Fu­ture of huge field is in doubt

TV money, spon­sors are prop­ping up many of the 35 bowl games.

Austin American-Statesman - - SPORTS - By Kevin Lyt­tle and Kirk Bohls klyt­tle@states­man.com kbohls@states­man.com

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.”

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