College football’s regular season ended Saturday, with the various conference championship games closing out a 14-week season. The next day, Sunday, the 35 bowl games sent out their invitations to 70 lucky teams. But when you look a little closer at their bowl offers, you have to wonder if those 70 teams were really that lucky at all.
The people who sell bowl games need us to believe a few things: (1) Their games are rewards for teams that had a great season; (2) They offer players and fans a much-wanted vacation; and (3) The bowls are nonprofits, while the schools make a killing.
These claims are nice – and would be even nicer if any of them they were actually true.
Forty years ago, college football got by with just 11 bowl games. The 22 teams the bowls invited were truly elite, and so were the bowls themselves – like the Orange Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, the Cotton Bowl and The Granddaddy of Them All, the Rose Bowl. Back then, when your team got into a bowl game, you knew they’d done something special.
But in the past four decades, the number of bowls has more than tripled, to a staggering 35. The “bowl season” now stretches almost a full month, which is how many days you need to fit in such timeless classics as The Meineke Car Care Bowl, the Advocare V100 Independence Bowl, and the legendary Taxslayer.com Bowl. How many Taxslayer.coms fit into a bowl? It’s a question only theologians can answer.
To fill this glut of games, the bowls need 70 willing teams. But there are just 124 teams to choose from, and by definition, only 62 are above average. So some bowls have to settle for teams that didn’t finish in the top half of their sport – let alone their conferences. This year, 13 bowl teams don’t even have winning records.
When your team gets into a bowl game today, you know they… must not be on probation.
What used to be a special trip to be savored is now a chore to be completed. I’ve talked to hundreds of players, who’ve told me if they’re not going to one of the best bowls, they would rather skip the 15 mandatory practices, and the trip to Shreveport, or Boise, or Detroit, and stay home for the holidays.
The fans apparently feel the same way. Very few bowls sell all their seats, and more than a third of them draw fewer than 40,000 fans. You can fire a canon in those stadiums, then go find the canon ball and fire it again, and still not hit anybody.
This is all silly excess, but it crosses the line into corruption when you look at the bowls’ finances. The bowls are officially nonprofit, and they want you to believe it’s the schools they invite that are making out like bandits. But the only ones not profiting are the schools, their players, and the bands, which often have to pay for their seats before providing free half-time entertainment.
No, it’s the bowls themselves that make the money – and the coaches and athletic directors who receive bonuses for dragging their teams to these games.
Here’s how the bowl scam works: The schools have to pay for their flights, hotels and meals – which adds up to real money pretty fast when you start counting the hundreds of players, coaches, staffers, university VIPs and band members they bring. Then the bowls force them to buy tens of thousands of tickets they couldn’t give away if they tried.
And all that sets up the final outrage: According to Dan Wetzel, Josh Peter and Jeff Passan’s authoritative book, “Death to the BCS,” which includes the best reporting on this subject I’ve seen, because the bowls can pick their guests from a number of different schools, they can take advantage of the schools’ irrational desire to play in a post-season game, by making them negotiate against each other for a coveted invitation. And this results in schools agreeing to accept less and less of the advertised payout, all the way down to nothing. And that is exactly what the Motor City Bowl actually paid Florida Atlantic in 2009. Shameless.
Only half the teams lose their bowl games, of course – but almost all of them lose their shirts going to them.
All this is bad enough, but right when you think it couldn’t get worse, here you go: the men in the gaudy blazers who run these “nonprofit” bowls walk off with solid six-figure salaries – all for setting up one game a year, that no one wants to play in, or watch.
How do you fix this mess? Simple: Prohibit the practice of forcing schools to buy tickets they don’t want. (If the NCAA can prohibit schools from letting their student-athletes put cream cheese on a bagel for breakfast, they can prohibit this.) Second, make the bowls actually pay the schools exactly what they proudly announce they’re paying them. And while we’re at it: make the bowls pay for the schools’ travel expenses, too.
If the bowls decide it’s still worth it – and the better ones will – great. Everybody wins, just like the old days.
But if they don’t – and the lesser ones won’t – they’re free to close shop, and end the charade.
They won’t be missed.
About the writer: John U. Bacon is the author of “Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football” – both national bestsellers. His upcoming book, “Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,” will be published by Simon & Schuster in September 2013. You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at johnubacon.com.
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