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College football loves cupcakes too much to quit ‘em

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North Dakota State thanks you for your money and your cowering flesh

Wide receiver Scott McCluney #17 and punter Kyle Nalley #39 of the Old Dominion Monarchs celebrate during the closing moments of the game against the Virginia Tech Hokies at S. B. Ballard Stadium on September 22, 2018 in Norfolk, Virginia.
Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

Last week, in the space of 24 hours, both the SEC and Pac-12, arguably the two most ideologically and functionally disparate of the Power 5 conferences, announced their intent to play 10-game, intra-league football schedules, in an effort to manage the COVID-19 crisis.

Almost immediately, The Discourse began to toy with the idea of a conference or P5-only future for scheduling, that the death of the “cupcake” or “bodybag” game was nigh.

That won’t happen without monumental change in the sport’s economics. Cupcake games aren’t in danger of dying off — in fact, in between these announcements, Conference USA member Old Dominion announced it would play at South Carolina on August 31, 2024, for a one-time fee of $1.5 million. Right in the middle of the most uncertainty this sport has faced since World War II, a SEC school cranked out a seven figure payday to a C-USA school two states away to come play dead on an opening weekend.

These games serve multiple purposes for FBS and FCS college football, but their perception suffers because none of those functions are particularly entertaining.

Let me pause here to establish terms: We’re not discussing all non-conference games between P5s and non-P5s. To paint with that broad a brush would discount the clearly visible gradient between sub-.500 FCS teams losing to a SEC program on SoCon Saturday, and say, a Memphis program with a history of ruining your day or the national identity of schools like Georgia Southern and Boise State. More and more G5 teams are signing one-and-one and two-and-one contracts with P5’s.

We’re speaking here of the games the uninformed fan and the disaffected snob see no value in: The FCS or low-tier G5 team limping into the maw of a national title contender or established brand. They’re goofy looking pockmarks in every schedule, and they’re not going any-damn-where:

  • They make money for schools. It’s another home game, stupid. That means ticket, concessions and merchandise revenue, advertising dollars for stadium signage, campus parking fees, and all that other stuff. From a sales perspective, a cupcake game has no downside — it increases the number of overall home games in a season ticket package. That’s it, on-field product be damned.

A few years ago, one administrator even admitted to me that their school was aware how many tickets for their FCS game flooded into the secondary market. The athletic department didn’t see that revenue, but they considered it a positive, because cheaper Stubhub seats drew lower-income fans to an event they’d normally be priced out of. The school considered this “additional brand exposure,” like a coupon night.

  • They make money for surrounding businesses. I can source myself here: I was a bartender in a SEC town. Yes, your average weekend take for a conference game is greater than a homecoming game versus Charleston Southern, but what you make on homecoming is still far, far better than any non-football weekend. And in bars and restaurants, it’s possible to make more money on a homecoming weekend when the game kicks off in daylight hours. Big conference night games eat into Saturday night crowds. (Disclosure: I went to Ole Miss in the Cutcliffe era. Jefferson Pilot start times helped make me money.)
  • They fill inventory for television deals. The SEC Network airs 45 live football games a season, including every SEC home game versus an FCS opponent and almost every home game versus a G5 (some are moved to other ESPN networks). Just a reminder: The SEC’s rights deal with Disney/ESPN is worth $2.25 billion.

If it was up to Bristol, Alabama would play a full conference slate and every directional Louisiana until February. SoCon Saturday would last a full month. I’m not saying ESPN doesn’t help to create quality P5 non-conference games. They do! But they’re just as happy to be selling ads for a 55-point Florida win over SELA.

  • They serve practical football needs for coaches and players. I’ve seen this in person, multiple times. You’re probably most familiar with how funny it sounds when Nick Saban loses his shit on the media (which is actually him messaging to his players and staff) during the weeks Alabama plays an Arkansas State or a Western Kentucky. Coaches love to measure effort and focus when the stakes are manipulated. It’s the “tin horn” comment from Saban about Georgia Southern’s run game that multiple coaches told me actually paid off in the national title game vs. LSU that year.

On the opposing sidelines, over the years I’ve spoken with many FCS players who built their draft resumes on film against P5 schools. The benefit for FCS and low-tier G5 coaches is obvious, as well: not only does a solid performance or upset build their resume, but they earn cache in piecemeal ways if a particular play call or formation finds success (this is acknowledged when another P5 steals it outright), or a particular unit is “coached up” to the point they void the difference in size and athleticism against them.

But that concept also gives us Maine scoring nine points in a win at Mississippi State and Northern Illinois celebrating Mike Riley’s contract extension at Nebraska and Jacksonville State killing Houston Nutt’s career and Louisiana-Monroe using a two-QB formation to upset Arkansas and the rest of the country discovering Portland has a football team and the ongoing murder spree of North Dakota State, America’s favorite Killer Cupcake. Even the concept of SoCon Saturday, a term of derision, is actually fun if you know how to look at it.

If nothing else, cupcakes are gambling against bad odds. It’s more likely that a Top 50 FBS program slowly dismantles a physically and financially inferior team over a sleepy three hours than some apeshit viral media moment. But when said moment happens, we rally to the agony and ecstasy of those defied odds with fervor and celebration, the style of which is unique to — and therefore to be cherished by — our sport.