On the football field, Towson University's game Saturday night against No. 3 Louisiana State University gave 60 players a chance to dream of the ultimate upset.
Off the field, it gave the Towson athletic department the funds it needs to stay solvent and the sort of exposure that could help the school and the football program grow.
LSU paid Towson $510,000 to travel to Baton Rouge's Tiger Stadium, which seats more than 92,000 people and is considered one of the nation's most difficult places to play.
Guarantee games, as they're called, are commonplace in the revenue-producing sports of football and men's basketball. The economic explanation is not complicated: A large school like LSU generates so much revenue from a home game that it can easily afford to pay a school like Towson to fill an open date on its schedule for a game the visitor has little chance of winning.
Peer schools typically schedule home-and-home series, agreeing to play at each other's stadiums in subsequent seasons. But big schools like LSU, which has $96 million in annual athletic expenses, need to play homes games to generate revenue, so they pay smaller schools to visit.
Had Towson opted to schedule a home game against a fellow Football Championship Subdivision team — the second tier of Division I — it would have generated about $85,000 and then the school would have had to spend about 20 percent of that on game-day expenses.
Saturday's game, combined with the season-opener at Kent State, generated a total of $835,000. Those are the two highest payouts in Towson history, athletic director Mike Waddell said, and represent 5 percent of Towson's $18.5 million athletic department budget.
"The impact it has for us, that's obviously pretty significant," Waddell said. "Playing two FBS [Football Bowl Subdivision, college football's top level] teams, and one of them a high, high-level national title contender, is probably not something we want to do every year. But we thought the opportunity to take a risk and grow the brand was worth it."
Head coach Rob Ambrose hesitated when first approached with the idea during the summer of 2011. His teams had won only three games in his first two seasons; last year's remarkable turnaround was still ahead of him.
While other Football Championship Subdivision powers routinely face teams from football's highest level, Towson had not taken those risks. LSU is just the fifth Football Bowl Subdivision team it has faced.
Waddell is convinced that Towson players — those on the roster as well as those being recruited to join the team for future years — crave the chance to play against bigger schools.
"I really believe that every kid playing at our level feels they were slighted and passed over, and that they shouldn't have been," he said. "Having a chance to prove themselves, that's a big selling point."
Mike Farrell, a recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, warns that not all exposure is good exposure.
"I don't think there's a benefit to being on television and losing by 70 points," he said. "You expect them to get drummed, but there's got to be something memorable about it. If they can keep it close for a little bit, make it a story, then, yes, it's going to help the school down the line. Young players will recognize it."
Waddell sees an intangible value in playing guarantee games, no matter the outcome.
Towson rarely has played on national television, but Saturday's game was broadcast on ESPNU. National writers and broadcasters mentioned Towson — at least in passing — as they discussed LSU, a national title contender.
Towson did spend more than usual on both guarantee games. The team chartered flights when it usually would either ride a bus or fly commercial.
The Kent State game was played on a Thursday night, and the charter allowed the players to return for Friday classes. Using a charter to fly to Louisiana also made sense, Waddell said, because of how expensive it would have been to ship the players' equipment had they taken a commercial flight.
Waddell also used the trip to woo donors. About 20 traveled with the players, coaches, cheerleaders and administrators.
Still, the school cleared $390,000, which is placed into a general fund. Some of it was earmarked to help pay for a $250,000 renovation of several locker rooms, but private donations also had been set aside for that project.
Towson is by no means the only school that looks to guarantee money to pad the athletic budget.
Coppin State has long helped fund its athletic department through men's basketball. This year, the Eagles will receive $92,500 and $90,000 for games against USC and Texas, respectively, to open the season. During the holiday break, Coppin State will earn $260,000 by traveling to Iowa, Arizona State and Akron.
And coach Fang Mitchell also will take his team to play Indiana — a possible preseason No. 1 — for $90,000. Indiana made an average of $350,000 in ticket sales alone for each of its nonconference home games last year.
On the other side of the checkbook, the University of Maryland would not disclose how much it spends on guarantee games. This year, its football team played — and barely beat — the College of William & Mary. Maryland has also scheduled several home basketball games against smaller schools.
Though Waddell said he has tried not to rely too heavily on guarantee money as he budgets for future years, Towson will have to play them for the forseeable future. The football team travels to Connecticut next year and West Virginia in 2014, earning about $300,000 for each game.
He works closely with coaches to set team schedules, he said, but "every decision we make is about money."
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