As bowl attendance dips, college football leaders mull changes
On Tuesday morning, just one day after another bowl season came to a close, college football's leaders once again turned their attention to the task of overhauling the sport's postseason come 2014. And this time, they weren't just talking about the impending four-team playoff.
It's time to make hard changes to a bowl system that continues to be hampered by lousy matchups, an outdated business model and continued signs of travel fatigue among fans whose teams routinely play in high-profile bowls.
"Since we've made such a significant change with the playoff, it's a perfect time to look at the bowls and how they work," SEC commissioner Mike Slive said this week. "This is a very good time to take a hard look at how we do our bowl relationships and see if there's a better way."
While TV viewership for college football's postseason remains high -- ESPN's average rating for the five BCS games (9.0) rose six percent from last year, and the Outback (Michigan-South Carolina) and Chick-fil-A (LSU-Clemson) bowls drew two of the four largest non-BCS bowl audiences in the network's history -- overall attendance figures declined by more than two percent for the second straight year. According to AL.com's Jon Solomon, this year's average bowl attendance (49,222) was the lowest since 1978-79, though back then there were 15 bowls, not 35.
One of the most stunning numbers of the 2013 bowl season was the announced attendance at the Jan. 2 Sugar Bowl: 54,178. A game featuring Florida, an SEC powerhouse ranked No. 3 in the country, produced the 79-year-old event's lowest attendance total since 1939. Gators fans purchased just 6,500 of their allotted 17,500 tickets to the game.
Elsewhere, Florida State sold less than a third of its 17,500-seat allotment to the Orange Bowl, and Nebraska sold only roughly 4,000 Capital One Bowl seats. Even LSU and Clemson failed to sell nearly 13,000 combined tickets for their intriguing, geographically convenient matchup. On the bottom end of the spectrum, the San Jose State-Bowling Green Military Bowl in Washington D.C. had an announced attendance of just 17,835 -- and in many cases, actual attendance is even lower than the announced figure.
The bowls' attendance woes mirror that of college football's regular season, which has seen its average home attendance dip in each of the past four years. Factors such as a poor economy and enhanced television broadcasts affect attendance for all live sporting events, but the bowls -- which are played just once a year -- face considerably greater pressure to keep enticing fans to not only buy tickets, but also to spend money on flights and hotel rooms.
Just as the current BCS contract expires after next season, so, too, do the conferences' contracts with all of the other bowls. Over the next six months, leagues will line up their non-BCS bowl partners for the next cycle (expected to be six years instead of four), and officials on both sides are already talking about shakeup -- both in regard to the lineup and the way they conduct business together.
"In the next cycle of bowls, it's going to be really important to do some creative things with the bowls," said Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. "It's going to be a new business model so we're more incented to create the best possible matchups, more diversity of teams, more collaboration with other conferences involved."
Delany's conference began meeting with current and prospective bowl partners last October to discuss potential changes in their relationships. The Big Ten commissioner said he wants the conference bowl lineup to become "more national" than its current glut of Florida games; he wants to keep fans from becoming fatigued by repeat trips to the same destination. And the league seems ready to act: The Big Ten is widely expected to strike a deal with New York's Pinstripe Bowl and to add at least one game in California.
New bowl partnerships could be announced as early as April.
According to one source, the conference collaboration Delany speaks of may consist of a format like this: Over a six-year cycle, the Big Ten and Big 12 might share spots in the Holiday (San Diego) and Kraft Fight Hunger (San Francisco) bowls, with each league playing three seasons in both.
"I think you'll hopefully see more conferences collaborating," said Delany. "We want to create a better business approach for [the bowls] and ourselves."
Even if the conferences succeed in creating more interesting matchups, there's still the vexing issue of guaranteeing ticket sales. Under the traditional model, bowls require participating schools to purchase a set amount of tickets (17,500 for the BCS bowls, not including the Rose, and anywhere from 8,000 to 16,000 for most others), regardless of demand. Schools and their conferences eat the cost of any unsold tickets, which in some cases can reach seven figures. USA Today reported last month that schools absorbed nearly $21 million in unsold tickets during the 2011-12 bowl season.
"Everybody wants the ticket allocations to be managed differently," said Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby. "Bowls feel one way about it and schools and conferences feel another way. We'll have to hit on some middle ground."
In some cases, the bowls can't supply enough tickets. Stanford sold nearly 40,000 Rose Bowl tickets, gobbling up opponent Wisconsin's unused allotment. Oklahoma and Texas A&M sold out their 12,500 Cotton Bowl seats just hours after they went on sale. Even some lower-tier bowls proved popular draws for less complacent fan bases: Ole Miss sold more than 30,000 tickets to the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham; Iowa State brought a reported 25,000 fans to the Liberty Bowl.
"[Eighteen] of the 35 had an increase in attendance, so there's something there," said Wright Waters, the former Sun Belt commissioner who now serves as executive director for the Football Bowl Association. "Somebody's doing something right."
For the most part, however, it's become unrealistic for schools to sell expensive full-price tickets when there are drastically cheaper seats available via secondary outlets like StubHub. That site had tickets to the Northwestern-Mississippi State Gator Bowl available for as low as $2.50 leading up to the game.
"The marketplace has changed," said Waters. "We've got one more year under the old model. Now's the time to sit down and figure out what the new model is."
The obvious solution would be to reduce ticket guarantees, but bowl officials counter that they need the ticket revenue in part to satisfy conferences' desired bowl payouts. As the FBA's media guide points out, no conference lost money during the 2011-12 bowl season. The leagues combined to make nearly $180 million after expenses. The conferences choose to split that money among all members.
"It can't be completely one-sided, where the conferences want to keep asking for more money and less ticket guarantees," said one bowl director. "There has to be some sort of goal in the middle where we reduce the ticket guarantee but also reduce the payout."
Delany and potential Big Ten bowls have discussed possible models in which the bowls and conferences combine to "share both the upside and downside." For instance, in the case of a dud matchup, both the bowl and the schools/conferences would absorb the blow in ticket sales. However, in the case of a particularly popular matchup, the schools/conferences would have the chance to earn more than their expected payout by selling more than their initial allotment.
"Some of the [Jan. 1 non-BCS games] have been great games, some of them have been the third-, fourth- or fifth-best bowl annually, but everyone's going all the time, it's less special than it was," said Delany. "It's incumbent upon us to create a better mouse trap. It has to do with more cooperation among and between the conferences and bowls, something that's more realistic than the notion of taking out 15- or 16,000 tickets without really knowing what the appeal of the game might be."
One thing's for certain: In the new cycle, conferences will dictate the terms rather than vice versa. The SEC and Big 12 provided the blueprint with last year's creation of their so-called Champions Bowl matchup, subsequently awarded to the Sugar Bowl. In a departure from the traditional paradigm, the leagues, not the bowl, sold the event to ESPN. Terms have not been disclosed, but sources who saw the original proposal say the leagues planned to retain nearly all the television and sponsorship revenue while essentially paying the bowl committee a fee to run the event.
With the exception of the Rose, already co-managed by the Big Ten and Pac-12, it's believed the other five playoff-host bowls will fall under a similar operating structure. Each bowl (the Fiesta, Cotton and Chick-fil-A are expected to join the Rose, Sugar and Orange) will host four semifinal games over 12 years, and if this year's Sugar Bowl was an indication, they may have to rely heavily on those playoff games to subsidize the other years. In years the Sugar Bowl "is not a semifinal, it could be viewed as a letdown [for fans]," said Bowlsby. "One of the reasons we went with New Orleans is because we look at it as a significant tourist attraction."
It's unlikely the Sugar Bowl model would trickle down to the lower bowls, as the ticket revenue most generate is not enough to sustain themselves. Given the current climate, one director of a mid-level bowl told SI.com he doesn't expect the game to continue in the next cycle. There may be others that don't survive, either.
If that's the case, don't be surprised if ESPN, which currently owns seven bowls, creates new ones to replace the fallen. Even its lowest-tier bowls (Beef 'O' Brady's, GoDaddy.com, etc.) garner decent enough ratings to support a 35-bowl system. In a telling example, the network's Dec. 15 Arizona-Nevada New Mexico Bowl broadcast drew a higher rating (1.9) than Butler's overtime upset of No. 1 Indiana on CBS during the same time window (1.5). It doesn't affect ESPN, which owns and operates the New Mexico Bowl, that only 24,610 fans attended the game in person.
Waters is confident there will still be at least 35 bowls going forward, noting that this year's pool of 72 eligible teams (Louisiana Tech and Middle Tennessee State did not land bids) would have been deeper if 12-0 Ohio State, 8-4 Penn State, 8-4 North Carolina and 7-5 Miami had been eligible.
"They may not be the same bowls, you may see shifts in geography, you may see shifts in the local operating committees," said Waters. "When you see the reaction of Louisiana Tech and Middle Tennessee not having place to go this year ... you see people want to go to bowl games. There are too many compelling stories of teams that had very positive bowl experiences."
The systemic changes expected to come over the next six months may help alleviate the negative ones.