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Volume 21 No. 2
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Dollars just keep climbing for college kickoff games

Two of college football’s most storied programs — Alabama and Michigan — will set a new standard for payouts in a season-opening, neutral-site game when they meet Saturday at Cowboys Stadium.

Ever since the “kickoff” neutral-site games came back into vogue in 2008, the highest combined payout for two schools has been $5.5 million, but the Crimson Tide and Wolverines will share a hefty $9.4 million payday for their participation in the prime-time ABC game called the Cowboys Classic.

The richest payout previously went to LSU and Oregon in the 2011 edition of the Cowboys Classic that featured a matchup of preseason top-five teams. LSU’s guarantee last year was $3.5 million, while Oregon took $2 million.

But Michigan and Alabama will walk away with $4.7 million each after Saturday’s game.

The simple explanation is that both the Crimson Tide and Wolverines gave up a home game in order to meet in Arlington, Texas, this week, a Michigan official said. Michigan makes about $5 million in revenue from each of its home games in 109,101-seat Michigan Stadium, and Alabama collects roughly the same at 101,821-seat Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Alabama has seven home games this season, while Michigan has six. The Crimson Tide has twice previously played in Chick-fil-A Kickoff games in Atlanta. This is their first appearance in the Cowboys Classic.

“For us, these games fit Coach [Nick] Saban’s philosophy of playing high-profile opponents at neutral sites,” said Shane Lyons, Alabama’s deputy athletic director. “It gives the players something to look forward to all summer and something to build toward. And it’s good for recruiting. We’re playing big games on a big stage, and we’re going into some major cities like Dallas and Atlanta where there are lots of recruits.”

College football season openers on television

Cowboys Classic: LSU vs. Oregon
Network: ABC, 8 p.m.
Nielsen rating / viewers: 4.6 / 7.8M

Chick-fil-A Kickoff: Boise St. vs. Georgia
Network: ESPN, 8 p.m.
Nielsen rating / viewers: 2.3 / 3.7M

FedEx Field: Boise State vs. Virginia Tech
Network: ESPN, 8 p.m. (Monday night)
Nielsen rating / viewers: 6.3 / 9.9M

Cowboys Classic: TCU vs. Oregon State
Network: ESPN, 7:30 p.m.
Nielsen rating / viewers: 2.3 / 3.7M

Chick-fil-A Kickoff: LSU-North Carolina
Network: ABC, 8 p.m.
Nielsen rating / viewers: 2.7 / 4.3M

Chick-fil-A Kickoff: Alabama vs. Va. Tech
Network: ABC, 8 p.m.
Nielsen rating / viewers: 4.2 / 7.1M

Cowboys Classic: BYU vs. Oklahoma
Network: ESPN, 7 p.m.
Nielsen rating / viewers: 2.8 / 4.6M

Chick-fil-A Kickoff: Clemson vs. Alabama
Network: ABC, 8 p.m.
Nielsen rating / viewers: 3.6 / 5.6M

Note: All times Eastern.
Source: Nielsen

The Cowboys, who stage the game at their stadium and pay the teams, would not comment on the financials of the game, but they stand to make more revenue this year from higher ticket prices to cover the higher guarantees. Tickets last year topped out at $250, while this year’s top end is $285. Some standing-room-only tickets are going for $89 as part of a LivingSocial promotion.

Attendance for the Michigan-Alabama game is expected to challenge last season’s mark of 87,711. Both the Crimson Tide and Wolverines sold out their allotment of 25,000 tickets each.

Sales of the 300 suites also have gone well, Cowboys’ spokesman Brett Daniels said. Suite owners had the opportunity to buy the Alabama-Michigan game and most did, he said, while a handful of suites were sold to the public.

Each participating school receives two luxury boxes and a field-level suite.

The return of the kickoff concept started in 2008 when Chick-fil-A Bowl officials and the Georgia Dome teamed up to create a neutral-site game on the season’s first weekend. The idea was to give two teams a bowl-like experience and game atmosphere in order to provide more excitement to the start of the season.

The Georgia Dome has been the site for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff each season since 2008, and the Cowboys started their Cowboys Classic in 2009.

FedEx Field also has hosted big early-season matchups in the past, and will bring in West Virginia and James Madison in the third week of the season. Soldier Field is the site this season for Northern Illinois and Iowa — again, later in the season — in what is technically a home game for the Huskies. They are paying Iowa a $1 million guarantee to appear.

At the Georgia Dome this weekend, the Chick-fil-A Kickoff features two games — Tennessee-North Carolina State on Friday night, and Clemson-Auburn on Saturday night, both on ESPN — for the first time since it introduced the game four years ago. The total payout for each game will be more than $4 million.

The Chick-fil-A Kickoff’s payout has remained relatively flat since the first game, but those figures are expected to increase in coming years. Alabama is playing Virginia Tech next season in Atlanta, with each school earning $2.65 million for its appearance. The Crimson Tide returns to Atlanta in 2014 against West Virginia in a game that is expected to pay both schools about $3.2 million, so the fees are escalating in Atlanta, too.

Gary Stokan, the bowl’s chairman and organizer of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff, said the payout is simply the amount of money that remains after taking expenses, including a management fee, from revenue, which take into account Chick-fil-A’s title sponsorship and some secondary sponsorships.

Tickets for the two Chick-fil-A Kickoff games aren’t nearly as costly as the Cowboys Classic. They range from $60 to $150 in Atlanta, compared with $125 to $285 in Arlington. That, and the additional number of seats in Cowboys Stadium, puts the Cowboys Classic in position to pay higher guarantees.

Ticket sales for Clemson-Auburn have been slightly ahead of the pace for the Tennessee-N.C. State game this week. Both Clemson and Auburn sold out their allotment of 31,500 tickets each and the Georgia Dome has announced a sellout. Their combined payout, which is partially based on tickets sold, will be about $4.6 million, or $2.3 million for each school.

Tennessee sold 27,000 tickets compared with 15,500 by N.C. State. Their combined payout will be about $3.5 million.
The Tennessee-N.C. State game is expected to draw a crowd of about 60,000. Auburn-Clemson will likely exceed 72,000.

These season-opening games also provide a strong selling platform for ESPN. Dick’s Sporting Goods will be the umbrella sponsor for the opening weekend with promotional association across TV, digital and radio. The Alabama-Michigan game also will launch a new sponsorship by Microsoft Windows, the new presenting sponsor of ABC’s Saturday night prime-time games throughout the season.