The Georgia Bulldogs’ opponent in Sanford Stadium on Saturday won’t come cheaply.
Reflecting the fast-escalating price Georgia and other major-college football programs must pay to secure opponents for one-time non-conference home games, the UGA Athletic Association will pay Middle Tennessee $1.7 million to make the trip from Murfreesboro.
» Update: Georgia moves up kick off against MTSU
That will be the most Georgia has paid an opponent to this point to play between the hedges, a record soon to be broken. And it will match the second largest payout to an opponent by any school in the nation this season.
But it reflects the remarkable inflation in what teams in the “Power 5” conferences pay to entice visits from teams in the other FBS leagues.
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It was only six years ago that Georgia paid a visiting team $1 million for the first time, that seven-figure payment to Florida Atlantic drawing sticker shock in 2012. And just last year, Georgia got Appalachian State to come to Athens for $1.25 million.
But now the going rate for such “buy games” moves inexorably toward $2 million.
Georgia’s payment to Middle Tennessee, a member of Conference USA, will be topped next year when UGA will pay Arkansas State, of the Sun Belt Conference, $1.8 million for a game in Sanford Stadium.
And that will be topped in 2022 when Georgia will pay Kent State, of the Mid-American Conference, $1.9 million for a visit.
The price has risen so far so fast because of demand by “Power 5” teams for non-conference home games against FBS-level opponents that don’t require a reciprocal visit to their campus in a subsequent season. The demand for such opponents for specific dates gives leverage to the visitors.
Still, the arrangement works for both parties. The games remain profitable for the home teams because ticket and concession revenue far exceeds the payouts, even after allowing for other game-day expenses. And the payouts can help the visitors make their athletic department budgets.
“I think games like these, a lot of times, are an opportunity for their programs to survive and stay alive,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said this week. “... I'm a big advocate for football in general, and I think that they need these games to survive financially.”
Middle Tennessee has three games this season against SEC East teams -- the first a season-opening 35-7 loss at Vanderbilt and the third a late-season game at Kentucky. The Vanderbilt game paid only $150,000 because it was part of a four-year deal that included two home games for each side. But the Georgia and Kentucky games will generate combined payouts of almost $3 million, representing about 9 percent of Middle Tennessee’s athletics budget.
Georgia also is paying handsomely to two other non-conference opponents this year -- $500,000 to FCS team Austin Peay and $1.5 million to FBS team Massachusetts, the latter as part of a deal that also included a home-and-home basketball series.
The only school making a larger payout to an opponent this season than the $1.7 million Georgia will pay Middle Tennessee is Florida, which will pay Colorado State $2 million for Saturday’s game at The Swamp. That fee was negotiated as part of the settlement of the buyout that coach Jim McElwain owed Colorado State when he left to become Florida’s head coach after the 2014 season. (McElwain and the Gators parted ways last year.)
Georgia’s payment to Middle Tennessee is the same amount that Ohio State will pay Oregon State, Alabama will pay Arkansas State and Auburn will pay Southern Miss for games this season, according to an analysis of contracts by USA Today.
On five occasions under coach Rick Stockstill, Middle Tennessee has beaten “Power 5” teams. The Blue Raiders scored a 30-23 win at Syracuse last season for which they also collected $950,000, a 51-45 win at Missouri in 2016, a 49-28 win at Georgia Tech in 2012 and wins over Maryland in a home-and-home series in 2008 and 2009. But they are 0-15 against ranked teams since moving to the FBS level in 1999 and are a 32-1/2 point underdog against No. 3 Georgia.
“When you play anybody in games like this, you can’t control what they’re going to do. All you can do is control what you do,” Stockstill said this week. “Play to the best of your ability, play as hard as you can, play as tough as you can, and then at the end of the day you look up at the scoreboard and see how you did.”