With SEC football moving to conference-only schedule, millions in guaranteed payments in limbo

With the Southeastern Conference joining the Big Ten and Pac-12 in moving to a conference-only schedule in 2020, tens of millions in guaranteed payments are now in doubt for Group of Five schools.

In 36 SEC home games that had not already been canceled for which USA TODAY Sports was able to obtain contracts, the total payouts were set to total just over $35 million. Six of those games had a guarantee of more than $1.5 million, with Auburn’s $1.9 million to UMass and $1.85 million to Southern Mississippi topping the charts.

Kent State, which had already lost $1.5 million for a game against Penn State after the Big Ten went conference-only, could potentially lose $3.5 million more with canceled games against Kentucky and Alabama. According to the university’s most recently available financial report to the NCAA, $5 million is 17% of its total operating revenue for fiscal 2019.

Sun Belt teams are also hit hard.

In eight games where a Sun Belt team was set to visit an SEC team, the guarantees totaled $10.95 million, with no single payout below $1.2 million. The University of Louisiana Monroe was slated to receive $3.15 million for games against Georgia and Arkansas.

Asked on Thursday whether he was already prepared to walk away from that money, ULM athletics director Scott McDonald said: "Absolutely not."

He added that he is "waiting to hear something official from each of those schools and begin discussions about what this means.”

Asked whether his department will have to operate for now under the presumption that it will not receive those payouts, McDonald said, "No, I don't think so at all. I think just the opposite.

BREAKING IT DOWN: How much can Ole Miss save without non-conference football schedule?

"I think once we have a chance to have those discussions, at least officially, then we can see where we are. But we're prepared to fulfill our contractual obligations. And so we'll see what their position is. … I'm confident that we'll sit down and have productive discussions.”

ULM had $15.6 million in total athletics operating revenue for fiscal 2019, according to its most recent financial report to the NCAA, which USA TODAY Sports obtained this winter in partnership with Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. That total is one of the smallest for a Bowl Subdivision public school.

ULM's agreements for games against Georgia and Arkansas include provisions calling for discussions about rescheduling, but the agreements also could mean neither Georgia nor Arkansas will have any financial obligation because of the reason the games are being canceled. 

Four SEC teams would have also received multi-million dollar third-party payouts for neutral-site games: Auburn $5 million for playing North Carolina; Georgia $4.25 million for playing Virginia; LSU $3.5 million for playing Rice, and Mississippi $2.75 million for playing Baylor.

Cancellation doesn’t necessarily mean SEC teams will get out of paying the guarantees. Each individual contract dictates what does and does not merit a cancellation fee, but many SEC teams have clauses in their contracts that could allow them to avoid paying.

For instance, Florida’s contracts with New Mexico State, South Alabama and Eastern Washington – with guarantees totaling nearly $3.5 million – say that the agreement can be voided by order of a prohibitory body, which includes the SEC.

Additionally, Kentucky’s contract with Eastern Michigan states that the game can be canceled without penalty “in the event that either party’s member conference changes its scheduling requirements,” as long as both teams try in good faith to reschedule the game in the next two years.

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