Texas A&M University got a 67-0 win when it played Prairie View A&M University in football last weekend.
Prairie View A&M got $450,000.
That kind of arrangement may be startling to non-fans, but the two teams were participating in what has become a September tradition in college football: A big school schedules a small school for a home game, promising itself an easy win and millions of dollars in ticket and concessions revenue. The smaller school gets cash in return, which is often in short supply in mid-major sports.
The matchups are known as “guarantee” games because the schools sign contracts guaranteeing payments years in advance. But lately, because of competitive pressures and conference rules, many big schools have shown less interest in those matchups. That has created concerns among the smaller schools that they could lose one of their most reliable sources of money.
“I think it will hurt some programs a lot when it comes to revenue,” Prairie View Athletic Director Ashley Robinson said.
Prairie View, a historically black university, plays in the Football Championship Subdivision of college football, which is a level below Texas A&M. But Texas A&M usually pays to play at least one FCS team each year. The two schools are both members of the Texas A&M University System, and they met on the football field on Saturday at the suggestion of Chancellor John Sharp.
“If [Texas A&M] is going to pay $500,000 to play someone, then let's keep it in the family,” Sharp said last week in an interview. “Prairie View is going to leave with half a million to put in their program — and I am pleased with that.”
The benefits to Prairie View are significant. The university made more money off Saturday’s game than it made off all ticket revenue generated by all sports during the 2014-15 school year, according to the school’s most recent NCAA financial report. The revenue will probably be enough to pay all the combined expenses of the women’s golf team and volleyball team this year, if spending for those teams is similar to that year.
The story is the same for similar schools in Texas. Five public universities play FCS football in the state — Lamar University, Sam Houston State University, Stephen F. Austin State University, Texas Southern University and Prairie View. All five earned more money from guarantees than they did from home game ticket sales. Two of the schools — Prairie View and Texas Southern — earned more money from guarantees than any other athletics revenue source, not counting student fees.
Even schools that rank somewhere between FCS and the traditional Texas powers benefit. On Saturday, the University of Texas at El Paso earned $1 million in its loss to the University of Texas at Austin. That was almost enough to cover the 2014-15 expenses of its women’s golf and tennis teams, according to financial reports.
At Prairie View, administrators say they aren’t playing for the money. Taking the field against a top-level team allows the program to measure itself against the best, Robinson said. Plus, the game against Texas A&M was historic, officials said. Prairie View and Texas A&M were both created in 1876 during a time of segregation in Texas. The two schools are fewer than 50 miles apart, but Saturday was the first time they ever played in football.
It may be the last. This season will be the third year of the College Football Playoff, in which four Football Bowl Subdivision teams will be selected by a committee to play for the national championship. Committee members have made clear that they look down on guarantee games, and many schools that want to contend for championship have begun to shy away from them.
Conferences are also putting more pressure on teams to avoid those games. The Southeastern Conference, which includes Texas A&M, now requires each of its teams to play at least one of its four non-conference games against another team from the most prominent "Power 5" conferences. The Big 12 has a similar rule.
The Big 10 Conference has gone the furthest, saying none of its teams can play FCS opponents such as Prairie View. Those games hurt their team's championship résumés and are basically unfair, officials said.
“They wear down,” said Big 10 Commissioner Jim Delany of the FCS teams before his conference's rule went into effect last year. “And, when they do win, it’s an upset. They win fewer than 10 percent, maybe fewer than 5 percent of the time.”
In College Station on Saturday, the discrepancy was clear. A&M started the game by kicking off to Prairie View, giving the Panthers what would basically be their only chance to take a lead in the game. Prairie View picked up a penalty on the first play, then threw three straight incomplete passes. The team punted after 29 seconds. A&M then scored on its first drive, and built a 38-point lead by halftime.
Prairie View only has one other guaranteed game under contract for the future — an Oct. 22 game against Rice that will pay out $200,000.
“I do think in the next three or five years the Power Five schools are going to stop playing those games,” said Robinson, the Prairie View athletic director.
Instead, he said he’s turning his focus toward making money elsewhere, including marketing Prairie View’s own games to its fans.
“We have got to do a lot of marketing and branding,” he said. “We have got to pack the stadium. Every home game we have should be sold out.”
Read more of our stories about money in college sports:
- Use our Ballpark Figures app to explore and compare the budgets of the big-time college athletics programs in Texas.
- Students are chipping in more of their tuition and fee dollars to prop up Texas college sports teams.
Disclosure: Texas A&M University, the Texas A&M University System, Prairie View A&M University, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas at El Paso have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.