NEW ORLEANS — Standing along the bustling sideline of the Sugar Bowl, Nick Carparelli, the executive director of Bowl Season, gazed toward the field as Texas and Washington players began to warm up for their College Football Playoff semifinal.
They seemed to all be accounted for. There were no opt-outs in this bowl game.
But that wasn’t the case in so many others. Enough players decided against participating in their bowl games — bound for either the NFL or the transfer portal — that it sparked an outcry from stakeholders, including some high-profile coaches encouraging leaders to “fix” the problem.
“People need to look at what happened tonight, and they need to fix this,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said after his team’s 63-3 win over Florida State in the Orange Bowl — a game in which the Seminoles were without more than a dozen starters. “There’s still going to be bowl games outside of [the College Football Playoff]. People need to decide what they want and what they wanna get out of it. It’s really unfortunate for those kids on that sideline that had to play in that game that didn’t have their full arsenal. It affected the game, 100 percent.”
Well, as it turns out, Carparelli has some solutions — three, in fact — to both unclog a busy month of December and incentivize play in bowl games: eliminate early signing day, eliminate the fall transfer portal window and, most notably, allow bowls to compensate players for participation.
“The problem is not bowl games or the bowl system,” Carparelli said. “The problem is all the unregulated circumstances around it now, with transfer portal and NIL and early signing period all happening at the same time. That doesn’t occur in any other sport. That’s what has to be fixed.”
For the second time in the past year, Carparelli is suggesting that the NCAA relax its rule preventing bowl games from offering players name, image and likeness (NIL) cash to endorse their events. In the past, he has also suggested that bowls shift at least a portion of their payouts from conferences to the athletes themselves — something, perhaps, more palatable for leaders, given NCAA president Charlie Baker’s latest proposal.
The proposal would create a separate FBS subdivision in which schools are required to deposit funds for athletes into a trust.
“The notion that players should be compensated for participating in a bowl game at the end of the season is a very real discussion that needs to be had,” Carparelli said. “I’d love to discuss with the NCAA the notion of student-athletes being compensated to promote the event itself. I’m still not sure what’s wrong with that.
“What is legal is they can promote the title sponsor of the game, destination of the game — the convention and visitor’s bureau of that area. There’s a lot of ways that can be done now under the current rules, but I’d like to think that there could be more direct ways to do it.”
Some doubt that compensating athletes directly for playing in bowl games would stop or even significantly slow the opt-outs. Others suggest that contracts offered by school-affiliated NIL collectives should require athletes to participate in bowls.
But there are other ways, Carparelli contends. Moving or eliminating the early signing period has been a much talked-about topic for the past three years as the December calendar gets further clogged. He also is suggesting limiting the transfer portal to one open window — in the spring.
The moves could alleviate a packed December. The month features the opening of the transfer portal, coaching transitions, the early signing period, bowl games and, soon, two additional rounds of the playoff.
The CFP grows to 12 teams starting next season. And while opt-outs aren’t necessarily expected in playoff bowl games — the New Year’s Six bowls will host quarterfinals and semifinals in a rotation — the other 35 bowl games could see an increase in athletes choosing not to play.
“We need to revisit the structure around the transfer portal,” Carparelli said. “Maybe there should only be one transfer portal window that happens at the end of the academic year. Maybe it allows student-athletes to rethink things. ‘Let me see how things go in spring practice.’ Gives coaches an opportunity to get high school recruiting done, evaluate the roster in the spring, and people can make decisions based off of that.”
Carparelli has been in communication with key decision-makers within college athletics about the issues. He’s encouraged by the support for the bowl system and its future.
Opt-outs or not, bowl games remain popular with television viewers. They normally draw more than a million viewers and routinely beat ratings numbers for simultaneous broadcasts of NBA, NHL and college basketball regular-season games.
For instance, on Dec. 27, the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, Holiday Bowl, Texas Bowl and Military Bowl each drew at least 2.2 million viewers. No single NBA or NHL game that day eclipsed the 500,000 mark, according to Sports Media Watch.
“All the commissioners and all the head coaches I talk to are adamant about the fact that bowl games and the bowl season are really important for college football,” Carparelli said. “We really can’t have a postseason system that only has 12 opportunities. It’s important we protect the bowl system, and all the leadership in college football is committed to doing that.”
But how remains the question.