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For Vandals, guarantee games a necessary evil

MOSCOW, Idaho – Today isn’t the first time Idaho has served as a schedule-filler for one of college football’s glamour programs. The Vandals collected huge sums of cash after playing at USC, Nebraska and Louisiana State, and they’re in line for even more lucrative payouts the next two seasons.

But this afternoon’s game has a different feel. Idaho tangles with No. 2 Florida State (12:30 p.m., ESPNU), which has steamrolled its first 10 opponents by an average of 41.6 points.

The Seminoles have a clear path to the national championship game, and they have uber-talented quarterback Jameis Winston, a Heisman Trophy candidate.

For downtrodden UI fans, this might be the most cringe-inducing money game the Vandals have scheduled in their 18 seasons in the NCAA’s highest division for football. Sure, the Vandals (1-9) are netting a school-record $950,000 from FSU. But is a big check worth playing as a 57-point underdog on national TV?

To Idaho athletic director Rob Spear, the answer is clear. Although he’d prefer to schedule less-accomplished power-conference teams – not ones in the thick of the national title race in late November – traveling to big venues for monster payouts is the reality for low-rung Football Bowl Subdivision teams like Idaho.

First-year coach Paul Petrino also understands why these games are a necessity.

“That’s what helps pay for all the other programs,” he said last month, before Idaho played at Mississippi for $850,000. “You need a couple of ’em a year to help pay your budget. So if we’re just going to be flat-out honest, that’s the most important thing.”

They’re even more important with Idaho’s other primary revenue sources shrinking.

This week Spear gave The Spokesman-Review a detailed overview of the athletic department’s budget and where money games like today’s fit in. The numbers he shared paint a stark picture.

Game guarantees account for 20 percent of UI’s athletic revenue in the 2014 fiscal year (which began July 1). Three years ago, they made up just 8 percent of the total.

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There are several reasons why Spear calls this an abnormal year for the department that he has run for the last decade. With it clear that the Western Athletic Conference would no longer be a viable option for the Vandals football program, Spear looked elsewhere last year.

The problem was, Idaho had no FBS conference options for 2013. It debated moving all sports to the Big Sky Conference, where UI would have competed at the Football Championship Subdivision level, but Spear and then-president Duane Nellis stuck to an FBS plan.

In October 2012, they announced Idaho would play as an FBS independent in 2013 and move all other sports to the Big Sky in 2014-2015. Five months later, the Sun Belt Conference offered Idaho a football-only membership starting in 2014, which the Vandals accepted.

Even before then, UI’s revenue streams were shifting. The Vandals had opted to play the 2012 football season in the already-ravaged WAC so that they could glean their portion of buyouts that schools had to pay to the conference when they left.

That move nearly doubled Idaho’s conference revenue (a category that also includes NCAA and tournament money) from the 2012 to 2013 fiscal years. Yet as an independent, Idaho’s conference revenue has dried up – from $2.9 million last year to an estimated $875,580 in fiscal year 2014.

Spear pointed to other cuts as well. State-appropriated funds went down from 2008 to 2009 and have only recently started to increase. Separate gender equity funds, also distributed by the state, have been slashed from $1.6 million in fiscal year 2011 to an estimated $961,600 in 2014.

Meanwhile, Idaho’s scholarship costs have jumped by nearly $1 million since 2008 because of escalating tuition, Spear said.

“How am I going to make up that revenue?” he said. “Football game guarantees go up because I have to offset these declining revenue sources.”

Idaho will generate just over $3 million in football payouts this year, the majority from the FSU, Ole Miss and Washington State games. Game guarantee revenue across all sports, $3.17 million, is 20 percent of the department’s nearly $16 million budget.

That’s a huge jump from 2008 to 2011, when guarantees accounted for 7 to 8 percent of revenue each year.

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Sitting at his desk in the Kibbie Dome, Spear took stock of the quality teams the Vandals have played this year. He couldn’t help but laugh at how the schedule has turned out.

Northern Illinois and Fresno State are unbeaten. Ole Miss, an SEC team, has seven wins. North Texas, Arkansas State and Texas State are bowl eligible, and Washington State will be so if it beats Utah today.

It’s been a much more treacherous slate than Spear anticipated.

“Everybody was better than we thought,” he said. “Wyoming was better than we thought. Northern Illinois, even though I thought we played a very good football game (against them), as we expect to do against MAC schools, they’re a good outfit.”

Florida State was the 12th and final school to agree to play the Vandals, and Spear said he “had to take the game” to fill out the schedule.

About $200,000 of the $950,000 payout will go to travel expenses for this game alone. The remaining $750,000, he said, will go back into football operations, while also helping keep the department afloat.

But what about future years? Spear said whether Idaho plays one or two power-conference teams per season will depend on whether the Sun Belt stays at eight conference games per year or goes to nine conference games. He prefers nine league games and three nonconference games, with two against BCS-level teams and one against an FCS team.

Next season, Florida will pay Idaho $975,000 to play in Gainesville. And in 2015, Idaho will earn $1.1 million for a trip to USC and $1 million from Auburn.

“My biggest concern is finances, it’s how we continue to fund this program,” Spear said. “We have to be smart about it, given the constraints we have.”

Still, he said Idaho must weigh the financial benefits of playing multiple money games with trying to field a winning team.

“No question you need to balance out the competitiveness aspect with the financial aspect,” he said.

“But historically, from a physical standpoint, I think we have less injuries playing against the bigger schools than we do against other schools. My theory is you’re playing against some great athletes that get themselves out of bad positions that sometimes can get your guys hurt.”

Spear knocked on his wood desk as he talked about injuries. But then he mentioned what to him is a bigger worry: the potential damage to the psyche of UI players after another grueling game against top-tier competition.

It’s on his mind, and likely every other Idaho fan’s, too.