an athletic budget that will top $20 million for the first time this year.
“It becomes a piece of the pie, just like ticket sales, and we’ve been able to do a lot of things because of that,” he said. “It’s helped us increase assistant coaches’ salary levels, helped some with construction and renovation. ... It plays a role in everything we do now. In a time of tight budgets when we really need it, that’s a significant jump.”