Penalties for unsold bowl tickets an unsettling flaw; more Mailbag
UConn's inability to sell allotted Fiesta Bowl tickets will cost it more than $2M
Don't expect NCAA rulings on Auburn and Ohio State to impact USC's appeal
Potential NFL lockout unlikely to have a big impact on number of early entrees
As you may have heard, a historic blizzard crippled New York City earlier this week. I didn't leave my Brooklyn apartment for two days. Once I did, I arrived at our midtown offices to find 50th Street shut down while snowplows tried to dig out evidence that it still existed. All the while, I kept reminding myself of the light at the end of the tunnel: Within a few days, I'd be in sunny Southern California for the Rose Bowl.
But I realize my personal warmth and comfort does not concern the average football fan, and with each passing year, I notice a growing faction that would happily do away with the Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Orange Bowl, etc., in favor of mid-December quarterfinal playoff games on cold, snowy campuses around the country. Like this guy:
Like most college football fans, I want a playoff. I am somewhat happy to see low attendance at bowl games so far. I fully believe the loudest voice fans have is ticket sales. Stop buying tickets, and bowls may go away. I thought the BCS would be the end to bowls; it has essentially made every game but the title game a postseason exhibition game. Maybe more people are realizing this. Do you see this trend continuing, and do you agree with my assessment of these games?
-- Kevin Sharp, Atlanta
I've been reading a lot of doom-and-gloom bowl-attendance tweets and articles the past couple of weeks, enough that I was going to start reporting a story about this trend. Then I did a little research and found out, much to my surprise, that bowl attendance is in fact up this year. Six of the 11 games through Tuesday had higher attendance this year than last, with a cumulative increase of 4.1 percent. Looking ahead to the major bowls, increases and/or sellouts are expected at the Rose, Sugar, Capital One, Outback, Cotton, Gator, Chick-fil-A and Sun bowls. When all is said and done, my guess is cumulative attendance (or average per game, if you take away the extra bowl) will exceed that of the past two years. With the economy still suffering, that's no small feat.
But that doesn't mean the bowl business is fine and dandy. Far from it. Over the past year, there's been greater awareness placed on one of the industry's dirty little secrets, ticket guarantees, and the financial implications for participating schools. Schools are required to sell significant and sometimes unrealistic ticket allotments and get stuck with the bill for any unsold inventory. The issue first raised my eyebrows thanks to an excellent San Diego Union-Tribune exposÚ this time last year that found schools accumulated $15.53 million in unsold ticket costs during the 2008-09 bowl season. Then the book Death to the BCS came out this year. Whether or not you agree with its proposal for a 16-team playoff, there's no denying it contains all sorts of disturbing facts about the bowl biz, most notably the ticket guarantees. Former Michigan athletic director Bill Martin, in a telling quote, admitted the school saved money by not qualifying for bowls the past two years.
It's in large part because of these exposÚs that we've seen so many stories recently about Connecticut's current predicament. The school has sold fewer than 5,000 of its 17,500-ticket allotment to Saturday's Fiesta Bowl, which will cost it more than $2 million. The school's cut of the Big East's $21 million BCS payout will offset much of it, but when combined with the hundreds of thousands it costs to fly and lodge a football team for a week, the school will still finish well in the red. Stanford has done slightly better for its cross-country Orange Bowl trip, selling 9,000 tickets, but opponent Virginia Tech has sold fewer than 7,000. Mind you, there will likely be two to three times as many Hokies fans in attendance come Jan. 3, but most of them were savvy enough to buy substantially cheaper tickets on StubHub ($11.99 as of Tuesday) or other Internet sites. The school and its conference, however, will still be on the hook for the unsold allotment.
The Fiesta and Orange bowls are the two notable exceptions to my earlier list of major bowls expecting packed houses. This goes back to what I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the BCS bowls being pigeonholed into unfavorable matchups due to the rigid selection process. Unranked 8-4 UConn shouldn't be in a BCS bowl, much less one 2,600 miles from campus, and while the Orange Bowl is thrilled to have a top five team in its game, obviously one from the eastern half of the country would bring more fans. Mind you, neither game will suffer much financially, because they're still guaranteed all that ticket revenue from the schools whether or not the tickets wind up being used. And here's the stupidest part of all: The main reason the bowls depend on those steep guarantees on overpriced tickets (cheapest seat at the Fiesta Bowl: $105) is to be able to meet the high payouts the conferences demand -- payouts that are then used in part to offset the cost of those unsold tickets. What a business model.
To answer Kevin's original question: No, unsold bowl tickets are not going to bring about a playoff. The schools and conferences remain fiercely loyal to the bowls, and don't seem to mind the occasional financial hits. Look at Florida International. That school probably only brought a few hundred fans to the Little Caesars Bowl and will likely lose a few hundred-thousand dollars, but judging by coach Mario Cristobal's mad dash around the field and emotional postgame interview following the winning field goal, I'm guessing the school considers the investment well worth it. And the system as a whole remains profitable: In 2008-09, total bowl revenues were $228 million compared with $80 million in team expenses, and payouts are higher across the board this year with the start of new contracts.
But with all the attention this issue is receiving, the sport's leaders can no longer stand idly by and let this illogical financial model continue unabated. It's inane to expect an already critical public -- the majority of which wants substantial changes to the sport's postseason -- to accept a reality where Connecticut incurs an unnecessary $2 million-plus expense on a game in which it's contractually obligated to participate. The schools and conferences won't give up bowl berths, and the bowls won't sacrifice revenue. But there's got to be a way for both parties to meet in the middle so we can enjoy bowl season without having to feel dirty about it.
Why does a college football player become ineligible for selling his own personal belonging (rings, trophies, medals)? If Terrelle Pryor gets a gift for Christmas from his mother and he doesn't like it, returns it for cash -- not eligible?
-- Steve Dodderer, Johnstown, Ohio
Holy cow, Steve, I think you just stumbled on to a whole new pay-for-play scheme -- extra benefits in the form of Best Buy gift certificates. Mom buys the Xbox for Christmas, player returns it. If caught, player tells the NCAA he had no knowledge of how his mother obtained the gift certificates.
Like most NCAA rules, there is a legitimate basis behind the one that garnered the Ohio State players' suspensions. For one, the NCAA frowns on players receiving "preferential" treatment for their status as athletes, and obviously the opportunity to cash in on trophies and title rings is not available to regular students. It also curtails a more serious possibility where boosters could essentially pay players by buying their swag for exorbitant amounts. But there's no denying the inherent contradiction, since the players can do whatever they want with these items the second their eligibility expires.
Perhaps the schools should keep this stuff in a safe-deposit box until graduation.
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