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Stop judging UConn by Fiesta Bowl ticket sales

With Big 12 expansion coming down to the wire, many are using UConn's ticket sales to the 2011 Fiesta Bowl as an argument against the school. They might be surprised to hear how other schools have fared financially in big bowl games over the years.

Jordan Todman stiff arms an Oklahoma defender while making a run during the 2011 Fiesta Bowl.
Jordan Todman stiff arms an Oklahoma defender while making a run during the 2011 Fiesta Bowl.
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Conference realignment is the worst. We've been dealing with it in some capacity for more than five years, but as UConn officials are set to meet with the Big 12 in Dallas today, we could finally be nearing the promised land - or potentially another crushing disappointment.

So before we get to that, before the Big 12 makes its decision, I'd like to address something that's been on my mind. There have been a lot of arguments tossed our way about why UConn is or isn't a good fit for the Big 12 - some decent, others ridiculous - but there is one that I've started hearing more regularly in the last week that really drives me crazy.

It usually goes something like this: "Oooh UConn only sold, like, 3,000 tickets to the Fiesta Bowl, some fanbase you have! #fartsound"

I get it. UConn football has had attendance issues over the last couple of years. The team hasn't been very good, and neither have the opponents, but still, ticket sales could be better. If you want to hold that against UConn, fine, it's a reasonable criticism and one the school has taken steps to address.

But to argue that the Fiesta Bowl ticket sales and the resulting financial losses are some kind of indictment on UConn specifically, and not a failure of the Bowl Championship Series system itself, is ignorant at best and deceitful at worst.

Trust me. I would know.

So now that you've all convinced me to come out of blog retirement, here we go. For those of you who see that ticket number and assume the worst, let me explain a couple of things:

  • One, under the old BCS system, all schools were contractually obligated to buy a certain number of tickets. The exact number varied, but the average between 2010 and 2012 was 18,711 per school. At the 2011 Fiesta Bowl, UConn and Oklahoma were both required to buy 17,500 tickets each.
  • Two: No school between 2010 and 2012 sold all of their tickets. Not one. Even Alabama and LSU, who were playing within a short driving distance of their respective campuses in the 2012 BCS Championship Game in New Orleans, wound up with a more than a thousand unsold tickets each. If there were ever a situation where a school would sell out its tickets, this would have been it.
  • Three: When schools sold their tickets, they did so at prices that would have allowed them to make most of their money back. For instance, UConn's cheapest tickets went for $111 and the most expensive were $268. But if you were a fan who was already looking at an $800 cross-country flight from Connecticut to Arizona and probably a couple hundred more for a hotel, why would you pay those kind of prices for tickets when you could pick them up for $20 or less on Stubhub? The fact that UConn had such a long trip to the Fiesta Bowl, as opposed to the Orange Bowl or the Sugar Bowl, didn't help much either, and UCF ran into similar problems when it went to the Fiesta Bowl in 2013. These are some of the main reasons why UConn was only able to sell 2,771 of its 17,500 tickets.

This whole arrangement was a scam, specifically engineered to protect the bowls from losses at the expense of the universities who participated. And let's be clear about something else, UConn lost a lot of money at the Fiesta Bowl - $1,757,798 to be exact - but so did almost everyone else who participated, and those who didn't were usually bailed out by their conferences.

Let's start with Oklahoma, UConn's opponent in the Fiesta Bowl. Oklahoma didn't fare much better with its ticket sales than UConn, selling only 5,567 tickets. Factoring in its other expenses, Oklahoma would have been in line for an even bigger loss than UConn, coming out at $1,874,900.

BUT! The difference between UConn and Oklahoma is that the Big 12 had a policy of reimbursing schools for a certain number of unsold tickets, while the Big East did not. As a result, the Big 12 ate 10,400 unsold Oklahoma tickets worth $1,884,250, allowing the Sooners to make out with a profit of $9,350. Meanwhile, UConn took a bath and got all the bad press as a result.

For the record, there were a hell of a lot more than 3,000 UConn fans and 6,000 Oklahoma fans in Arizona. I wouldn't feel comfortable making an estimate but there was definitely a pretty sizeable contingent of UConn fans, probably more than I would have guessed there'd be going in.

So that's the 2011 Fiesta Bowl, but what about some of the other games? Well, I mentioned the 2012 BCS Championship Game earlier, and I think that's worth looking at in greater detail, just because of how hilarious some of the numbers are.

Would you guess that Alabama lost more money at the BCS Championship Game than UConn did at the Fiesta Bowl? Because they did. Alabama - the greatest college football dynasty of the 21st century - lost $1,931,599 playing in a national championship game played a short four-hour drive from its campus. LSU, by the way, also lost $1,086,201, and they were barely over an hour away.

Alabama also lost $1,866,231 two years earlier at the 2010 BCS National Championship, and Auburn lost $614,106 playing in the 2011 title game. Incredible, huh? There are plenty other examples from every other conference down the list too.

Do you ever hear fans from other SEC schools giving Alabama, Auburn or LSU fans a hard time about this? No! Of course not! That would be crazy! Even if opposing fans did know about these numbers, they wouldn't hold them against them. That's because opposing fans know these schools, they recognize their history, and when they see these kinds of financial losses, they recognize that the system is the problem, not the school.

Unfortunately, UConn hasn't been playing FBS football long enough to build that same level of respect. So when UConn loses a bunch of money at the Fiesta Bowl, it's because the program is weak and the fans don't care, not because the BCS itself was a money-sucking disaster.

This has been the narrative UConn has been trying to fight all along. UConn's Fiesta Bowl trip came only eight years after the program made the jump from Division 1-AA, and you would think that would be cause for celebration, something that people around the country would recognize as a great story.

Instead, UConn was almost immediately lambasted as some kind of interloper, and when the Huskies lost to Oklahoma, it almost seemed as though some observers were ready to hold the Fiesta Bowl against the program, rather than treat it as the incredible success story it was.

Given everything that has happened since the Fiesta Bowl, it seems wrong that the trip could be looked at as anything other than an achievement the program should be proud of. It's always frustrated me that when those ticket stories were published, so many people immediately rushed to blame the school when the system was so obviously the problem. (Thankfully, things have improved some since the College Football Playoff replaced the BCS, at least in theory).

UConn hasn't done itself any favors since then to improve its image, but the opportunity is still there, and if the school is able to get into a Power Five conference - either the Big 12 now or the ACC/Big 10 later - it will have an opportunity to build up a resume against programs people respect. The narrative won't change until that happens, winning in the American will help, but only so much.

So as this current round of conference realignment reaches its conclusion, I expect we'll hear every hot take under the sun until a decision is reached. And honestly, that's fine. As long as the arguments are well thought out and people acknowledge the many great things UConn brings to the table, I don't care who you think will end up in the Big 12.

But for God sakes, can we please give the damn Fiesta Bowl ticket argument a rest?

Mac Cerullo is a staff writer for The Eagle-Tribune in Massachusetts. He worked at The Daily Campus at UConn from 2008-12, covering football and men's basketball in 2011, and contributed to The UConn Blog for a while after graduating before work got in the way.