The Big Bowl Squeeze
A story that came out over the weekend and received scant attention outside the state of Florida should give pause to everyone who loves college football and bowl games.
The Gator Bowl is in trouble. Big trouble.
Yes, that Gator Bowl. The nation’s sixth oldest post-season game. The first to be televised nationally. The one that always seems to have a great matchup and a huge crowd. Well-run. Well-sponsored. Thought to be as solid as any bowl in the country.
Well, maybe not.
According to a story in the Florida Times-Union and comments from the bowl's highly-respected executive director Rick Catlett, the Gator needs a big increase in sponsorship revenue and TV rights, along with a better stadium deal from the city of Jacksonville, or it will be forced to go out of business.
Pause. Swallow. Shake your head.
“We’re not going to continue doing what we’re doing now, which is just surviving and losing money,” said Catlett, who took a 50% pay cut to help keep the game afloat. “We’re in negotiations now for everything … We have to step up our game. We’re not going to be the Poulan Weed-Eater Bowl. My instruction from our board is to move it forward, or we’re done.”
Turns out the Gator Bowl, like so many others, has been a victim of the new post-season landscape.
The College Football Playoff has diminished all but the New Year’s Six bowls. Conference commissioners, flush with power and playoff riches, have put a gun to the heads of the other bowls and demanded more money for team payouts. Attendance is declining significantly. Sponsorships are harder to come by because of half-empty stadiums and the nation’s obsession with the playoff. And while bowls still draw decent TV ratings, ESPN, its bankroll reduced by cord-cutting, is being stingier with rights fees.
Going to a bowl used to be a big deal. Now, there are 41 games, making it less special and also opening the door to lots of 6-6 teams. Once upon a time, dozens of schools were known to “travel well,” as in, bringing tens of thousands of fans.
But in an era of $800 airline fares, $100 game tickets, $30 parking fees, and $12 beers, fewer and fewer schools are traveling well. More and more fans are opting to stay home and enjoy the games on their 80-inch HDTV, with the parking spot in the garage, the bathroom down the hall, and the six pack in the fridge.
The Gator Bowl, which used to routinely draw from 60,000 to 80,000 fans, had an announced attendance of 38,206 this year. This despite paying $7 million to the SEC and ACC to ensure high-quality teams.
The sponsorship picture is equally cloudy. Bowl games used to be sponsored by companies like Fed Ex, AT&T, MasterCard and Wells Fargo. Now we have Cheribondi Tart, Walk-on’s Bistreaux Bar and Grill, Bad Boy Gasparella, and Makers Wanted.
Coming soon: the Lozano Car Wash Bowl.
The Gator Bowl isn’t alone. Last year the Holiday Bowl discontinued its sister bowl, the Poinsettia. The Independence Bowl has been on life support, and several others are in varying degrees of jeopardy.
I speak from personal experience as the co-founder and former director of the Diamond Walnut/Emerald/Kraft Fight Hunger/Foster Farms (now Redbox) Bowl. In 2014 our board made the decision to move to Levi’s Stadium and climb the Bowl pecking order.
We found that getting good teams doesn’t come cheap. We had to pay the Pac-12 and Big Ten over $2 million each. We negotiated a favorable deal with the 49ers for the use of their new stadium and got a nice bump in TV rights from ESPN. And we expected the new matchup (Stanford vs. Maryland) to attract a big crowd.
It didn’t. So we lost money. A lot of money.
To keep the game afloat, I cut my salary by more than half, reduced some other expenses, and convinced the conferences to take a lower payout the next year. We broke even, I retired, and the game was turned over to the 49ers, one of several pro teams now involved in managing bowl games to control costs and generate sponsorship sales.
All of this begs a few obvious questions: what does the future hold for bowls like the Gator and Redbox, who seek to remain relevant in the playoff era? What can be done here?
This is a pivotal year, because virtually all conference agreements expire after this the 2019-20 games, and in many cases, sponsorship deals are also up for renewal.
I expect major changes in bowl/conference tie-ins and some significant shifts in selection order. The conferences, as always, want more money and many bowls, understandably, want to reduce team payouts. That’s going to make for some interesting and, likely, contentious, negotiations. Some bowls may disappear.
As to what can be done?
To put it simply, the conferences have got to realize they can’t have it both ways. They can’t collect a half-billion dollars a year from ESPN for the playoff and then gouge the other bowls for millions of dollars. Not when attendance, sponsorships and rights fees are declining, in large part due to the impact of that playoff.
If the conference commissioners value the post-season experience, they need to set their greed aside for a moment and accept more realistic bowl payouts.
It might mean a few head coaches won’t be able to pay their defensive coordinators $2 million.
But it might also give a few more kids an opportunity to visit a part of the country they’ve never seen, or tour the Alamo, or hand out meals to the hungry at a soup kitchen on Christmas Day.
Because bowl games offer new experiences. Community service activities. Opportunities to learn something.
Isn’t that what college is supposed to be all about?