Bowl Games Evolving Into Gridiron Playoffs

This year's Rose Bowl marks the end of an era. Next year, college teams will play for No. 1.

After years of nasty epithets, millions of newspaper column inches, and a congressional hearing on the subject, critics of college football's bowl system are about to get what they've always wanted: a guaranteed and irrefutable national championship game.

Although the No. 1 ranked Michigan Wolverines and the No. 2 ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers will play in separate bowls this week, leaving coaches and sportswriters to decide the national titlist, this will be the last such season.

Already this year, a "super alliance" of prominent bowl games and conferences has helped produce more matchups between top-rated schools. And next year, with the addition of the Rose Bowl and the Big Ten and Pac-10 Conferences, the alliance will finally ensure that the nation's two best teams meet on the gridiron.

For opponents of the quirky and Byzantine college bowl system, it's a welcome development. America, they argue, is a nation founded on the principle that titles should be earned in fair competition, not bestowed by potentates.

Yet this popular drive to crown a champion could forever change the flavor of college football's post season. As high-stakes games grab more attention, ticket sales for lesser bowl games have slumped, and some deserving teams have been passed over for purely economic reasons.

Instead of making the system more democratic, some observers say, the alliance has tilted the field even further toward schools and conferences with the deepest pockets. "It would be silly to argue the point that the focus on the No. 1 versus No. 2 game has negatively affected the rest of the bowl system," says Jeff Hundley of the New Orleans-based Sugar Bowl. "Although it's better than a playoff, [the alliance] could create a lot fewer opportunities for post-season play."

Under the alliance rules, the Sugar, Fiesta, and Orange bowls get first crack at the nation's top teams. Next year, with the addition of the Rose Bowl, these bowls will host the national title game on a rotating basis. Although alliance bowls have obligations to include champions from five conferences, they enjoy wide latitude in selecting opponents. An exclusive TV contract with ABC allows these bowls to each pay teams about $8 million for showing up - or four times as much as the biggest payout at a non-alliance bowl.

The alliance's impact has sent ripples throughout the bowl hierarchy. Officials from Miami's Carquest Bowl expect less than 30,000 fans to attend its game between West Virginia and Georgia Tech. It will be that bowl's smallest crowd ever.

EVEN bowls affiliated with the alliance have struggled lately. In 1995, the Sugar Bowl failed to sell out for the first time in 25 years, and ticket sales for this year's contest between Ohio State and Florida State have lagged behind projections.

Although the alliance's Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz., has sold enough tickets, observers say the sellout would not have occurred if officials hadn't required local fans to buy tickets in order to qualify for tickets to the 1998 championship game.

By most accounts, the bowl problem stems from a lack of fan enthusiasm. As alliance bowls continue to consolidate the best teams, and as more attention is paid to creating a championship match, some hometown fans are losing interest.

Sagging ticket sales present a double-barreled challenge for football schools. The trend has forced bowls to consider, more than ever, how many fans a school can bring to its host city and what kind of television audience it can attract. At the same time, however, playing in a bowl has become more important to a school's fund-raising and recruitment efforts.

The result, experts say, is that some schools are working harder to promote themselves to bowl committees - even offering to buy thousands more tickets than usual - at a time when fan interest seems to be declining. Moreover, they say, alliance members have become political, often blacklisting schools whose fans fail to show up in force. This year, the alliance's Fiesta Bowl chose to invite No. 10 Kansas State instead of UCLA, Florida, and North Carolina, each of which enjoyed a higher ranking. Kansas State, by the way, lured about 40,000 fans to Dallas for last year's Cotton Bowl.

"We felt we should have been included [in an alliance bowl] based on the way the team performed on the field," says Mark Dellins, a spokesman at UCLA. "But realistically, other than trying to match No. 1 and No. 2, the alliance doesn't try to get the next best matchups."

Although he says talent is still the most important criteria, Fiesta Bowl spokesman Shawn Schoeffler concedes that after Big East champ Syracuse earned an automatic bid, Fiesta officials were wary of inviting a distant school without a proven record of fan support.

It's a lesson not lost on other teams, especially ones with fledgling bowl traditions. Last week, Virginia Tech issued a plea to fans to buy tickets to the upcoming Gator Bowl even if they don't plan to attend. "Your fate sometimes can be determined by how well you travel,"says Tom McNeer, the school's ticket manager.

Yet even teams from major conferences find the new bowl economics daunting. Some teams find themselves dipping into athletic department funds to cover bowl expenses.

Rather than play in the inaugural Motor City Bowl in nearby Pontiac, Mich., - and make an estimated $500,000 profit - Michigan State's football team opted to travel to the higher-profile Aloha Bowl in Honolulu. By some estimates, the trip will cost the Spartans some $250,000.

Is it worth it? Most schools think so. Not only do bowl appearances help football programs, but they can boost application rates and gifts from alumni. Beyond that, most fans and players enjoy it.

"I just met the teams at the airport," Schoeffler says. "And I can tell you that all the controversy doesn't mean a thing to those kids. There wasn't a person there without a smile on his face."

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