College Football: Why Liberty is paying $1.32 million for Old Dominion game

Liberty agreed to pay Old Dominion $1.32 million to host a 2018 season opener between the schools. Why might the Flames make such an investment?

Liberty, the evangelical Christian university founded by Jerry Falwell in 1971, is bringing the Flames football team up to the FBS level in two years. The school wanted to face a fellow FBS opponent in its first home game at the highest level of college football. And a recent Virginian-Pilot report revealed just how much the Flames had to spend to make that happen. It is worth digging into whether this was a smart deal by the university.

The Flames have an interesting history in their own right. Liberty’s move through the college ranks fits well into the broader history of transitioning upward within college football. The team began playing in the NAIA two years after the university’s founding. After less than a decade, the Flames moved on to the NCAA and Division II status in 1981. By 1989, Liberty had moved up to Division I-AA.

The school played as an independent for more than two decades in the I-AA ranks. When conference affiliation became paramount even in the FCS, the Flames joined the Big South in 2002. Thus, with a schedule that has featured two FBS teams each of the past three years and at least one FBS opponent every year of the 21st century, the move up another level isn’t entirely ridiculous or hasty.

I originally set out to rip into this contract for the school’s fiscal irresponsibility. But then I read through the PDF of the Athletic Competition Agreement for the 2018 home opener between Liberty and Old Dominion. Rather than ridiculing the sum being spent by the Flames to bring the Monarchs to Lynchburg, I’ve turned around to recognize why this is not such a foolish expenditure. So let’s dive in further to look at three reasons why Liberty chose to make this deal.

Sep 17, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; Liberty Flames cheerleaders pray outside the locker room prior to a game against the Southern Methodist Mustangs at Gerald J. Ford Stadium. SMU won 29-14. Mandatory Credit: Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

3. A growing student body is increasing enthusiasm for Flames sports

Since its founding nearly a half-century ago, Liberty University has slowly grown into the largest evangelical Christian university in the world. Last fall, the largest incoming class of freshmen in school history increased the resident population on the Lynchburg campus to around 15,000 undergraduate students. The school also offers academic services to another 6,800 graduate students and more than 100,000 students through its online programs.

Liberty football has nowhere near the history or success rate of a school like Notre Dame or BYU, the other two independent Christian campuses that play at the FBS level. But its enrollment is higher than Notre Dame, and catching up to BYU. It outpaces other religious universities like Baylor, TCU, and SMU in that regard as well.

Bringing a fellow FBS member to Lynchburg for the first home game of the program’s FBS history is not unreasonable for Liberty at any cost. With tuition alone costing the average undergraduate over $22,000 per academic year, the fee being paid to Old Dominion amounts to the annual tuition of fewer than 60 of those incoming freshmen. Helping to legitimize the football program’s status in front of a growing student body is worth the up-front ridicule.

Sep 17, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; Liberty Flames quarterback Stephen Calvert (12) passes against the Southern Methodist Mustangs during the second quarter at Gerald J. Ford Stadium. SMU won 29-14. Mandatory Credit: Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

2. The Flames left plenty of loopholes in the contract

The details in the contract between Liberty and Old Dominion are honestly fairly standard. If anything, the Flames managed to retain plenty in what was really a fair-market deal. The small stipulations in the contract, though, make this especially favorable for Liberty. When the teams meet on September 1 at Williams Stadium, the Flames should have no issue making up the bulk of their expenditure.

Bringing Old Dominion to town pretty much guarantees a sellout. The maximum capacity at Williams Stadium is officially 19,200, though it has seated upwards of 22,000 in the past. The Flames retain all of the ticket revenue from the deal, as is standard with such buyouts. But as an independent, the fact that they also retain all broadcast rights is equally valuable. The school-owned Liberty Flames Sports Network certainly has devoted the resources to improving its broadcast capabilities. How much value there is in trying to syndicate their games nationwide, though, remains to be seen.

They can certainly demand more for syndication rights with an FBS opponent, though. Liberty also conveniently afforded itself an out clause should it manage to land in a conference by 2018. And they also don’t owe Old Dominion the $1.32 million until January 31, 2019, allowing the school to keep accruing interest for five more months on those millions.

Sep 17, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; Liberty Flames running back Frankie Hickson (23) runs past Southern Methodist Mustangs defensive lineman Michael Badejo (7) during a game at Gerald J. Ford Stadium. SMU won 29-14. Mandatory Credit: Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

3. If they didn’t pay an FBS school, they’d have to pay an FCS opponent

The Flames have won eight league titles in the past decade under head coaches Danny Rocco and Turner Gill. Yet Liberty has also made the NCAA football tournament just once, under Gill in 2014, and was bounced by Villanova in the second round. They don’t quite fit the traditional mold of a team making the jump to FBS football. Thus, it was incumbent that they make as big an impact as was feasible in their introduction to the top ranks.

That meant Liberty was going to be spending for an opponent one way or another for its home opener. No FBS program is immune to such an expenditure when trying to set up non-conference games in a given year. Thus, Liberty effectively had three options.

One, it could look the fool and try to court a Power Five school to Lynchburg. There would have been plenty of rejections, most private but some surely getting leaked. If they eventually ended up finding someone to take the bait, it would most likely be a lower-level Power Five program for which they would grossly overpay.

Two, Liberty could pay one of the FCS schools it just left behind to come to Lynchburg. To gain any legitimacy, they couldn’t bring in any mere scrub candidate. The school would probably be left overpaying for the privilege of playing a team like James Madison or Youngstown State. The Flames would probably end up paying to be an underdog on their home turf. A win would offer only limited gains, coming as it would against an FCS opponent, and a loss would do greater damage to their opening campaign.

So Liberty went with the third option, paying to play a Group of Five school at a market rate. The $1.32 million is around what Power Five schools pay Group of Five opponents to visit their stadiums. As a rising power in Conference USA, $1.32 million could even be a bargain if the Monarchs have another double-digit win season.

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