Seconds remained in the Wildcats’ season-opening football game against the Georgia State Panthers. The Wildcats led 37-35 in their first-ever matchup against the Div. I Panthers. Georgia State kicker Will Lutz trotted out to the field to attempt a 26-yard field goal.
Lutz’s kick went through the uprights, crushing ACU students and alumni everywhere as they realized the upset attempt had fallen short.
The Wildcats lost their season opener 38-37 in the Georgia Dome on national television. However, the athletic program made sure the loss did not go unrewarded. In fact, Georgia State promised ACU more than $200,000 before its football team even stepped on the field.
ACU’s move to Div. I has opened up many doors for its football program to reap financial benefits by competing against larger opponents. The university has already reaped a windfall of more than half a million dollars playing bigger-name schools over the past two years, and it’s certain to add significantly to that amount in the coming years.
An increasing number of schools are benefitting financially from off-the-field payout games. These games pit NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision, or FBS, opponents against generally smaller Football Championship Subdivision, or FCS, schools like ACU.
FBS opponents have been paying to play so-called warm-up games against FCS opponents for years. Most notably, Michigan paid Appalachian State $1 million to play in the memorable 2007 upset of the Wolverines. In fact, FBS opponents paid FCS teams nearly $13 million over just the opening weekend of the 2014 season, according to ESPN.
Covering hotel and airline costs
The ACU football team has yet to play a high-profile opponent like Michigan. It is, however, used to this trend as it prepares for a fourth FBS opponent in three years and the resulting payout. In 2015, ACU will travel to play the Fresno State University Bulldogs on Sept. 5. While ACU’s financial incentives to play the Bulldogs next fall haven’t been disclosed, the Wildcats first were paid to play a 2013 game against FBS competitor New Mexico State and the next year received payouts from Georgia State and Troy University.
Scheduling these games takes a lot of prior planning, former ACU athletic director Jared Mosley said.
“One of the things with Div. I contracts is that you have to schedule those six or seven years out,” said Mosley, now chief executive officer and president of the Texas High School Sports Hall of Fame. “I think for us to get the games that we did against Troy and Georgia State last year is a great fit for us where we are as a program.”
ACU football has reaped the benefits of playing big Div. I competition in more ways than one. ACU was paid $125,000 by New Mexico State for a 34-29 shootout loss that season. The loss was also televised nationally on ESPN3, giving the Wildcats a coveted level of exposure.
According to its contract with ACU, Georgia State provided the Wildcats with 41 paid-for hotel rooms. The game brought even more exposure with an ESPN appearance for the first NCAA FBS game of the year. Another close one-point loss gave ACU credibility in front of viewers who had never heard of the Wildcats.
ACU also played the Troy Trojans this year in a 38-35 shootout win on ESPN3 against legendary coach Larry Blakeney. The loss came at a high price to the Trojans, who, in addition to being embarrassed on national television, paid ACU’s football program $210,000 to come to Alabama for the game. ESPN analysts even cited the loss to the Wildcats as a key factor in Blakeney’s decision to step down as head coach a month later.
‘Playing the Big Boys’
Head coach Ken Collums said his current team was built to play against these tough FBS programs.
“If you put a team together with good depth and you go in and play well, that’s all you can ask for,” Collums said. “Winning those games is really hard. That’s why it was so remarkable to play that well against Georgia State and Troy.”
Athletic Director Lee De Leon, who succeeded Moseley last fall, said these games are crucial to ACU’s exposure, and bigger opponents in the next few years will excite ACU’s fan base.
“These games are a huge source of revenue and a huge source of publicity,” De Leon said. “It’s a reminder to our fans that we aren’t just playing Stephen F. Austin and Lamar. We are playing the big boys.”
These games not only help the football program, but they also provide a financial boost to the athletic program.
“A portion of it goes to the overall athletics budget,” De Leon said. “Yes, a portion of it does go to football, but it also goes to other things as well in the athletic budget.”
De Leon said the teams ACU has played will pale in comparison to future opponents. De Leon has announced the Wildcats will open the 2016 season with a trip to Colorado Springs to take on the Air Force Academy. In 2017, the Wildcats will take on the University of New Mexico Lobos, and in 2018, the Wildcats will take on back-to-back Big 12 champion Baylor University in newly opened McLane Stadium.
“I want people and we need students to get excited about the football program,” De Leon said. “It’s funny. When I got the job, people said we had to compete with McMurry and Hardin-Simmons. No, we don’t. They aren’t playing A&M, TCU or Texas Tech. There are 350 Div. I schools, and we are one of them. The other two schools here aren’t.”
Collums also said the scheduling of these opponents is important to the program, though the team also enjoys playing big-time opponents.
“It is crucial and is fun to go into those places to play those guys,” Collums said. “To play schools like that, it’s a good deal to go into a hostile environment and play a quality program.”