Each December as the world rejoices around the holiday season, college football programs, fans and corporate sponsors alike begin to celebrate another time of year: bowl season.
The 2016 slate of postseason games was one of record proportions, featuring a total of 41 bowl matchups (including the National Championship). This is more than double the amount of bowls that existed just 20 years ago; in 1995 there were only 18 postseason contests. Nowadays, games are played all over the map from the Bahamas to Hawaii, and sponsors are changing on a regular basis (you can test your knowledge of this year’s title sponsors here).
So, why are there so many games?
“I don’t know if there’s too many or not enough,” said St. Petersburg Bowl executive director Brett Dulaney in a December article in the Tampa Bay Times. “Here’s what I know: I know there wouldn’t be that many bowl games if communities couldn’t support them.”
The communities in which these games are set certainly look forward to the extra bump in tourism and spending each year associated with each team’s fanbase that makes a vacation out of their alma mater’s postseason berth. Additionally, live broadcasts of each game allow millions of viewers to catch a glimpse of what different host cities have to offer, potentially leading other visitors their way in the future.
For players, it’s about all of the hard work put into each year paying off. Nothing quite caps a football season like getting free swag, a trip to a unique location and a chance to hoist a trophy and give the head coach a Gatorade shower. It can also be especially valuable for upperclassmen looking to showcase their skills and make a statement to scouts before the NFL Draft.
Coaches, too, reap the rewards of postseason play. From sending off the senior class with a meaningful victory, to extra practice reps with lowerclassmen, the bowl experience can prove extremely valuable to the program’s future success. Not to mention the national television exposure, a huge recruiting tool for coaches trying to convince the best up-and-coming talent to pick their school.
As for corporate sponsors, the value in buying the naming rights to a sporting event like a college football bowl game is generally agreed upon. “You can’t watch the game for a couple of minutes without seeing the logo,” said a former FedEx VP of marketing.
Couple that with the fact that even the lower tier bowls are getting ratings “more than most of NBA programming,” as told to Forbes by Peach Bowl, Inc. President & CEO Gary Stokan. This makes the hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars corporations spend each year to have their names associated with these games worthwhile. Those kind of ratings also benefit companies like ESPN, who are able to sell advertising at a premium.
Yes, there are plenty of pros. Now let’s look at a few of the cons:
More bowl games means there are more participants needed – 80 teams, to be exact. This makes up a whopping 62.5% of the country’s 128 bowl eligible programs. Normally, only teams with a .500 record (6-6) or better are permitted to the postseason; however, only 77 programs finished with such a record this season, forcing the field to expand to add three 5-7 teams.
Although every bowl typically receives above-average television viewership, diminishing the product to feature teams having won less than half of their regular season games may also have had an effect on the bowl season’s biggest games. This year’s College Football Playoff semifinals saw interest decline and ratings plummet compared to last year’s numbers. Even the National Championship game, a 45-40 thriller between powerhouses Alabama and Clemson, experienced a significant decrease in viewership, according to the SportsBusiness Journal’s John Ourand:
From a different perspective, the schools participating in these games can even suffer at the expense of earning a bowl bid, literally. Each school is allotted a certain number of tickets to the bowl game which they are selected to, and are forced to pay for any tickets that go unsold. In 2011, the University of Connecticut lost more than $1.6 million as a result of one of the greatest seasons in the school’s history. Ticket distributors like StubHub have made this an increasingly difficult problem, as fans have an avenue to purchase significantly cheaper tickets than their university has to offer. Although measures have been taken by conferences to prevent their schools from suffering large financial losses, it is still recognized, as stated by Mid-American Conference Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher, “bowls are not money-making operations” for the schools involved and rather more widely recognized as a potential branding opportunity.
Of course, there is always the unknown when it comes to playing an extra game to end the year. That high-end NFL Draft prospect that scouts have their eyes on could suffer a potential career-altering injury – in this year’s Fiesta Bowl, Notre Dame linebacker and 2015 Butkus Award winner Jaylon Smith suffered a torn ACL and MCL. Smith is among several players to have their draft stock decline, and potentially cost them millions of dollars at the next level.
The potential for bowl games to bring networks revenue and continue to provide widespread exposure for brands and communities will likely mean that the number of bowls will continue to be high, and possibly even increase in the years to come. However, there are warning signs indicating that the success of college football’s postseason could be threatened by the sheer number of parties involved. It is an interesting discussion that we at Intrepid look forward to following for years to come.