Future of huge field is in doubt
TV money, sponsors are propping up many of the 35 bowl games.
College football’s postseason spreads a lot of joy during the holidays. Instead of one winner, 35 teams and their fans go home happy.
With the sport sprinting toward a true four-team playoff to cap the 2014 season, though, bowl executives wonder if there will still be 35 games a few years from now.
Bowls continue to pack an economic wallop, but television ratings and attendance are sagging. The overall TV numbers dropped 15 percent last season from 2010-11. Ticket sales fell 2.5 percent in 2010-11 and have slid 8 percent over the past decade.
The impending playoff figures to widen the gap between games with broad appeal and ones of limited interest.
“I would think that some of those bowls might be reduced, ones that are struggling,” said Cotton Bowl chairman Tommy Bain, whose game is likely to make the playoff rotation.
About a month ago, ESPN signed a 12-year deal for media rights to the bowls that will make up the playoff system. Citing industry sources, Sports Business Journal pegged the deal’s annual cost to ESPN at $500 million. Given that figure, Bain wonders how much money TV networks, bowl sponsors and advertisers can continue to spend on 35 other bowls.
“Or maybe it becomes
25 others,” Bain said. “I think we could see the number reduced. We’re focused on being a (playoff) host bowl. We’ve averaged over 83,000 (fans) the last three or four games, with strong TV ratings.”
Bain said the Cotton Bowl already had sold 65,000 to 70,000 tickets by June, before Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel had even won the quarterback job at Texas A&M, which will play Oklahoma in the Jan. 4 game. Cowboys Stadium, site of the Cotton Bowl, seats approximately 80,000 fans but can be expanded to accommodate 100,000.
Mark Holtzman, executive director of the 3year-old Pinstripe Bowl in Yankee Stadium, says his game, which will match West Virginia and Syracuse on Dec. 29, is gaining “pretty good traction” in a crowded field, yet acknowledges the challenges for midlevel bowls.
“There could always be shrinkage,” Holtzman said. “These games are so reliant on corporate sponsorships. And you need attractive matchups for local support. At what level do you say teams have had a successful season? Is 6-6 successful? Are there enough teams that people want to see?”
Twelve 6-6 teams made the postseason lineup, and there’s even one 67 club, Georgia Tech, playing Southern California in the Sun Bowl on New Year’s Eve in El Paso.
Ticket sales remain sluggish this bowl season. Toledo sold 300 tickets for the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, Nevada about 900 for the New Mexico Bowl. Even Big Ten teams, known for their fans’ willingness to travel, aren’t selling tickets. Minnesota, Michigan State and Purdue each peddled between 2,000 and 2,800 tickets, and Nebraska has sold just 4,000 for a New Year’s Day game in warm and sunny Orlando, Fla.
A lot of schools are steeply discounting their tickets or just plain giving them away, as Northern Illinois is doing for students up for an Orange Bowl excursion.
You can find some bowl seats for as low as $1 on StubHub.
Even some BCS invitees are hurting. Florida State has sold only 5,000 tickets for the Orange Bowl.
Last year, conferences and schools were on the hook to bowls for nearly $21 million in unsold tickets, according to USA Today.
A bigger concern is empty seats. Some bowls’ live gates are barely half of their announced attendances.
Officials at lower-tier bowls “don’t even believe the (attendance) numbers they give you,” a BCS bowl executive told the American-Statesman. “They’re counting the tickets schools contractually are forced to buy. If they had to sell tickets, we’d probably have 15 bowl games. But that’s not financial reality. You’ve got TV money and sponsorships propping them up.”
And that’s why the number of bowls might not diminish much, if at all, under a four-team playoff.
They’re relatively inexpensive programming, and even the diminishing ratings still beat those of anything else ESPN could show in their place.
“As long as Marshall vs. Central Florida gets a bigger TV rating on a Tuesday than the Knicks and Celtics, there will be minor bowl games,” the BCS bowl exec said. “ESPN is underwriting the entire system. If you took the TV money out of the bowls, 90 percent of them would collapse overnight. They don’t have enough community support.
“Nobody is losing money on bowl games. Now, some schools lose money on specific trips, but their costs are underwritten by their leagues.
“I think as long as ESPN continues to fund the postseason, there will be games. It’s programming.”
ESPN/ABC telecasts 33 of 35 bowls — lacking only the Cotton (Fox) and Sun (CBS) — and the partnered networks have even gotten into the ownership business, operating seven games, including Houston’s Meineke Car Care Bowl.
“Bowls are bid on in a highly competitive marketplace and consistently provide us with our two highest-rated weeks of TV,” said ESPN college sports spokeswoman Keri Potts.
“We cannot speculate on how bowls will be affected by the new system. The games we do own are stable business for us.”
What concerns many bowl enthusiasts is if the four-team playoff leads to an eight- or 16-team field, will fans and sponsors keep throwing their money at second- and third-tier bowl games?
“I don’t see contraction as long as it stays at four,” a Texas bowl official said, “but the bigger you make it, the more focus will be on it and the less on the other games. Plus, the more playoff teams you have, the unhappier the fans of programs that don’t make it (become). Maybe they won’t travel to follow an 8-4 or 7-5 team.”
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops concurred.
“The four-team playoff makes sense,” Stoops said, “but we’ve got to protect a bowl system that’s been very good for college football. The way it is now, a lot of people are rewarded at the end of the year, and I like that.”