Season of giving: College bowl gifts become big business

Les Carpenter
Yahoo! Sports

Being a woman not long removed from college and on the small staff of a small bowl game, Lauren Schram Schweitzer has the unenviable task of reading the minds of 20-year-old men. This is not something for which she is well-trained, nor is it a task she sought. But three years ago when the Washington, D.C. Military Bowl needed someone to pick the gifts it gives to the players, all the faces in the office turned toward her.

And so now she must think like a young football player.

"I'm always trying to find the latest and greatest cool gadget," she says.

It is not a secret but also not widely known that college football players are compensated for going to bowl games. While NCAA rules prohibit them from being paid, they are nonetheless handed lavish gifts as a reward for simply being on the roster of a team in a bowl. Such rewards are legal and in fact encouraged. The NCAA allows the bowls to spend up to $550 on each player. Since no bowl wants to be cheap, each spends up to the limit on everything from backpacks to headphones to televisions.

For the players, the gift is a highlight in a bowl week filled with sightseeing trips, long dinners and first-class hotel rooms. They talk about the presents for weeks, anticipating their unveiling – which usually comes at the hotel during a team meeting. Curiosity builds. They try to find out what they are getting before they leave. Last year, an NFL coordinator called a bowl executive he knew hoping to learn the gift's identity so he could tell his son who was on one of the teams in the game.

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So, yes, there is pressure. Tons of pressure. A bowl's reputation among the players depends on its executives being fun, imaginative and unique.

"We want to give them something they can use," Schram Schweitzer says.

But how to think like a 20-year-old?

Surprisingly, planning for a bowl game is a yearlong process. Even the most obscure games usually employ a small full-time staff and the gift will come up in meetings or conversations at different times. For instance, at the Football Bowl Association's annual meeting in the spring, a number of vendors that specialize in bowl gifts set up in a meeting room creating a kind of gift bazaar that bowl executives can visit for ideas.

Some choose right then. Items like a beanie with the bowl's logo or a backpack are considered essential and appear in nearly every bowl's handout bag. The real challenge comes in picking the bigger gifts. How to make your haul different from everybody else's?

Many go for clothing. For instance the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise tries to take the players to a local ski resort called Bogus Basin where they go inner-tubing. To properly outfit the teams, the bowl hands out North Bend winter parkas.

Tamara Frisch, the bowl's office and events coordinator, still has fond memories of then-Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick running to be the first on the inner tube in his new bowl jacket.

"You want to find something that kids will treasure and they will remember," she says.

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But most bowls are played in warm weather. Buying nice winter jackets isn't always practical. That's where bowls must get creative. Doug Kelly, the director of communications for San Francisco's Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, says his people use their proximity to Silicon Valley to look for high-tech gifts. Since many of the bowl's volunteers are former college football players, bowl executives ask them for input.

"They always say: 'Something we wouldn't necessarily get for ourselves,' " almost always comes the reply.

This year the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl is handing out foxL speaker systems to each of the players.

For Schram Schweitzer, the real search begins in October, although she is always looking for possibilities. Last year her husband was glancing through an airline shopping magazine when he noticed an ad for a wristband that holds iPods. He brought the magazine home and showed Schram Schweitzer the ad. Several months later, when the players dug through their backpacks last December, they found a Lunatik wristband among the Kindle Fires, iPod Nanos and Deuce Watches.

Other ideas are not as simple. One year she came across a website that sold giant, "poofy slippers" with team logos. She thought it a perfect bowl gift, imagining the players padding around the cold floors of their hotel in warm slippers. When she returned to the bowl's office – which is contained in a suite of lawyers offices – she asked some of the lawyers what they thought. They assured her – through howls of laughter – that college football players don't want "poofy slippers."

But what to get? Schram Schweitzer has considered a gift suite, which is what many bowls are now doing. It would be easy. Players are given a $500 limit and directed to a room at the team hotel where a company has set up with all kinds of watches, jewelry and electronics. Gift suites have become popular because players can shop for others if they choose. Some go to the suite to buy Christmas presents for mothers or sisters. In the end, though she has rejected the suite. It's more interesting to find something unique. She's seen bowls hand out televisions and recliners, yet was never moved to buy either.

By Thanksgiving, most of the Military Bowl gifts had been determined: Players would get beanie hats, drawstring backpacks and watches with the bowl's logo on the face. All Schram Schweitzer needed was a big gift. But what? She thought about a Best Buy gift card for the remaining NCAA-allowed balance, yet thought there had to be something better. Finally, after discussing it with the rest of the bowl's staff, she decided on iPad minis.

[Also: Oregon, NCAA reach impasse in football investigation]

Only one problem. Since the mini was just coming out, Apple had a limit of 10 for each purchase. To supply both of the bowl's teams – Bowling Green and San Jose State – she would need 250 minis. Time was running out. The Dec. 27 game was a month away. Orders had to be placed. She imagined a nightmare scenario in which every bowl staffer would have to drive to every electronics store within a 100-mile radius of Washington to get enough minis.

Then, success. The Georgetown Apple Store took her order.

"We will have them when the teams get to town," she said with relief.

This week, Schram Schweitzer sounded happy. The minis had arrived. So had the beanies and the backpacks. The only thing missing were the logoed watches, which the company said had been held up in the Long Beach, Calif. port strike. Don't worry, the company told her, the watches will arrive in time.

All she can do is hope they are right.

And be confident that for one more year she understands the brain of a 20-year-old male.

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