Iowa Football

Iowa Hawkeye fans, meet the Outback Bowl's millon-dollar man

He's by far the highest-paid college bowl executive in the nation

Outback Bowl President and Chief Executive Officer Jim McVay speaks with a reporter Dec. 28, 2017, during an Outback Bowl media event in Tampa, Fla. (Alessandra Da Pra/Tampa Bay Times)
Outback Bowl President and Chief Executive Officer Jim McVay speaks with a reporter Dec. 28, 2017, during an Outback Bowl media event in Tampa, Fla. (Alessandra Da Pra/Tampa Bay Times)
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Thousands of Iowa Hawkeye fans are headed to Tampa, Fla., to soak up some sun and revel in the signature accomplishment that one man is paid more than $1 million each year to pull off — the Outback Bowl.

In the wealthy gated communities north of Tampa, not far from mansions belonging to the chief executive of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning and former NFL star Ronde Barber, there’s one particularly impressive home featuring a 600-bottle wine cellar, a wraparound shower with massage jets, and a sizable pool with a waterfall and Jacuzzi overlooking a lake.

It belongs to Jim McVay, a sports executive who for the past 30 years has run the Outback Bowl, a second-tier college football postseason game featuring third-place teams.

The hefty paychecks enjoyed by bowl bosses around the country long have been viewed by economists as a sign of exploitation in a sport played by unpaid amateurs. But even among this coterie of well-paid executives, McVay’s compensation — $1,045,000 in 2017, according to the bowl’s most recent tax filing — ranks as extreme, according to a review of bowl financial records and interviews with industry experts.

McVay, a former Tampa Bay Buccaneers marketing executive and uncle to Los Angeles Rams Coach Sean McVay, was the highest-paid bowl executive in the country in 2017, the most recent year financial records are available, even though his organization’s revenue that year — $11.9 million — ranked 10th among bowl organizations.

And while several bowl bosses manage other games or major events, McVay’s core duties remain as focused as they were when he took the job in 1988: negotiate contracts and sell sponsorships and tickets for just one game each year.

The New Year’s Day game will mark Iowa’s sixth appearance in the Outback Bowl, the last one in 2017. This year, they’ll face off against a team they have not played before, the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

As of the end of last week, about 5,500 of Iowa’s allotment of 8,200 tickets had been sold.

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About 400 fans bought inclusive Outback Bowl packages from a Corridor travel firm, Destinations Unlimited, filling two charter flights among other transportation options.

In comparison, the University of Iowa was allotted 22,000 tickets and 13 charter flights of fans left The Eastern Iowa Airport after the Hawkeyes received a coveted invitation to play in the Jan. 1, 2016, Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.

There, the chief executive of the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Association — which last year generated $96.7 million in revenue and manages the Rose Bowl and the Tournament of Roses Parade — made $412,000, or less than half of McVay’s income.

The chief executive of Peach Bowl Inc. — which generated $32.5 million in revenue and also manages the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game — made $710,500. And the chief executive of Florida Citrus Sports Events Inc. — which generated $17.4 million in revenue and manages two bowl games (Citrus and Camping World) — made $586,000.

The decision by the Outback Bowl’s board — a volunteer group of Tampa-area businesspeople and dignitaries — to pay McVay, year after year, more than many of his peers further stands out because its bowl, historically, is among the stingiest when it comes to giving to charity.

Among the 10 wealthiest bowl games in terms of revenue, the Outback Bowl ranks eighth in charitable giving since 2000, according to records and interviews, with $500,000 donated, all in the last two years.

The Peach Bowl, meanwhile, has given more than $32 million to charities in that same time frame. The Fiesta Bowl has given more than $12.5 million. And the Rose, Orange, Alamo and Citrus bowls have all spent millions in their communities — on college scholarships for lower-income students, affordable housing and restorations of parks in poor neighborhoods, among other causes.

McVay, who has defended his pay in news reports as recently as last year, declined an interview request and a bowl spokesman cited a new policy that forbids Outback Bowl officials from publicly discussing compensation.

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A former Outback board chairman, in a phone interview, defended McVay’s pay as “a bargain,” pointing to his ability to keep Outback, the Southeastern Conference and the Big Ten locked into contracts, and the economic impact of thousands of visitors each December.

“We don’t just throw money away. ... Jim’s very well compensated, yes, but he’s worth every penny,” said Steve Schember, a board member since 1990.

In a follow-up email, in response to questions about the bowl’s charitable spending, Schember wrote: “We’re not the United Way. While we’re happy to give to local charities that’s not our purpose. Come down to Tampa New Year’s Eve ... see the thousands of Miss St and Iowa fans at the parade who are staying at our hotels eating in our restaurants and drinking at our bars. If you come I’ll buy you a beer!”

When informed of McVay’s pay and the Outback Bowl’s revenue, one expert on the economy of college sports laughed.

“You really can’t justify this salary,” said Richard Southall, professor and director of the College Sport Research Institute at the University of South Carolina.

Southall said McVay benefits from working in a niche industry with unique market factors beneficial to executives, such as cheap entertainment (the players in bowl games each get $550 of souvenir gifts, the maximum permitted under NCAA rules), and lax oversight.

Bowl executives “don’t answer to any shareholders; they don’t answer to any governmental entity,” he said. “It’s a party.”

DEALMAKER PROWESS

Football always has figured prominently in McVay’s life. A native of Lancaster, Ohio, he is the son of John McVay, the former San Francisco 49ers executive who helped build five Super Bowl-winning teams in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

McVay went to college at the University of Dayton, where he was a backup quarterback and graduated in 1976 with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications.

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After a few years as a sales director for the Cincinnati Stingers of the World Hockey Association, McVay moved to Tampa for a job as marketing director for the Tampa Bay Bandits of the United States Football League.

In 1987, he took a similar job with the Buccaneers, where he came up with the idea of firing off a cannon in the stadium after scores by the home team, a tradition that continues today.

After 10 months with the Bucs, McVay quit to become chief executive of the game then known as the Hall of Fame Bowl.

When McVay took over, he has said in interviews, the game was deeply in debt. Though he was able to stabilize the finances, a few years later there was another ominous development. In 1992, Outback Steakhouse — headquartered in Tampa — signed a sponsorship agreement with the Gator Bowl, played in Jacksonville.

In a seven-month period in 1994 and 1995, however, McVay executed a series of deals that his supporters credit as master strokes.

First, he improved the quality of the game, locking in the Big Ten and SEC for their third-place teams. Then McVay negotiated a contract with ESPN that secured prime broadcast real estate on New Year’s Day.

And finally, McVay lured Outback away from the Gator Bowl by agreeing to a then-novel concession: The game would be renamed the Outback Bowl — not the Outback Hall of Fame Bowl — preventing media outlets from dropping the sponsor’s name when discussing the game.

By 1998 — the oldest year for which records are available — McVay was earning the equivalent of $300,000 in today’s dollars, adjusted for inflation. The Outback Bowl generated $7.8 million that year, most of which was split up and paid out to the teams.

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In the ensuing 20 years, as the bowl’s income increased about 50 percent, McVay’s compensation jumped about 240 percent.

In defending McVay’s soaring pay, former board chair Schember cited his negotiating prowess. While other bowls hire consultants to hammer out major contracts, McVay handles all negotiations with ESPN, Outback, the Big Ten and SEC himself, saving the bowl hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees.

Those contracts are up for negotiation every four or six years, however, raising questions about McVay’s duties in the intervening years.

“It’s not a situation where he sits on his thumbs for three years,” Schember said. “He goes up to Chicago (Big Ten headquarters) a lot ... he goes up the SEC offices. ... It’s an important job, maintaining those relationships.”

Another reason the Outback board has more than tripled McVay’s pay over the past 20 years, according to Schember, is that McVay routinely tells it that NFL teams are trying to pry him out of the bowl world.

“At least every other year ... he’ll come to a board meeting and say an NFL team has contacted me, and they’ve got a job in their front office, and they want to know if I’m interested ... part of the reason he is so well-compensated is so he isn’t tempted to leave,” Schember said.

Schember declined to disclose which NFL teams have expressed interest in hiring McVay, who hasn’t worked in professional football since 1987.

Outback Bowl spokesman Mike Schulze, in an interview, said he believed his boss “really ought to be a (general manager) of an NFL team ... or something higher than that.”

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Schulze declined, however, to answer questions about the job offers McVay has told the Outback board he has received.

A spokesman for the Rams declined to pass along a question to Sean McVay about any knowledge he has of the NFL offers his uncle has turned down.

‘A TON OF REVENUE’

McVay is one of only five full-time employees of the Outback Bowl, and Schember, his former board boss, cited that figure when defending McVay’s pay.

“He runs the whole show with a very small staff. Our employee expenses are a fraction of what the other bowls are,” he said.

While it is true that the Outback Bowl has a relatively small number of employees compared with other major bowls, its payroll actually is in the middle of the pack, proportionally: The bowl spends 16 percent of its revenue on employees, fifth among the 10 wealthiest bowls.

In Tampa, a city where the median income is $48,000, the lowest-paid Outback Bowl employee earned $138,000 last year.

Economist Andy Schwarz, an outspoken critic of NCAA amateurism rules, has observed this phenomenon in major college athletic departments as well.

As more money from television contracts, sponsorships and donors has flowed in over the past two decades — with the compensation for college athletes capped at the value of a full scholarship — athletic directors have gone on hiring sprees and doled out sizable raises.

“The dynamic is basically the same,” Schwarz said. “These bowls generate a ton of revenue, and some of it is unclaimed, and it has to go somewhere.”

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In an interview at Outback Bowl headquarters this month, bowl spokesman Schulze — who also serves as director of sponsorships and earned $205,000 in 2017 — said it’s a common misconception that he and his colleagues are busy only one month per year.

There are about 25 promotional events throughout the year, Schulze said, and selling sponsorships for the game is also a year-round endeavor.

“People don’t understand the bowl world. It’s unique,” Schulze said. “People are always going to say, ‘Gosh, I didn’t even know that was a job.’ But we all work hard. We’re here every single day.”

Will Hobson of the Washington Post and Vanessa Miller of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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