The numbers grow every year: 35 bowl games, 70 teams — the morphing of what was once a New Year's Day tradition into one that kicks off in mid-December and finishes closer to Martin Luther King Day than Jan. 1.
And if those bowl-season stats seem bloated, try this: Ohio State and Alabama each spend more than $31 million a year to run their football programs, while nine other teams closing out the season at one of those 35 bowl games spend $20 million plus.
The cheapest bowl-bound program? That would be Troy, winner of the New Orleans Bowl on the first postseason weekend, at just a shade over $5 million. That's nearly $23 million less than they spend an hour away at top-ranked Auburn, where the Tigers are playing for the national title this season. Auburn's opponent in the BCS game, Oregon, spends $18 million — 16th among the bowl-bound schools.
The statistics come from the Department of Education, which has required universities to submit the amount they spend on sports since 2000 as part of the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act. With that information, the Equity in Athletics Data Analysis Cutting Tool was created. And while the database comes with disclaimers and caveats stating that there are no hard-and-fast guidelines as to what schools count under the term "expenses" and "revenue," these are the numbers they report to the federal government.
After OSU ($31.7 million) and 'Bama ($31.1 million), the rest of top five biggest spenders include Notre Dame, Auburn and LSU, according to the database. Most schools' figures were for the fiscal year that ended June 30.
Broken down on a per-student basis, the Irish spend the most, the database says. Their trip to the Sun Bowl is coming at a price of $3,531 for each of Notre Dame's 8,351 undergraduates — an overall budget of $29.4 million — while TCU spends $2,822 per student to run its Rose Bowl-bound football program.
For all the money they fork out, at least the TCUs and LSUs of the world are going somewhere this season. Texas, last year's national runner-up, spent $25.1 million and is sitting home for New Year's after going 5-7.
Boise State, meanwhile, looks like a bargain. The underdog Broncos stayed in contention for the national title all year with a program that spends a fraction of what the big boys do. The tab: $6.85 million for an average of $564 a student for a program that ended up winning the MAACO Bowl this year.
While football also brings in millions, the spending on the sport has given plenty of ammunition to critics of big-time college sports.
"It's a sad commentary given the general conditions out there: 10 percent unemployment, economic stagnation," said Tom Palaima, the University of Texas' representative on the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, a group that believes spending on sports has gotten out of hand. "You look at $1,500 per capita (at Auburn), that's a large outlay. I just don't see how it can be justified given that most of the revenues will still end up on the sports side of the ledger."
Indeed, the common refrain among many successful football programs is that they are self-sustaining. In fact, all but three of the bowl-bound programs reported operating at even or in the black.
In most cases, that allows the football programs — most commonly the biggest money makers in athletic programs — to support all the other sports, which in many cases operate at a loss. In cases where there's more money left over, some of that is often given to the university, which can use it wherever the need is greatest.
The Texas athletic program boasts that it sends back an average of around $1.5 million a year to the school. Its football program netted a whopping $68 million in the 12-month period ending Aug. 31.
At Florida, football spent $24.4 million and brought in $68.7 million for a net profit of $44.2 million. The program will give $6 million to the university in the 2010-11 fiscal year to bring the total to $61.1 million since 1990.
"At this place, your main revenue source is football, so you're going to spend money necessary to sustain a successful football program," Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley said. "If we go from playing in front of 90,000 people to playing in front of 60,000 people, you're talking about cutting sports, scholarships, personnel, and nobody wants to see that happen."
But Foley said the benefits of a successful sports program go beyond merely money. Sports help spread the word about the University of Florida, which has grown in stature nationwide over the past two decades — a timeframe that coincides with the arrival of Steve Spurrier as coach and the rise of a once-troubled football program. (Not coincidentally, it's also when the athletic program started giving money to the school.)
"Athletics is a big window," Foley said. "It provides a look into the institution. If someone's viewing the University of Florida and looking at a great athletic program, it enhances the way people view the institution and that's all good."
Critics, meanwhile, respond that big-time college football programs wouldn't have anywhere near the drawing power — and would be little more than money-losing minor-league teams — without the name recognition and fan base the universities and their alumni provide.
Not surprisingly, teams from the automatic-bid BCS conferences spend the most on football, with the Southeastern Conference, which has the best TV deal, leading the way. Six of the 10 highest overall spenders on the list were from the SEC.
Presumably, football programs around the country should have roughly the same list of expenses: 85 scholarships, weight rooms and training tables, travel budgets and coaches' salaries. The gap between the most expensive and least was a big one, however — more than $25 million — and there's no doubt you will see a difference between the weight rooms at Troy and those at Ohio State.
"If you need a nice weight room to attract a top athlete, you're going to do that, but you need that weight room to help that athlete get better, too," Foley said. "If you have to spend money to pay a coach like Urban Meyer, you're going to do that, too. You've got to spend money to make money. It doesn't just happen."
Oregon professor Nathan Tublitz, the former co-chair at Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, said the calculation he favors divides the amount spent on any given sport by the number of players in that sport. At Oregon, he lumped them all together and found the athletic program has a $75 million annual budget and 500 scholarship students, for an average of about $150,000 per athlete per year. Meantime, the average cost of education for an in-state student runs about $20,000 per year.
That says something about the priorities at an institution that's supposed to be more about learning and research than touchdowns and wild uniforms, Tublitz believes.
He's glad for the success Oregon's football team is enjoying this season, but wonders if this kind of money should be spent on what is essentially entertainment, especially in a bad economy.
"There is no justification for spending over $150,000 per football player per year when the rest of the student body is struggling to register for classes and to pay for books, tuition and living expenses," he said. "There is a delicate equilibrium between academics and athletics, and our university, like most other big time athletic universities, have lost that balance."
AP Special Projects Manager John Parsons contributed to this story.