Can college football bowls be great again?
George Schroeder , USA TODAY
SAN ANTONIO — The gimmick was lighthearted, intended to season a message with humor. In all caps and a very basic font, the bright red ball caps shouted:
MAKE BOWLS GREAT AGAIN
Go ahead. Even in today’s hyper-charged climate, it’s OK to chuckle. It was just Wright Waters’ way of having a little fun while making a point. He had a dozen caps made to hand out to NCAA staffers and members of the Football Bowl Association’s executive committee at the organization’s annual meeting earlier this month.
But the underlying premise — well, that’s something more serious.
“We’re at a critical time with the bowls,” says Waters, the FBA’s executive director.
Attendance and TV ratings were down slightly in 2016 — though both of those might simply be an extension of the declines seen for all of college football and similarly in other sports, as well. Sponsorships are becoming harder to land and to keep. Tickets are more difficult to sell. One bowl (the Poinsettia) was shuttered last winter, while another (the Miami Beach Bowl) is moving from Florida to Texas.
But the biggest shock wave to run through the system might have come last December, when standout running backs Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey chose to sit out the Citrus Bowl and the Sun Bowl, respectively. Both players had been injured during the regular season. Both had the support of their coaches when they decided not to play, saying they were instead focusing on their professional future. On Thursday, both players were among the top eight picks in the NFL Draft.
Their decisions, while controversial at the time, sparked a phrase that causes those in the bowl industry to fume: Their defenders said McCaffrey and Fournette (and Baylor running back Shock Linwood, too) were skipping “meaningless bowls.”
“The term ticks me off,” says Bill Hancock, executive director of the College Football Playoff, “because those bowls are not meaningless for those players.”
That’s likely correct for the vast majority of players and teams. According to the results of an in-house survey commissioned by the FBA, 84 percent of players who participated in bowl games during the last three years reported a positive experience. And anecdotally, it seems bowl games remain an important part of the college football calendar, both for schools and their fans.
But it’s also clear that college football’s zeitgeist has changed. There’s been a narrowing of focus on the very top of the sport. It did not begin with the advent of the College Football Playoff — like for so many other things, the credit or blame for the change begins with the Bowl Championship Series — but the four-team tournament has undoubtedly impacted the bowl system. It’s not perhaps measurable, except as a contributor to the other statistics. But for many — most — the overarching narrative in college football has become a top-down endeavor. From the first kickoff on the opening weekend, the prism is the Playoff.
Never mind that only four teams get there, or that for the vast majority of programs, the Playoff is a distant dream. It seems like everyone’s focus, all season long — which makes non-Playoff bowls in some cases feel like consolation prizes to some teams. To a public looking forward to determining a national champion, those other bowls are often seen as afterthoughts.
“We kind of created this trend,” Alabama’s Nick Saban told ESPN in December. “I said as soon as we had a playoff, we were going to minimize the importance of all the other bowl games. I’m not saying whether it’s good or bad, it kind of is what it is.”
But the Playoff might not be all that’s ailing the other bowls.
“I do think there has been attention shifted to those semifinals and the championship,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey says. “That’s in a way undeniable. I don’t think that’s been the primary detraction from other postseason games.”
Too many games?
The primary detraction might simply be all the other postseason games. The number of bowls has doubled in 20 years, from 20 in 1997 to 40 last season. There were myriad reasons, including the desire to find slots for every bowl-eligible team — meaning a .500 record when college football moved to a 12-game regular season — and the opportunity for more live TV programming during the previously slack time period of December.
“At one time, it was a competitive thing,” Waters says. “But now it’s pretty much become a birthright. If you’re 6-6, you go (to a bowl).”
And now, you might even go at 5-7 — three teams did just that after the 2015 season, and two more in 2016. They were needed because there weren’t enough 6-6 teams to fill all 80 bowl slots. Some have floated the idea of raising the standard for bowl eligibility to 7-5, or at least ending the practice of granting waivers for 5-7 teams. Others say the number of bowls must decrease. But neither idea may be a realistic option.
Either would cause a potential chain reaction. Which bowls would be left without teams, or be told they couldn’t put on a game? And perhaps more troubling to college football’s powerbrokers: Which teams would be left out? Telling a 6-6 team it’s not going to a bowl (especially if some of its 6-6 peers did) isn’t something a conference commissioner ever wants to do.
“We’re not looking to have 5-7 teams in bowl games,” says the SEC’s Sankey, but he adds: “For the SEC, 6-6 teams having access to bowl games is important to our conference.”
An NCAA moratorium prevents new bowls from being added to the postseason lineup, but it’s scheduled to end after the 2019 season — and Waters says groups in several cities continue to express serious interest in joining the club. The NCAA’s Football Competition Committee is working to determine whether and how to change the standards for bowl certification, which were loosened several years ago.
For 2017, the number of bowls will drop to 39 after the Holiday Bowl officials decided a couple of months back to end the Poinsettia Bowl’s 12-year run. Executive director Mark Neville said putting on two bowls in a week was a challenging task, and that the decision was made to focus on the older, more prestigious Holiday Bowl. But sponsorship issues certainly also played a role.
As the San Diego County Credit Union sponsored the Poinsettia Bowl throughout its run, the Holiday Bowl went through several sponsors. In March, the Holiday Bowl announced the San Diego County Credit Union as its new title sponsor.
Meanwhile, the Independence Bowl, which was one of the first bowls to add a title sponsor, is without one after Camping World pulled out in January, midway through a four-year deal (a couple of weeks ago, Camping World was named as the new title sponsor for the Orlando bowl game previously known as the Russell Athletic Bowl; which is played in the venue already known as Camping World Stadium).
“There’s a lot of competition out there for sponsors,” Neville says, “not only for bowl games but for entertainment in general.”
There’s no easy fix — in part because the bowl system is not made up of homogeneous events. The size and scope varies greatly from the top of the food chain, with the New Year’s Six bowls that rotate as semifinal hosts in the College Football Playoff, all the way to those pre-Christmas bowls matching teams from Group of Five conferences.
“Appalachian State playing in Montgomery (in the Camellia Bowl) has a whole different look and feel and objective than Alabama playing in the national championship,” Waters notes. “To try to compare those situations … I don’t know that it’s legitimate.”
The sale of the Miami Beach Bowl and its move to the Dallas suburb of Frisco, Texas, is illustrative of the new reality. The original bowls were local operations designed to provide a civic boost. ESPN, which purchased the bowl from the American Athletic Conference, now owns and operates 13 bowls. Professional sports franchises own four others.
“Our model is not as standard as it was 20 years ago,” Waters says, “so trying to find one size that fits all becomes more and more difficult.”
If one size doesn’t fit all, one solution wouldn’t, either — and that’s assuming even that solutions are entirely necessary. In the bigger picture, the bowls’ situation isn’t necessarily dire.
Attendance decreased 4.5% in 2016 from a year earlier. But it’s a vexing issue at all levels of sport. TV ratings for bowls other than the New Year’s Six were down 22%t in 2016, but the average bowl game still drew ratings better than regular-season NBA games. College football on TV in December remains a good draw.
Some of the challenges are the same as they’ve always been. Bowls need compelling matchups and, when possible, good geographic fits. They do best with hungry teams. Sometimes they get all of the above. Sometimes they get none. But other things are definitely different.
“We’re still trying to figure out the new world and the impact of the College Football Playoff,” Waters says. “The Sugar Bowl had a four-loss team (Auburn) for the first time since 1939. That’s different. But the strength of the bowls has been their ability to adjust. I’m confident they’ll adjust to this environment, too.”
Will more players skip bowls? Probably. The NFL Draft results for Fournette and McCaffrey will encourage others to do the same. But even if it becomes a trend, it will likely be limited to sure first-round picks. Bernie Olivas, the executive director of the Sun Bowl, said he was disappointed not to have McCaffrey playing in El Paso when Stanford met North Carolina, but understood the decision.
“I know he has a career to look forward to, and he’d been hurt,” Olivas says. “I just hope it doesn’t become a trend — and (if it does) where is it going to stop? Does it stop at bowl games, or when a team is out of the championship race in conferences?”
Hancock noted that McCaffrey and Fournette might simply have made public an occasional practice that’s not necessarily new.
“I don’t think we know whether injuries to players that knocked them out of bowl games 20 years ago were ‘wink-wink’ injuries,” he says. “We don’t know that.”
But if so, the players’ decision to go public with the real reason for not playing simply illustrates the issue. Bowls are not seen as the same reward as they once were. But that might be OK.
“We’re not deciding whether things are good or bad,” Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin says. “We’re talking about degrees of good. But things have changed. Not every situation is gonna be like it was 30 years ago when there were 15 bowls and it was really unique to get to go to a bowl. I hate the phrase, ‘watered down,’ but it has become much more commonplace — but that may not be a bad thing.”