Meaningless bowls. Too many bowls. Made-for-TV bowls. Shrinking bowl attendance.
There have never been more bowl games, and three years into the College Football Playoff era there are more questions than ever about why these games are being played at all. Especially when high-profile players such as Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette choose to skip the postseason to protect their bodies for the NFL draft.
There is currently an NCAA-imposed freeze on the creation of new bowls that caps the field at 40 through 2019. Over the next few years the people invested in the bowls — commissioners, athletic directors and bowl executives — will consider ways to improve the bowl system and answer the question: What should bowls be?
Chances are there will be fewer bowls, data-driven limitations on how many bowls a conference can lock in and maybe even postseason games played on campus. But for those who long for the days when there were a dozen or so bowls that rewarded only the very best teams in college football, well, you might as well wish for the return of leather helmets. Neither is coming back.
Everyone seems to agree that while the bowl system is not perfect, it does not need to be razed.
Andy Bagnato is a former sports writer who also worked for four years as a public relations executive for the Fiesta Bowl. He now runs Bagnato Pflipsen Communications, a consulting firm that helped Phoenix land the this year’s Final Four and last year’s College Football Playoff championship game.
“The question for people in college football is: What’s the utility of the bowl?” Bagnato said. “Is it a great trip for your alumni? For your student-athletes? Is it television exposure for four hours for your program? Is it a branding exercise for the school and for a conference? For the communities I think the questions become: Are they tourism magnets? Is the utility of a bowl game the fact that it attracts tourists? All those are factors.
“I don’t know there is one reason to have a bowl game.”
The main reason is the same as it ever was. “The first thing we want them to be is a reward for the players,” said Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who also leads the NCAA’s football oversight committee.
The problem is that bowls also reward competence, not excellence.
Once the minimum for postseason eligibility was drawn at 6-6 when the regular season expanded to 12 games, pressure built on conference officials to place each eligible team in a bowl.
Coaches want the extra bowl practices to develop players and the ability to sell a bowl game to recruits.
“Mr. Commissioner, if my 6-6 team stays home I’m going to be your worst enemy,” Football Bowl Association Executive Director Wright Waters recalled hearing from one university president back when he was commissioner Sun Belt Conference.
The bowl lineup grew to 40 games as Power Five conferences locked up spots in most existing games and other conferences such as the American Athletic Conference, Sun Belt and Mountain West worked to create new games — often with the help of ESPN.
The result is that during the last two years 5-7 teams played in bowl games.
“Beginning in 2020 I seriously doubt there will be 40 bowl games,” Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson, who has previously been the commissioner of the Western Athletic Conference and the Mid-American Conference.
But no conference is about voluntarily shut down one of its bowls.
That’s where the oversight committee will come in. Bowlsby said the group has been analyzing data to determine how many bowl slots each conference can typically fill. When bowl lineups are reset for 2020 and beyond, conferences will likely be limited to a number that matches a five-year average of the eligible teams they have produced.
Benson said when Texas State went 6-6 in 2013 but was shut out of the postseason, the conference broached the idea having the Bobcats play a 13th game on campus.
“It could be a way to navigate when we have too many teams for the number of bowls,” Benson said.
Maybe it would help attendance, which dropped 4.94 percent this season from last, according to data compiled by the Football Bowl Association. Average attendance went from 43,018 in 2015-16 to 40,893 this season.
“I think the industry is healthy,” said Pete Derzis, senior vice president for ESPN Events, which owns and operates 13 bowls, mostly matching teams from outside Power Five conferences. All but four of the 40 FBS bowl games, plus the national championship game, are televised on an ESPN network.
Derzis called the TV ratings for this season’s bowls respectable. Waters said those final numbers were still being compiled. But ratings for one particular game provide part of the explanation why ESPN is so heavily invested in bowls.
The Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 17, in which San Diego State beat Houston 34-10, drew 3.7 million TV viewers on ABC, ESPN’s parent network. At the same time, Kentucky and North Carolina, two of college basketball’s traditional powers, played a thrilling game won by the Wildcats 103-100. The game drew 3.6 million viewers on CBS.
The ratings for the Rose Bowl, a down-to-the-wire 52-49 victory by Southern California over Penn State, jumped percent 20 percent from last year, but at 9.4 they are still way behind the days when that game would consistently draw double-digit ratings.
Now the playoff draws the most attention and everything else feels more like an exhibition.
Even if the playoff ultimately expands, college football will never have a huge tournament with dozens of participants. Reaching and winning a good bowl game is still a major goal for most programs.
“But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with ending your season with a victory,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “And if we just go to a total playoff, then there’s only one team happy.”