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Gophers to pay $2 million for nonconference football games in 2020. Are they worth it?
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Gophers to pay $2 million for nonconference football games in 2020. Are they worth it?

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The Gophers football program is optimistic — amid the coronavirus pandemic — that it will be able to play Florida Atlantic at TCF Bank Stadium on Sept. 3. If that pans out, it will be an expensive season opener.

The University of Minnesota will pay the smaller Conference USA opponent $1.2 million to play that game. The Gophers also will pay Tennessee Tech $450,000 to visit Minneapolis on Sept. 12, and Brigham Young will receive $300,000 to travel for their road game in Minneapolis on Sept. 26, according to contracts the Pioneer Press received via data records requests this week.

The $1.95 million total cost for these three nonconference games comes as the Gophers are estimating a more than $10 million budget shortfall due to COVID-19 shutting down collegiate sports in March. The Gophers said it had a $123 million overall athletic budget for fiscal year 2020, which ends Tuesday.

When outlining their grim financial picture — which gets much worse without football games being played this fall — Gophers Athletics Director Mark Coyle said in May: “There is no doubt that everything is on the table.”

That includes potentially cutting sports program, but does not appear right now to include backing out of nonconference football games.

“We have run different models and our goal is to play our games as scheduled,” a Minnesota spokesman said in a statement to the Pioneer Press. “This remains fluid and things can change.”

While these three contracts are binding, they are each written differently. And all have clauses for back-door exits.

The contract with FAU says, “if either team fails to appear for the game, that team shall pay to the other team, as its sole and exclusive remedy, a cancellation fee of $750,000.”

If the Gophers backed out, that would be roughly a $450,000 savings.

But if FAU cancels, “it shall forfeit ... the guarantee amount” of $1.2 million. And if both programs agree to back out, “no cancellation fee shall be paid.”

Florida has become a hotspot for the novel coronavirus in recent weeks, nearly doubling a single-day record for positive cases on Friday. And given the rolling nature of the virus, it is unclear which regions of the country could be affected as football season approaches.

As for possible sticker shock on a $1.2 million fee, it is not unheard of for programs from a Power Five conference to pay seven figures to play nonconference games against small schools.

The Gophers entered its deal with FAU in January 2018, and supply and demand is one reason why costs can climb.

“We review completed game contracts with similar terms that have been executed in the time frame that we are negotiating our agreement,” the spokesman said. “If there are more teams that are needing to book games than there are teams available, the guarantee amounts increase.”

For Tennessee Tech, the “damages” section of the contract says: “Unless the parties otherwise mutually agree in writing, if either party fails to comply with the conditions of this agreement for any reason (other than force majeure clause or changes in programs’ NCAA status) the breaching party shall be obligated to pay the non-breaching party $200,000.”

If the Gophers exited this deal under this circumstance, they could save $250,000.

Coming off an historic 11-2 season, the Gophers are on the upswing as a potential Top 25 team to start the 2020 season. They will want to have nonconference tuneup games before their first Big Ten game against Iowa on Sept. 18. The Hawkeyes have beaten Minnesota five straight times since 2014.

The Gophers’ 2020 schedule strength is considered third-easiest in the 14-team Big Ten Conference, according to sportsbettingdime.com. The game against Tennessee Tech, a lower-level Football Championship Subdivision program, contributes to this ranking.

For the BYU game on Sept. 26, the contract is more detailed with it being for a home-and-home series. The Gophers are schedule to go to Provo, Utah, for a nonconference game in September 2025, when the Gophers would receive $300,000 from BYU, an independent program in FBS.

But if the cancellation is due to the active pandemic, things could change. Each contract has, essentially, “force majeure” clauses, which are for unforeseen circumstances that prevent fulfillment of a contract. These are also called “act of God” clauses.

Minnesota’s Office of General Counsel handles the athletic department’s legal affairs, and it is unclear if it has determined if the pandemic could be considered in the “act of God” clauses, a Minnesota spokesman said this week.

The Gophers football team has returned to voluntary offseason workouts on campus in the past two weeks, and along with student-athletes in other sports, they said they will release COVID-19 test results before the end of June.

Meanwhile, other programs have had to do U-turns. After the NCAA mandated programs to return to campus for workouts on June 1, Boise State, Kansas State and Houston are among programs that have had to shut down workouts because of positive tests.

The Patriot League, which has seven football teams at the FCS level, indicated this week that some and maybe all of their nonconference games could be called off. That is a big step with them on the receiving end of six- and seven-figure paydays for games against Power Five schools. Also, a few Division II and III programs have called off football altogether this fall.

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