SAN FRANCISCO, CA - DECEMBER 31: The Illinois Fighting Illini celebrate with the trophy after they beat the UCLA Bruins in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl at AT&T Park on December 31, 2011 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
A five-step plan for fixing college football's bowl season.
Over the past decade or so, college bowl games have been multiplying faster than chain drugstores, foreclosed homes or terrible young-adult vampire fiction. I used to be OK with this (the bowl part, at least). Sure, the addition of another obscure (and, in many cases, goofily-named) bowl to the schedule might dilute the prestige of the bowl season somewhat, but that seemed like a small price to pay for a bunch of kids at an upstart program to potentially get a shot at a nationally televised postseason game they'd never have been able to play in before. And hey, football is football -- particularly toward the end of the season, when we're all staring down the barrel of eight long months without college ball, any game, no matter how meaningless, is to be treasured.
But I think this season was finally the point where I decided enough was enough and the bowl system had gotten out of control. This change of heart resulted from two separate developments. First, the UCLA Bruins got a waiver to accept a bowl invite despite falling to a losing record after getting blown out in the Pac-12 championship game. Then I read a report about how many schools are incurring losses just to attend bowl games, and it's not just the upstart programs making long trips to attend low-payout bowls, either -- even a perennially wealthy program such as Clemson, in the mega-payout Orange Bowl, stands to lose as much as $200,000 this bowl season.
Paradoxically, the greater number of bowl opportunities has created a worse deal for the teams themselves. The fact is, many bowls have practically turned into ATMs for well-connected civic and business leaders. It's not like any Tom, Dick or Harry can throw together a bowl game, but if you can line up a venue, a corporate sponsor and at least one conference who's willing to send a team, you're on your way. Which means you can earn a six- (or seven-) figure salary for working two, maybe three months out of the year to plan a single game. You're practically assured of getting a hefty check from ESPN for the broadcast rights -- heck, they'll even set up the game for you in some cases -- and any extra money you want, you can squeeze out of the teams you invite by forcing them to buy huge blocks of tickets at full price.
It's a bit misty-eyed and nostalgic to sigh "The bowls used to mean something," but it is a bit sad to see bowl games, which used to be rewards for high-achieving teams, become a big financial obligation athletic departments feel like they can't turn down. If I had the power to reform this situation, there are five big changes I'd make -- a couple of them mostly cosmetic efforts to restore some dignity to the system, but a few of them more substantial ways to take the emphasis off corporate bottom lines and put it back on the players, where it belongs.
1. Teams must have winning records against FBS opponents. No exceptions. It used to be you needed six wins against top-division opponents to be bowl-eligible. Then the NCAA let you count an FCS opponent once every few years. Now, as long as you can cobble together six wins against somebody, you're practically assured of getting a bowl invite. (And as we saw with UCLA this year, it doesn't even matter if you have a winning record anymore.)
Part of the reason organizers can be so cavalier about throwing together new bowls is because they know there will be enough eligible teams -- and even if there aren't, the NCAA will likely bail them out by allowing teams with losing records. But if the pool of available teams shrank, folks might be a lot more circumspect about adding yet another bowl to an already overstuffed slate. And some of the cash-in Johnny-come-lately bowls might die quiet, unlamented deaths.
2. Bowls cannot require universities to purchase more tickets than they can sell. This is one of the biggies. Three years ago, Western Michigan received an invite to the Texas Bowl, at the time only the fourth such invite the program had received in its history. What should've been a happy milestone for the Broncos turned sour, though, when the Texas Bowl required WMU to purchase 11,000 tickets at full price. The Broncos only sold 548 -- and had to eat the rest, at a cost of more than $410,000.
Bowls are business ventures, and nobody's forcing the bowl organizers to set them up. So they shouldn't get to unload the responsibility of selling tickets onto educational institutions. The schools should only have to sell as many tickets as there's a demand for, and the rest should be the bowl's problem. Subjecting bowls to the same laws of supply and demand that every other business has to follow would be another factor inspiring organizations to think twice before they attempt to cash in with a new bowl game.
3. Bowls have to cover a percentage of the teams' travel and lodging expenses. It's one thing for a powerhouse program to invite a lower-tier team over for a certain bloodletting; at least the gimme opponent is being compensated to the tune of a few hundred thousand dollars for their services. But no team should ever have to pay to accept an invitation to a game -- and that's effectively what happens when a team ends up paying more just to attend a bowl than they earn in payout. Bowls shouldn't be on the hook for the entire cost of a program's travel -- that'd be an open invitation for athletic departments to abuse the system, bringing along everyone from the coaches' nieces and nephews to the fourth-string marimba players in the marching band -- but if bowls can afford to pay their executives hundreds of thousands of dollars for a couple months of work, they can certainly afford to help defray the cost of bowl attendance for the players and coaches.
4. Bowls can have title sponsors, but the name has to include a cash crop or some kind of local resource. I'll admit, this is more window dressing than anything else, but you can't tell me it wouldn't dignify the proceedings a little if teams didn't have to accept bids to something called the "GoDaddy.com Bowl." And keep in mind, I say this as one of the biggest fans of Chick-fil-A's products who's ever lived, but I liked their bowl game a lot more when it was the "Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl" and not just the "Chick-fil-A Bowl." Come on, guys, this is supposed to be about more than corporate marketing. At least throw a Tangerine or a Pineapple or a Sunflower or something in there to at least give these kids the illusion they're playing in something more than a glorified advertisement.
5. No more bowl games in baseball stadiums. Nobody involved in the organization of the NCAA basketball tournament ever said, "Hey, guys, let's shake things up a little and hold the regional semifinals in hockey rinks." So I have no idea why shoehorning bowl games into baseball diamonds is a thing now. Put these games on standard rectangular fields so that nobody has to share a sideline with an opponent and nobody has to worry about cracking any cervical vertebrae as they crash into a wall situated directly at the back of the end zone.
This may be a wish list for a better, more meaningful bowl season, but it's not wishful thinking, except to the extent it would take to get the NCAA to move on any of these items. As the organization with final responsibility for certifying any new bowl game, the NCAA could issue a decree tomorrow saying, "Follow these rules or we won't certify your game." So far, of course, they haven't. Maybe one of these days they'll put the integrity of the game and the welfare of the programs and players ahead of their corporate partners' profits. If even one school was freed from the burden of paying half a million dollars for the "privilege" of attending something called the "Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas," it'd be worth it.