Fresno State has finalized a deal to play a football game at Alabama in 2017, adding that trip to one the same season to Washington — and both games will ease to some degree a financial crunch stemming from past scheduling decisions.
The Bulldogs averaged more than $1 million in guarantees from nonconference games over the past four seasons and more than $900,000 over the past six, an integral source of revenue for an athletic department that like all in the Mountain West Conference are facing financial pressures to keep up with the escalating costs of college athletics.
But in 2015, with games at Mississippi and Brigham Young, Fresno State is $10,000 in the hole. In 2016, playing at Nebraska and Toledo, the Bulldogs will make a little more than $400,000.
When Fresno State hired Jim Bartko as athletic director last year, the Bulldogs had a few scheduling holes that needed to be addressed but that was the least of the problems.
“We need to net $1 million a year and this year we’re at zero,” Bartko said. “You go from $1.2 million last year to zero this year — and when I say zero that means what we’re getting paid to go to Ole Miss and BYU is the same amount we’re paying Abilene Christian and Utah to come here.
“We can’t have that. For our conference, we have to be around $1 million a year. If we can schedule the next 10 years out, where we know we’re getting a $1 million a year net, then you can budget much easier.”
Bartko has been working to fix that, starting in 2017 where there were open dates available. Fresno State in March signed the deal to play at Washington that will be worth $1 million to the Bulldogs. The game at Alabama will net the Bulldogs a $1.4 million guarantee.
With nonconference home games against Incarnate Word and Brigham Young in 2017, the take that season will be $2 million, which will help offset the lack of guarantee money the upcoming two seasons. Fresno State in 2014 received $1.2 million in guarantees. In 2013 guarantees netted $691,050. In 2012, it was $1.249 million. In 2011, it was $938,900.
The Bulldogs also have agreed in principle to a future home-and-home series with Minnesota and are working deals with several other Power Five conference programs.
All will boost athletic department revenues in an area where they are taking a hit this season and next.
Fresno State will open 2015 against Abeline Christian at Bulldog Stadium, then play the final game of a 2-for-1 series at Mississippi, the second in a home-and-home series with Utah and close out the nonconference schedule with a November game at BYU in the first game of a home-and-home series with the return game in 2017.
The Bulldogs are paying Abeline Christian $360,000 and Utah $300,000 and receiving $400,000 from Mississippi and $250,000 from BYU.
In 2016, the Bulldogs open at Nebraska to end a two-for-one deal, play home games against Sacramento State and Tulsa and their final nonconference game at Toledo as part of a home-and home series. The big money game is at Nebraska, worth $750,000.
The Bulldogs have not fared well lately against Power Five programs, losing last season at USC (52-13), at Utah (59-27) and to Nebraska (55-19). Add in a loss to USC in the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl (45-20), and the Bulldogs have lost their past four games to Power Five programs by a 211-79 margin.
But a loss to a Power Five conference opponent does not preclude the Bulldogs from winning the Mountain West or a spot in a lucrative access bowl in the college football playoff system, which is guaranteed to the highest ranked champion from the Group of Five: the Mountain West, American Athletic, Sun Belt and Mid-American conferences and Conference USA.
Boise State last season won the Mountain West and gained the guaranteed spot into a premier bowl with two losses — the Broncos lost to Mississippi in their season opener in a Chick fil-A kickoff game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta and a conference game at Air Force.
Scheduling programs such as Alabama is just a reality for Mountain West programs, Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter said. Colorado State played there in 2013 for a $1.5 million guarantee. Hawaii this season is playing at Ohio State, Nevada has a game at Texas A&M, San Diego State has games at Penn State and at Cal and San Jose State goes to Auburn.
And the Bulldogs, aspiring to that level, aren’t backing away from any challenges.
“To me, it’s something that makes it exciting in the offseason,” DeRuyter said. “They know, ‘Hey, not only are we competing for a Mountain West championship, we’re also going after some of the best teams in the country be it on the West Coast or wherever.’
“If we continue to develop our program the way we want to develop it, we’d like to think we can compete against those teams. Now, in any given year, those teams might be one of the top 10 teams in the country, and we realize that. But we also want to build to where we can go toe-to-toe with those guys.”
With four nonconference games every season, Fresno State ideally would play two against Top 40-type teams and generate about $1 million a year. This season, the Bulldogs could make some of that money back through an uptick in ticket sales, television bonuses and perhaps bowl revenue if they or another Mountain West team can again earn a spot in an access bowl.
“We’re going to have to go on the road a few times, but we’re going to make a doable schedule,” Bartko said. “We’re not going to just say we’re doing it for a paycheck, either; we’re going to try to win the games, and we can do it.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada