If we’re stuck in the middle between Thanksgiving and Christmas, it must be time for the college football bowl season to begin. Every college football conference has completed their championship games and, for those that are at the upper echelons of the college football world, they can prepare to play for the National Championship. Beyond those three games – this year consisting of the Orange Bowl and the Cotton Bowl (both on December 31) and the National Championship Game (January 11) – there is an overabundance of games to be played.
In 2014, the college bowl season consisted of 35 games, meaning that 70 teams went to a bowl game from the 128 schools that make up the Football Bowl Subdivision (or FBS, which is different from the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), the playoff system that the remainder of the collegiate football world plays under). There was plenty of fear in 2014 that there wouldn’t be enough qualified teams to play in the bowl games – to be “bowl eligible,” a team had to win six games from their 12-game schedule – but the final week of the season provided enough teams with a qualifying victory to fill out the schedule. Having faced the potential of not getting qualifying teams, you might have thought that the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the governing body of collegiate athletics, would want to keep down the number of bowl games moving into the future. If you had that thought, you would be wrong.
For 2015, a grand total of 41 bowl games (including the National Championship Game) will fill the television screens of virtually every channel on the cable dial, more than double what existed only 20 years ago. Instead of barely finding 70 qualified teams to play in these games, now there was the necessity to add 10 more to the list. With new regulations instituted in the offseason – including the fact that FBS teams could not count victories against FCS teams towards their six-win qualification level – the NCAA did come up short in having enough teams qualify for bowl eligibility. Rather than admit that there were too many bowls, you know what the NCAA did? Granted “waivers” to teams to allow them to count wins against FCS teams to reach the six win mark or use “academic performance criteria” to allow for five win teams to play in a bowl. This is why you’ll see a 6-5 California team in the Armed Forces Bowl (despite one of their wins coming against Grambling) and a 5-7 Nebraska team in the Foster Farms Bowl against UCLA.
So if there aren’t enough teams to qualify to play in these bowl games, why are there more being created as we speak (it is reported that a new bowl game in Austin, TX, will join the ranks in 2016)? While the schools don’t make any money out of the trips to a bowl game, the bowls themselves and the NCAA are stripping every dollar they can out of the system.
Although you might be surprised by this, the colleges and universities that go to these bowl games many times do not even turn a profit for playing in their respective bowl. It may be an honor to be invited to the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl (yes, that actually exists), but the schools have to get their personnel to the game. It costs major moolah for a university to load up planes with the team, cheerleaders, band, coaching staffs, athletic department personnel and college leadership – and this doesn’t even count in the appropriate equipment for the team – and get them to the stadium. In many cases there are media requirements, meaning the teams have to get there days before the game starts. This adds in hotel expenditures for everyone you just flew out to the Big Game.
If that wasn’t bad enough, here’s where we get into perhaps the biggest crime that the bowl games perpetrate on the colleges and universities. Besides having to round up the troops and get them to the game, the schools are then handed a block of tickets and told to sell every single stub to their fans. These ticket blocks sometimes are as large as 20,000 tickets and, if a school fails to sell every ticket, then the school has to buy whatever remaining tickets are left. This can total, in some cases, up to $500,000 per school by itself.
If the schools aren’t making any money out of these bowl games, then who is?
The answer is virtually everyone else that isn’t involved with playing the game. The businesses that are the “sponsors” of the particular bowls can receive a market value (in advertising) several times larger than what the sponsorship fee cost. Even Bitcoin sponsored a bowl game last year (the Bitcoin Bowl used to be the St. Petersburg Bowl in 2014; Bitcoin didn’t come back in 2015 for a sponsorship of any bowl game), reaping some benefit from the deal because they are associated with the teams involved and the pageantry of the college bowl season.
Then there are the bowls themselves. Considered “non-profit organizations” because they are supposedly set up for a charitable cause, the bowls are a virtual gold mine of revenues. According to Yahoo! Sports, the Sugar Bowl in 2014 held $12.5 million in cash reserves, $20.8 million in publicly traded securities and actually doled out to their Chief Executive Officer a $600,000 a year salary. That’s a pretty big chunk of change to have sitting around for simply throwing a football game on New Year’s Day.
The conferences themselves are raking in the money. The major conferences – the Big 10, the Big 12, the PAC-12, the ACC and the SEC – reap $50 million; smaller conferences who are a part of the college bowl parade get upwards of $15 million (depending of the number of teams they have in the mix). The College Football Playoff adds in another $40 million for the conferences, meaning that #1 Clemson, #2 Alabama, #3 Michigan State and #4 Oklahoma earned another block of cash for the ACC, the SEC, the Big 10 and the Big 12.
Finally, there are the television networks. For broadcasting the College Football Playoff, the monolithic sports channel ESPN paid $7.3 BILLION in 2013 for the broadcasting rights until 2025. Before you feel too bad for ESPN (they have been laying off people of late to trim spending to be able to pay sports licensing fees), they are expected to have revenues of $10 BILLION over that timeframe. This isn’t even counting the other 38 games that make up the college bowl schedule nor the networks (Fox Sports, CBS Sports and NBC Sports and their affiliated cable outlets), which could run into the billions in their own right.
This is the insanity of the college bowl season. Despite the claims that a playoff system like the one that is operated in FCS would “impact the academic pursuits of the athletes” (a bullshit statement because it seems to work fine for the FCS schools), the NCAA is looking to maintain as much control over the schools – and control over the money – as possible. The bowl system is not there to reward the schools and the players for having a successful season, it is a blatant money grab by a system that maximizes every dollar by not having to share it with those who are the product on display.
It isn’t like these games are actually any good, either. In some cases, the teams are playing as much as a month following the last serious game speed contact they participated in and the rust shows in the teams’ performance on the field. The players – some with potential dreams of NFL glory, some just looking to finish their collegiate careers and move on into normal life – play with little to no passion for the game. Thus, you see final scores in the neighborhood of 52-49 or 56-53…there is absolutely ZERO defense played because no one, whether a blue-chip NFL prospect or a grinder on the line looking to complete their degree, wants to be injured in a game that means little to their own personal bottom line.
Much like years past, I will probably watch the College Football Playoff games, but I won’t be watching the Lysol Tidy Bowl live from Savannah, GA. There will be plenty of college basketball to watch (and there’s another money grab by the NCAA, but I digress) that will be much more entertaining than a 70-66 college football game. It just a further example of the insanity that has become college athletics as a whole and, in particular, college football.