Iowa Football

For $1.55 million, Iowa football gets a 24-point underdog

Buying victories is business as usual in big-time college football

Coach Rick Stockstill and his Middle Tennessee football team (Middle Tennessee athletics)
Coach Rick Stockstill and his Middle Tennessee football team (Middle Tennessee athletics)

IOWA CITY — In late August, Middle Tennessee football coach Rick Stockstill was asked what his team would gain by playing at Michigan that week. His immediate reply:

“1.6 million.”

That moment of unvarnished candor was followed by more-predictable comments from the coach. You know, how the game would be a great opportunity in a great environment, that it was a test for his players against elite talent, and so forth. “We’re not going to bow down to anybody,” he said.

The Blue Raiders played hard in their 40-21 loss. Mighty Michigan got what it wanted, a home gate and a win. MTSU got a $1.6 million consolation prize for participating.

Three weeks later, that same Middle Tennessee team comes to Kinnick Stadium to play Iowa Saturday. It will again be a great opportunity in a great environment, a test for its players against elite talent, and so forth. The Blue Raiders won’t bow down to the Hawkeyes.

But if all goes as expected, they will return home with a defeat along with their check for $1,550,000. Iowa will have gotten what it wanted, a home gate and a win.

This is sport? Sort of, maybe. It definitely is major-college sports.

Now, know this: There’s no reason to mock Middle Tennessee football. None. It hasn’t had a losing season since 2011, has been to bowl games the last four years, and has an all-time Conference USA record of 33-15. It was 7-1 in C-USA last season and won the East Division. It’s a good program.

But this is one of the one or two or sometimes even three games nearly all Power Five conference teams play yearly to pad their records and assure themselves of at least seven home games. This is one of the one or two or sometimes even three road games the Middle Tennessees play for pay yearly to help sustain their operations.

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“Obviously, the money is important,” MTSU Athletics Director Chris Massaro said. “Then you get exposure. This game’s on ESPN2. If you’re fortunate enough to be in a competitive game or get a win, the exposure increases.”

The game at Iowa, Massaro said, “worked for both of us. We’ve never played at Iowa before, so we can spread our brand a little bit further.”

Since the 2014 season, the Blue Raiders are 2-14 against Power Five foes. The wins were at Missouri in 2016 and Syracuse in 2017. Both went on to 4-8 seasons, but both victories remain savored in Murfreesboro.

Over those 16 games, however, MTSU was outscored by an average of 16.4 points per game. And that’s a consistently successful program from the Group of Five conferences (American, C-USA, Mid-American, Mountain West and Sun Belt).

The Big Ten is 21-3 against Group of Five teams this season, 130-26 since the start of the 2014 season.

Like playing a slot machine, these games are likely losses for the smaller programs. But unlike most slots players, they leave with more money than when they arrived.

MTSU is getting the two biggest guarantee checks Big Ten teams are paying this year, and two of the 10 largest nationally.

Big Ten teams will pay at least $1 million for 17 games this season. The prices can vary according to how recently the deals were done, and how many options the bigger schools had on certain dates.

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Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta said a nonconference game Iowa signed for in 2013 had a $1 million guarantee to the visitor. “This (Middle Tennessee) contract was negotiated in 2017,” he said.

While the $1.55 million to MTSU is high this year, Iowa could look like it’s getting a relative bargain in 2021 when it pays Colorado State $1.35 million for a game at Kinnick.

“Right now the market for an FBS-type opponent is somewhere between $1 million and $2 million,” Barta said.

Iowa will host the Group of Five’s Northern Illinois in 2020 and 2025, Kent State in 2021, Nevada in 2022, and Western Michigan and Utah State in 2023.

It undoubtedly would be a considerable upset if the Hawkeyes lose any of those games. The playing field is level literally, but certainly not figuratively.

“Our brands are different,” Massaro said. “We’re trying to increase our brand. Iowa’s had theirs for over 100 years.

“We have every disadvantage you could have against a team like Iowa when it comes to financial pieces. Iowa has a tremendous amount of resources. Obviously, their recruiting pool is a different recruiting pool than ours.

“In these kinds of games there’s not one thing you can point to and say ‘As a program, that’s where we have the advantage.’ But you try to make the most of it. Sometimes, the athletes, the amount of coaches, the resources don’t matter for 40 minutes of basketball or 60 minutes of football.

“But over a long period of time, it does.”

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Of the 64 teams in Power Five conferences, 44 won at least six games and proceeded to bowl games last season. Eight had losing records in their leagues.

Iowa was 4-5 in the Big Ten in 2017, but was 7-5 and bowl-eligible after that regular season largely because it played Wyoming and North Texas at home. Wyoming got $1 million and North Texas received $900,000 for their visits, while the Hawkeyes ended up with a winning record and another bowl trip.

This is entertainment. This is commerce. Whether there is any deeper meaning to a game like Saturday’s here is in the eye of the beholder.

Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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