Why US loves bowl games - even with mediocre teams

All but the most avid armchair quarterbacks have probably never heard of the Music City Bowl. They've never tuned in to the GMAC or Continental Tire bowls. And the Humanitarian Bowl isn't exactly high on their list of must-sees, either.

Welcome to the 2003-2004 edition of the annual bowl blitz. Of course, most pigskin aficionados will tune in to the Sugar Bowl Jan. 4, when second-ranked Louisiana State takes on third-ranked Oklahoma in the official national championship. (The Rose Bowl will host top-rated Southern California Jan 1.)

But what about all those other bowls - a dizzying slate of 28 games in all? Are they worth the effort? They showcase lesser teams, often with so-so records, critics point out. Some contests attract so little attention and backing that they fade away. (Anyone remember the Cherry Bowl?) But new ones keep popping up to take their place. And the cycle looks self-perpetuating, thanks to a heady mix of TV revenue, community spirit, and college and corporate promotional needs.

As long as college football doesn't go to a postseason playoff system, "I think we'll maintain the status quo," says Mike Schulze of the Football Bowl Association. "The NCAA would like as many teams as possible to enjoy the bowl experience, and there is a desire by more communities to host these games. So when a bowl drops out, another community will likely take its spot."

The status quo does reward mediocrity - and for simple mathematical reasons. To fill all this year's bowl slots, nearly half of all major-college teams (56 of 117) are needed. As a result, teams with 7-5, 7-6, and even 6-6 records wind up playing in games like the Silicon Valley Classic and the Insight Bowl.

Critics have long complained. "Six- and seven-win teams belong on the practice field, not playing on TV in some inane Wednesday night dotcom bowl in late December," wrote Tom Dienhart of The Sporting News in 2000, when there were three fewer bowls than this year's slate. "Reruns of the Weather Channel could get better ratings."

Bowl organizers seem unfazed by the disparaging broadsides. For one thing, bowls usually involve substantial revenue.

The participation of college teams generates excitement and tourism for bowls, which, in turn, reward the schools with sizable payouts from sponsorship, ticket, and television revenues. The more glamorous the bowl, the larger the payout. The bare minimum per team is $750,000, which should cover a school's travel expenses and then some. Altogether, an estimated $185 million will be divvied up this year.

In the Big Ten Conference, which is sending eight teams to bowls, even the three nonbowl-bound members share in the proceeds. Money not spent by teams attending bowls is pooled and divided equally among the league schools.

A feel-good factor also helps perpetuate the secondary bowls. Host communities, especially the smaller ones, love rolling out the red carpet to visiting teams and their followers. "This sort of thing isn't duplicated in any other postseason environment," says Mr. Schulze. He notes that bowls, unlike traditional playoffs, allow 28 teams to end their seasons on a winning note.

One example of second-tier success is the Independence Bowl, which has made a go of it despite playing in the second-smallest bowl market. (Boise, home to the Humanitarian Bowl, is the smallest.) The Shreveport, La., event hit rock bottom in 1988, when both attendance (20,000) and the region's oil/gas industry were hurting, says Glen Krupica, the contest's executive director.

Gradually, however, the bowl has been rebuilt and stabilized. In 1989, the Independence signed Oregon, which hadn't been to a bowl in 28 years. Bowl organizers love "hungry schools," and Oregon was starved. Nine thousand fans followed the Ducks to northwest Louisiana.

Poulan/Weed Eater was signed as a title sponsor in 1990, in one of the early such arrangements. That generated needed income and visibility, and even jokes about the "Weedwacker Bowl."

Brand-name teams like Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Notre Dame have signed on to play in Shreveport during off years, and this year up-and-coming Missouri is considered a prime catch.

"Even though we've attracted some big traditional programs," Mr. Krupica says, "we haven't lost sight of how we got where we are, which is catching people on the way up."

The Independence Bowl rates 11th to 14th in what Krupica calls the major measuring sticks of bowl success: attendance, TV ratings, and team payouts. A TV deal with ESPN, state backing, conference tie-ins, and a lot of genuine Southern hospitality have contributed to the bowl's solid position.

But secondary bowls can never rest on their laurels. The Independence's five-person full-time staff is already shopping for a new sponsor to replace MainStay Funds, and is working on developing more regional marketing within an hour's drive.

"The hardest part for bowls is selling tickets to the local community," says Schulze, who also works for the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla. That's because the teams often aren't known until just weeks before. Thus it's important to build community support for the game almost regardless of who's playing.

Bowls often accomplish this by backing local charities, and, at least in the case of the Outback Bowl, through membership ticket packages, which include choice seats at the game and access to other related, year-round events.

"When you establish an emotional appeal and involvement of local community people, at a certain point they don't care who the teams are, they just want to be a part of it," Schulze says.

Booking the right teams is a key to success, too. Last year's Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn., was poorly attended. The University of Minnesota sold only 1,696 tickets from the school's allotment of 10,000. This year, Wisconsin is coming and the school has sold more than 7,000 tickets. Its opponent, Auburn, has long since sold its allotment since fans can easily drive to the game.

Having a local draw obviously helps attendance, and no team has a clearer edge in this department than this year's only new bowl, the Fort Worth (Texas) Bowl. It pitted Boise State against Texas Christian University, which only had to trot out of its own locker room for the kickoff. The TCU players, however, stayed at a downtown hotel.

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