On the Beat: Should UGA keep lucrative nonconference games in Georgia?

Georgia-Sony Michel-Georgia Southern
It took a Sony Michel touchdown run in overtime for Georgia to beat Georgia Southern in 2015.

ATHENS – When Appalachian State travels to Georgia to open the 2017 football season, the visiting school will leave with a $1.25 million payment. Two weeks later, Samford will walk away from Sanford Stadium with $500,000.

That’s small change compared to the following two years: Four smaller schools have signed deals to rake in a combined $5.5 million for playing at Georgia.

That’s a lot of money. And it’s not staying in the state of Georgia.

Unless you count the annual Georgia Tech rivalry, for which the schools exchange travel and other small reimbursements, UGA is not scheduled to play another in-state team at any point in the future. Even Georgia Southern, five times a visitor to Sanford Stadium this century, is on the outs.

But Georgia has been in talks with Kent State about a future game, in which the payout to Kent State would be nearly $2 million. That’s according to Georgia Southern athletics director Tom Kleinlein, who was Kent State’s associate athletics director until 2012. Kent State officials say they could not confirm anything.

“I’m not devaluing Kent State. But you’re paying them [a] significant amount of money and they’re probably not going to have 100 fans there,” Kleinlein said. “I’m going to bring 15,000 people with me. From a business economic decision plan, playing me rather than bringing in somebody from outside the state makes more sense.”

‘Our first and foremost goal would be to play in Georgia’

UGA would hardly be unique in looking outside its borders first: Alabama has not scheduled an in-state team other than Auburn since 1944. The reasons for that are ambiguous, as Al.com put it last month.

Whatever the reason, Alabama athletics director Greg Byrne, who took over in Tuscaloosa this year, made it clear last month he would continue that policy. Auburn, on the other hand, has pursued a game with Alabama-Birmingham.

There was no response from Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity to a question about this subject. In the past he has pointed to the difficulty of scheduling as a whole, especially making dates fit.

That’s the vibe that Mercer athletics director Jim Cole has gotten when he’s discussed scheduling with Georgia. He said he has not been told that UGA is reluctant to play in-state schools.

“Our first and foremost goal would be to play in Georgia, just due to our alumni base. We always reach out to the state schools,” Cole said. “With Georgia, we just never really could figure it out. Nobody ever told us, ‘No, we’re not playing you.’ We just couldn’t figure the dates out. So we just move on.”

Georgia State officials also seem optimistic that a deal with UGA can be worked out eventually.

“We’ve talked some about scheduling, and I’m sure we will play in the future,” Georgia State athletics director Charlie Cobb said via text message. “When and where hasn’t been discussed at length.”

Mercer, which restarted its program several years ago, played Georgia Tech last year. This year Mercer plays Auburn and Alabama, and has scheduled games against Vanderbilt (2019), North Carolina (2020), Alabama again (2021) and Ole Miss (2022).

As a private school, Mercer doesn’t have to release the amount of the payout it gets from those games. But Cole indicated that the standard payout UGA is giving FCS opponents – $500,000 – is at or close to what Mercer is getting. These paydays help all FCS schools.

“Sometimes it helps you balance the books,” Cole said. “Sometimes it does help provide you with extra resources that you wouldn’t normally be able to tackle.”

‘It’s a very complex deal’

Georgia Southern has seven games against Power 5 teams scheduled over the next five years, including Auburn and Clemson. They’re all on the road — as far away as Minnesota, Indiana and Arkansas — and all will bring big paydays to the Statesboro school.

So in the end, when it comes to money leaving the state — what UGA isn’t paying to in-state schools — those schools are making anyway from other schools. So it seemingly all evens out in the end, although Georgia Southern’s Kleinlein pointed out that he would take less to play Georgia, considering the travel difference.

Ultimately, though, the question of these in-state games might just be the desire to play them.

“I want our alumni to be able to participate,” said Cole, whose said he tries to keep things within driving distance for the Mercer faithful. The longest travel is to games at Ole Miss, Memphis and Vanderbilt.

Georgia Southern wants that, too, but it might have become a victim of its own success. The Eagles beat Florida three years ago and took Georgia to overtime in 2015.

Then again, Kleinlein said he hasn’t had trouble finding opponents. Big programs still generate millions for their school and their town every time they play at home. UGA is no different. And if schools want those games, there are only a certain amount of other FBS schools in the pool to schedule.

“It’s a very complex deal,” Kleinlein said. “I’ve used this line: It’s kind of like going to a prom. There’s a bunch of people who want to go to the prom, but you’ve got to have somebody go with you. I want to play a lot of people, our fans want me to play a lot of people. But I’ve got to have somebody that wants to play us.”

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