Utah's athletic department is paying Idaho State more than half a million dollars to provide what's expected to be minimal resistance Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
That's market value for a Big Sky Conference football team's visit to a Pac-12 school. Such money was unwisely spent the five times in this decade when the likes of Portland State and Eastern Washington upset their Power Five opponents.
PSU in 2015 and EWU in ’16 each beat a Washington State team that went on to have an outstanding season. Those historical asterisks aside, the No. 11 Utes figure to score about one point for every $10,000 they’re giving ISU. The Bengals will bank $550,000 for an inexpensive bus ride down I-15 from Pocatello, Idaho, in the contract The Salt Lake Tribune obtained via an open records request.
That’s about one-fourth of Utah’s ticket revenue for a home game, according to the school’s 2017-18 financial report.
A more challenging opponent would cost more, or require a return trip. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham may always wonder why his team went to Northern Illinois last season, resulting in a four-quarter battle before the Utes escaped with a 17-6 win.
IDAHO STATE AT NO. 11 UTAH
When • Saturday, 2:15 p.m.
TV • Pac-12 Networks.
Nearly a million reasons exist for that scheduling strategy. By booking a home-and-home series with the Huskies, concluding last Saturday with a 35-17 victory at Rice-Eccles Stadium, the Utes didn’t have to pay a big guarantee for NIU’s one-time visit. That also explains 2018 games such as Arkansas at Colorado State and Miami at Toledo.
Nebraska is giving NIU $950,000 to play this week in Lincoln. And that’s not nearly the biggest payout from a Power Five school this season. The $1.5 million that Utah State will earn for going to No. 4 LSU in October is not even the biggest check. That distinction goes to Tulane, which got almost $2 million for a 24-6 loss at Auburn, according to USA Today.
Power Five schools’ playing FCS teams is the subject of “some debate out there,” Whittingham said this week. It’s also moot, in Utah’s case, through 2024. The Utes have booked Montana State next season and Weber State and Southern Utah twice each. Utah’s next opening is in 2025, when only a home game vs. Wyoming is currently booked.
The 2026 schedule is especially interesting, with the Utes hosting Arkansas and visiting Houston. How athletic director Mark Harlan fills the third nonconference slot — BYU? A Big Sky team? Utah State? — will help define his approach to future schedules, after inheriting FCS games from predecessor Chris Hill. In July, when he booked Arkansas as the first Southeastern Conference team ever to play in Salt Lake City, Harlan said he wanted to “bring value to our football program and to our fan base.”
Guarantees for selected college football road teams in 2019:
$1.9375 million – Tulane at Auburn.
$1.85 million – Southern Mississippi at Alabama.
$1.55 million – Middle Tennessee at Iowa.
$1.5 million – Utah State at LSU.
$1.1 million – Fresno State at USC.
$950,000 – Northern Illinois at Nebraska.
$650,000 – Montana at Oregon.
$625,000 – UC Davis at California.
$550,000 – Idaho State at Utah.
$500,000 – Northern Colorado at Washington State.
$475,000 – Idaho State at BYU.
$450,000 – Weber State at San Diego State.
$400,000 – Weber State at Nevada.
$325,000 – Southern Utah at UNLV.
Idaho State’s visit won’t accomplish that goal, although there are ways to rationalize it. The Utes have six other home games in 2019, and seven other Pac-12 schools are hosting FCS teams this season. And while the Pac-12′s UCLA and USC join Notre Dame as the only schools that never have played an FCS opponent, USC has scheduled UC Davis in 2021.
The Big Ten lifted its temporary ban of scheduling FCS opponents. So the trend is likely to continue, even though Alabama coach Nick Saban has proposed that Power Five schools play only one another – not even facing Group of Five teams.
One counter-argument is the lower-level programs need the money. Idaho State, which drew fewer than 5,000 fans for its season opener last week, will receive $1.025 million for playing at Utah and BYU this season. In 2016, the Bengals bit off two Pac-12 games, losing to Oregon State and Colorado by a combined 93-14.
ISU had lost 27 straight games to FBS teams before upsetting the Mountain West's Nevada 30-28 in 2017.
“You never know what can happen,” ISU coach Rob Phenicie said of facing Utah. “It's a great opportunity. If you strive to play against the best, this is the opportunity that you get.”
Not to mention getting paid.