Bowling Green athletic director Bob Moosbrugger was caught off-guard Thursday when he received a phone call from Gene Smith, his counterpart at Ohio State.
Smith had some bad news: The Big Ten was adopting a conference-only schedule for fall sports, leading to the cancellation of their teams’ season-opening football game.
Like most college administrators, Moosbrugger had not expected a decision of this magnitude to be reached until later this summer.
"The surprise was how early it was," he said.
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Canceled football games leave ripple effects throughout the college athletics industry, but especially at Bowling Green and other schools within the Mid-American Conference that rely heavily on the guarantee payouts accompanying one-off contests.
A review from USA TODAY Sports found that MAC schools, including three in Ohio, had been owed a combined $10.5 million from Big Ten teams for games that had previously been scheduled this fall.
Bowling Green had been in line to receive $1.2 million from Ohio State, along with another $1 million for visiting Illinois two weeks later, according to copies of the game contracts. Buffalo, which was scheduled to face the Buckeyes in Columbus later in September, was set to see $1.8 million.
The payments are significant in order for smaller athletic departments to balance their books.
BGSU’s athletic department maintains a $25.7 million budget, according to figures it reported last fall to the U.S. Department of Education, leaving the potential for a sizable hole after the two Big Ten matchups were canceled. The guarantee games promised a combined $2.2 million in revenues, accounting for nearly 10% of its budget.
"When you’re working with the budget that we have, margins are tight, and they’re tight for a lot of universities, so these are important, no question," Moosbrugger said.
"It certainly is something that we’re going to have to work through, and we will, but now we’re trying to figure out how we’re going to play sports in the fall and keep everybody safe. But the finances are clearly there, and we’ll continue to work to try to mitigate the losses."
Guarantee games have been a fixture on Bowling Green’s schedule for the past decade. In seven of the past eight seasons, at least two of the Falcons’ four nonconference football games have been played against schools from the Power Five conferences, netting seven-figure payments.
It remains undetermined if the school will lose out on this season’s guarantee payouts from the Big Ten schools. A provision in the game contracts allows for them to be canceled without any financial penalty if it is due to a range of disasters beyond the control of either party, including strikes, riots or war.
Will the surging coronavirus pandemic count? The issue likely will be sorted out between the general counsels of the schools.
Illinois could see more success in invoking the clause known as force majeure — or the "act of God" clause. The list of disasters in its contract with BGSU explicitly mentions epidemics, while Ohio State’s version makes no reference.
Moosbrugger also raised the possibility of rescheduling the game with Ohio State, a topic of conversation with Smith when they spoke Thursday. He mentioned they were looking forward to the matchup with the powerhouse Buckeyes. Thirty-nine players on BG’s roster are from Ohio.
"We recruit Ohio heavily, and it is a game that our student-athletes look forward to," Moosbrugger said, "so we want to keep this relationship."
Buffalo held similar anticipation of venturing to Ohio Stadium and hopes to reschedule the game.
In a statement, athletic director Mark Alnutt referenced an eye-popping performance in 2013 in Ohio Stadium by all-American Bulls linebacker Khalil Mack, who had 9½ tackles, 2½ sacks and an interception in a loss to Ohio State.
"It vaulted him into the national spotlight," Alnutt said. "We were looking forward to having that opportunity again to showcase our program nationally."
The potential financial ramifications of the canceled nonconference games are difficult to ignore. Moosbrugger said his athletic department at Bowling Green already eliminated seven staff positions as cost-saving measures, and the gravest step came in May when the school cut the baseball program as part of an effort to reduce $2 million from its operating budget.
It was a particularly sobering decision for Moosbrugger, an alum who played baseball for the Falcons in the early 1990s.
But it also led to a glimmer of hope. The baseball program got a bailout from its alumni, and through a series of donations it was reinstated by June.
"There’s always the flip side of cutting expenses, which we absolutely have to do," Moosbrugger said. "And we have to be good stewards of our money, but we are asking a number of alumni to support us.
"It’s not lost on me that everybody’s been affected by the financial crisis of the pandemic, but there are people that have the wherewithal to support our program, and now’s the time more than ever."