The Cost of Scheduling a Sacrificial Lamb for Major College Football Programs

Danny Kanell of ESPN has a great idea.  Make the non-conference exhibition games we just witnessed this weekend part of spring football practice.  The lesser schools who need the money to fund their athletic programs can still get paid and the games, as lopsided as they might be, are certainly more entertaining than a spring practice game.

There were 14 non-conference games between top 25 college football programs this weekend with an average score of 49 to 10.  In the 5 conference games involving top 25 teams the average score was 35 to 18.

Darren Rovell of ESPN regularly reports the financial payouts that major college football programs make to smaller programs when they come to play and often lose by 4 touchdowns or more.  For example, this week Savannah State was a 59.5 point underdog at the University of Miami.  Savannah State is receiving $375,000 for travelling a little over 400 miles to Miami to be one of the biggest underdogs in the history of NCAA football.

By my count, Rovell has reported 26 of these non-conference payouts over the past 3 weekends.  Over the past 3 weekends:

  • The average payout received by a visiting team is $613,000.
  • The average distance travelled by a visiting team is 530 miles.
  • The average Sagarin rank of a visiting team is 145 of 247 (end of 2012 season)
  • Only 31% of visiting teams ranked in Sagarin’s top 100 (end of 2012 season)

I estimated a simple regression of the relationship between a visiting team’s payout, its Sagarin rank and the distance travelled to the game.  I found no evidence that higher ranked non-conference opponents commanded a higher payout, but each 10% increase in distance travelled is associated with a 1.8% higher payout.

So while major college football programs can bring in a lesser team to beat up in front of season ticket holders for about $600,000, they should expect to pay about $205 more per mile travelled for each sacrificial lamb.

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