FIU struggling to sell Little Caesars Pizza Bowl tickets

Miami (Miami Herald) - Days before Florida International's postseason debut, the athletic department has sold a few hundred tickets to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl -- just a fraction of what is needed to cover its considerable travel expenses.

To the rescue: the oft-maligned Sun Belt Conference, which has bailed out the Golden Panthers with a $300,000 bowl appearance prize, the largest travel stipend awarded to the league's three bowl teams.

While the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl has an announced payout in the hundreds of thousands, a considerable portion of that purse is based on how many tickets the school sells, said Ken Hoffman, the bowl's executive director.

So it is likely that FIU (6-6) -- which faces Toledo (8-4) on Dec. 26 in the program's first bowl game -- would have taken a massive loss on its trip to Detroit, if not for the Sun Belt.

``We're helping FIU,'' said John McElwain, a Sun Belt Conference spokesman. ``We're providing them a bowl appearance that we didn't have before, and we're providing this money. It's important to note that FIU is receiving the most of the three institutions appearing in bowls.''

Conference co-champion Troy, matched up against Ohio in Saturday's New Orleans Bowl, received $250,000 from the Sun Belt. The conference awarded Middle Tennessee State $200,000 for its appearance in the Bowl, held on Jan. 6.

The funding comes from the Sun Belt's share of the nearly $25 million in BCS money awarded to the five non-automatic-qualifying conferences, thanks to Texas Christian's appearance in the Rose Bowl.

The breakdown per bowl-participating team is based on regular-season performance and where each team's game is played and does not necessarily have to be used for travel.

Calls to athletic director Pete Garcia regarding FIU's ticket sales went unreturned Thursday.

However, Garcia had pointed words for the bowl selection process -- and the Sun Belt in particular -- last week when FIU was passed over by the more-favorable New Orleans and bowls and sent to Detroit.

It is believed FIU's inability to travel in significant numbers was the main reason the New Orleans and Bowl in Mobile skipped over the Panthers.

FIU's home attendance, announced and real, surely didn't help its case. Late in the season, the Panthers hosted the biggest two home games in school history, yet played in front of a half-empty FIU Stadium -- which holds 20,000 -- in each.

Hoffman expects a large pro-Toledo crowd at Ford Field, with total attendance numbering between 33,000 and 40,000 -- short of the bowl's average (45,000), but up from 2009's all-time low (30,331).

FIU has sold the fewest tickets of the conference's three bowl teams, and it is believed some of its seats were purchased by local supporters who won't make the trip to Michigan.

The school has organized a chartered trip, which leaves the university the day of the game, and roughly 200 spots have been filled. FIU's goal is to sell 1,000 total tickets by next week.

Even if the Panthers do, they will still fall short of original expectations -- and their conference brethren.

Troy has sold more than 3,000 tickets for the New Orleans Bowl -- more than the Trojans' two previous bowl appearances -- and expects hundreds more fans to buy passes.

Meanwhile, Middle Tennessee has already moved 1,300 tickets for the Bowl, with three weeks still to go.