At least, enough for Mercer athletics director Jim Cole to stray from his “business plan” of scheduling one FBS school each year for Mercer football. The money isn’t the only reason, just a big one.
In 2017, the Bears will play two Southeastern Conference opponents for a payday of over $1 million: Auburn (Sept. 16) and Alabama (Nov. 18). Mercer’s athletics department will receive a $450,000 check from Auburn and $600,000 from Alabama.
Cole said these “money games” don’t only help the football program, but they help the department as a whole supplement its budget.
“Those paydays are very nice, and we’ve figured them into our business plan of how to meet the budget and keep moving the whole athletics department forward,” Cole said. “We’ve been able to use a lot of it to just offset normal increase in operating costs. The biggest thing is we just have a rainy day fund now that we can have there in case there are special projects come up, like if one of our teams makes the NCAA tournament, and we want to send a bunch of fans.”
Those SEC outings will be the next installment of FBS games for Mercer, who played its first FBS opponent, Georgia Tech, on Sept. 10. The matchup netted the athletic department $300,000.
More games are already scheduled in the future: the Bears will travel to Memphis in 2018, the University of North Carolina in 2019, Vanderbilt in 2020, Alabama again in 2021 and Ole Miss in 2023.
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But money isn’t the only advantage to playing FBS opponents. Both Cole and head coach Bobby Lamb said the publicity of playing those teams is beneficial for Mercer athletics.
“The publicity you get from playing a school like Alabama or an Auburn or a Georgia Tech certainly helps in recruiting,” Lamb said.
Cole said the idea is to increase the exposure of the university, and once the team reached the full 63 scholarships allowed at the FCS level, it could schedule FBS opponents.
“When you play those type teams, it signifies now that you are at that highest level of football,” Cole said. “As we’ve progressed with scholarship football and joining the Southern Conference, that was one of our goals — was to then let people know, ‘Hey, we have all the scholarships allotted.’”
And letting people know about Mercer fell largely on the shoulders of associate athletics director Daniel Tate, whom Cole and Lamb said was responsible for scheduling these games. Cole said they look to schedule teams in the Southeast in order to limit traveling expenses.
Lamb said playing teams in the Southeast is ideal because of the fan experience and effect on recruiting.
“Your fans can get to the trip; the Georgia Tech experience was incredible for our fans and our players,” Lamb said. “And then we recruit in the southeastern United States, so it doesn’t do us any good to go play California or Michigan State or people like that.”
From a department’s perspective, Cole said there is no downside to scheduling FBS opponents. Other Mercer teams already play what Cole referred to as “money games,” such as men’s basketball, who will play the University of Florida, Clemson and Auburn in 2016-17. But these games don’t net nearly as much for Mercer, Cole said.
Lamb said that while injuries are always a concern, the opportunity for his players to compete against opponents at the highest level is special.
“All of our players dream of going to those places, and because God’s given them a certain height or a certain [40-yard dash] time, a certain bench press [or] a certain weight, they may not fit the mold at those schools,” Lamb said. “However, they get one shot a year — and obviously this team is going to get two shots next year — of playing at that level. It’s a great test for them to certainly have a moment in the sun, which they’ve got that opportunity to do.”
Correction: A previous version of the "Monetary Details" sidebar in this article incorrectly stated that Mercer would receive $1,500,000 from playing Auburn and Alabama in 2017. The Cluster regrets this error.