MISSOULA — College basketball guaranteed money games have long been a way for low- and mid-major teams to help offset costs accrued by their programs.
Recently, some, including Iona head coach Rick Pitino and Stadium national basketball writer Jeff Goodman, have suggested all non-conference games should be canceled due to the pandemic.
There's a moral argument to be had against playing any games outside of conference opponents. It's also a deeply complex issue on the financial side for many teams across the country.
At the University of Montana, these games — colloquially called "buy games" — have been used for travel expenses and coaching salaries. Grizzly head coach Travis DeCuire is contractually obligated to generate at least $86,000 from guaranteed games.
Assuming Montana plays its four guaranteed non-conference games this year, it'll pull in $255,000 for playing USC, Georgia, Washington and Arizona, down from the $355,000 it got from buy games a season ago.
In DeCuire’s contact, the first $86,000 from the guaranteed games goes back to the University of Montana athletic department.
“They’re important financially,” Montana athletic director Kent Haslam told the Missoulian and 406mtsports.com on Wednesday. “They cover the costs for travel, which is what that primarily helps us with.”
If DeCuire secures buy games beyond the $86,000, it's written into his contract that he receives the next $120,000, his assistants get the next $30,000 following that, split as a bonus, and then the next $100,000 beyond that goes back to DeCuire.
The next $15,000 will be split among the assistant coaches, and any more guaranteed game money after that goes back to UM.
This year, assuming contests are held, UM will get $86,0000, DeCuire will be entitled to $139,000 and his assistant coaches will split $30,000. UM and DeCuire also have the ability to mutually agree to change distributions if they so desire.
The UM men's basketball team had $2.5 million in expenses during fiscal year 2019, about 11% of the athletic department's $22.1 million in total expenses, and $1.9 million in revenue, about 8% of the total revenue of $23.4 million.
Those guaranteed games help offset some of those men's basketball expenses, even if it's a relatively small amount.
Buy games this year have had their value depressed by the pandemic, and many schools that normally use guaranteed games for a larger portion of their revenue are limited in what they can do. Some of this is due to the expected lack of fans in many arenas and the fact many small conferences don't have large television deals, a major revenue point for high-major conferences.
“Those games aren't paying as much, guarantee-wise, as they would in the past,” DeCuire said Wednesday. “Most teams that need guarantees for budget issues need more than they would have needed in the past.”
With a shortened season and with the number of games capped at 25 (unless a school is in a multi-team tournament, in which case they can have a maximum of 27 scheduled contests) it allows for far fewer non-conference games than normally would be scheduled.
DeCuire laid out an example.
“Let's say there's a school out there that plays five of those games,” he said. “It needs to bring in, you know, $300,000-400,000 a year, then they're going to need to play 10 or 11 of those games to bring in those types of dollars now, so it just doesn't solve that issue.”
Montana played five guaranteed games in which it received payouts last year to go along with six other non-conference contests. Montana paid $95,000 to play in the Collegiate Hoops Roadshow last year according to MTN Sports, which gave the Grizzlies games against Arkansas, Coppin State and Texas Southern.
Those type of games simply aren't happening this season, though Montana is in a place where the lack of games isn't nearly as harmful as it'll be for other programs.
“For us, it's not really as a financial solution for us, it's the only games we can play,” DeCuire said. “We can't get anyone to come play us. We lost the home-and-home games. Most of the teams at our level that would be a home and home are trying to play bus games.
“And most of the teams, if they're willing to get on a plane, it's probably for a guarantee.”
That said, losing those non-conference guaranteed games would still hurt, and other teams in the Big Sky are worried, too. The Missoulian and 406mtsports.com reached out to several low- and mid-major basketball programs, including fellow Big Sky school Eastern Washington.
“From EWU’s standpoint, it is a significant impact both from a monetary standpoint and from exposure via TV networks that broadcast those games,” an EWU official responded in a statement. “Obviously, there is a loss in both respects from a non-Covid year to our current situation of currently having on our schedule Oregon, Washington State, UNLV and Saint Mary’s. The impact is made even more significant if any or all of those games are taken away.”
The opposing side to much of the debate over having these types of games during a pandemic that has now sickened over 11.6 million people and killed over 250,000 in the United States alone, is that any travel for athletic events is an unnecessary risk.
This isn't something college athletic directors and coaches across the country are ignoring or taking lightly. Montana has had 418 cases on campus, and some student-athletes have either caught the virus or been quarantined due to contact tracing following exposure.
When asked if there's any anxiety over sending student-athletes to compete in events in other parts of the country, Haslam responded that indeed there is.
“Yeah, oh yeah … our women’s team heads off to Utah State, our men’s team is on the road, this is the first time we’ve sent student-athletes out since March,” Haslam said. “It’s been a long time. But we’ve seen how other schools and conferences have managed this. We know a lot more about it now. Testing is far better.”
DeCuire mentioned plenty of protocols are in place, even small things like not buying food in airports and having correct masks and goggles on plane rides. Few, if any, places are particularly safe right now, and that was a point the Montana head coach brought up.
“The reality is that it’s been hard to manage just right here in this college town, in terms of places you may or may not go or places you should or should not go,” DeCuire said. “COVID is being passed around pretty easily in some of those locations. And so I think you get to a point where a lot of these young men feel like they might get it anyway, and a lot of them had it.”
When asked about some of the challenges of travelling, DeCuire added: “Because the part of me that doesn't want to travel, I wish we could charter everywhere like some of these teams are going to be doing. I wish our conference could afford to have an emergency helicopter ready to transport people or a plane, a charter plane that can transport a positive case that's on the road and that can't get back. You know, I wish we had all those things available to us that would make more sense of it, but they're not.”
Like the NCAA men’s basketball tournament — which, if canceled again, would deal a massive blow to every school in the athletics union — non-conference guaranteed games will go on because revenue is needed, despite the numerous disparities between higher-echelon teams and everyone else.
“The way that college basketball, especially men's basketball, works is the teams that are able to buy those games, buy those games and don't do a return on the back end,” Haslam said. “So that's just kind of reality we live in.”