Earlier this week we looked at the possibility of smaller conferences creating new bowl games in 2014 to ensure their eligible teams didn’t get left at home for the postseason. It didn’t take long to get some specifics on the first candidate:
If approved, "Rice Bowl" in Little Rock, Ark., will pit MAC vs. Sun Belt starting in 2014. Would be 36th bowl
— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) June 14, 2013
If you’re wondering what rice and Little Rock have in common, Arkansas produces more of the crop than any other state. But what interests me here isn’t the MAC/Sun Belt match up – although I will obviously watch next December if it becomes a real thing – but the details of the contracts schools are signing with the bowls.
As it currently stands, the bowls are in an incredibly sweet spot (which is how you end up with 35 of them with more on the horizon). ESPN pays them handsomely for the broadcast rights, as live events – especially sports and especially football – become more and more valuable because they’re mostly DVR proof, meaning viewers might actually watch the commercials. The bowls also don’t even have the responsibility to sell that many tickets because schools are forced to immediately buy thousands of them as soon as they commit to the game.
For some games, this is not a big deal. To take the most extreme examples, Notre Dame reportedly had 100,000 applicants for 10,000 championship game tickets. But on the other side, you have UConn, who lost 1.6 million on their Fiesta Bowl trip a few years ago. Earlier this week, The Gainesville Sun reported that Florida didn’t just lose the Sugar Bowl in January, but lost nearly a million dollars to play in the game.
Schools are forced to buy these tickets at full price (usually triple figures for the bigger bowls) and if the game isn’t a popular draw, fans can buy tickets at a fraction of the cost on the secondary market. When Florida State squared off with Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl, a Seminole or Husky fan could have eschewed face value and got in the door for 14 dollars. (Poor Florida State also lost money by winning the ACC Championship.)
It’s a raw deal for schools, as bowl executives get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for putting on one game a year. This great story from USA Today last year highlighted how bowls are paying their bosses an average of $438,000, double what they were in 2002. Not bad work if you can get it.
SEC commissioner Mike Slive is already looking to reduce the amount of tickets his schools are forced to buy, but in the upcoming post-BCS landscape, will teams from smaller conferences still be forced to commit to selling tickets and hotel rooms for a bowl game that wouldn’t exist without their participation? Or will the benefits of playing the game – most notably exposure that helps with recruiting – cause them to ignore potential financial losses?
We’re heading into a brave new world of college football postseason, and the most important question to settle is figuring out who’s going to be on the committee that picks the playoff participants. After that, however, perhaps the biggest unknown is whether schools or bowls will win at the bargaining table. I wouldn’t bet against Slive or some of the other power conferences, but smaller leagues could find themselves stuck in an uncomfortable position, continuing to pay for the right to play.