Changing Times in College Football Scheduling; Pac-12 Revenue Gap Widens

Once upon a time, major college football programs liked to schedule seven home games, including one or two non-conference cupcakes, to maintain their season ticket base and help guarantee bowl-eligibility.

They’d pay Northeastern Valley State Teachers College or Little Sisters of the Poor a small fortune to come out, take a pounding, and go home with a big paycheck.

That was back before the arrival of the College Football Playoff. Back before rising ticket prices, millennials more concerned with Wi-Fi than wide receivers, and the ever-improving home viewing experience put a real dent in attendance figures.

Now you see Florida scheduling home and homes with Colorado and Texas. Auburn doing the same with Penn State. Oklahoma and Clemson hooking up with LSU. Georgia adding series with Florida State and UCLA. Alabama adding Texas, West Virginia, and Notre Dame.

What’s going on here?

There are two reasons for this recent phenomenon. 1) The College Football Playoff Selection Committee has made it abundantly clear—just ask UCF—that strength of schedule matters. 2) The days of 90,000 people turning out to watch the hometown boys play Presbyterian or Chattanooga are gone.

College football crowds have declined for the last several years, as many fans have decided to stay home with the remote, the car in the garage and the beer in the fridge, rather than pay full price to see blowouts decided by the end of the first quarter.

So schools are dropping FCS teams from the schedule and replacing them with Power Five or Group of Five Conference opponents in hopes of filling more seats in the stadium and impressing more members of the playoff committee.

An early season loss to a high-ranked opponent will, based on recent history, be viewed more favorably by the selection gang than a 40-point win over a cupcake. And with the playoffs quite possibly expanding to eight teams down the road, teams want to be in a favorable position when the field increases.

Consider that the Pac-12, which has been left out of three of the five playoffs, has undergone a serious scheduling upgrade.

This year, for example, Stanford will play Notre Dame, UCF and Northwestern, UCLA will face Oklahoma, Cincinnati and San Diego State, and USC will take on Notre Dame, Fresno State and BYU.

Not a gimme among ‘em.

Bowl Schedule: ESPN just released its college football bowl schedule for 2019-20, which includes the 35 post-season games that will be televised by ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC, highlighted by the College Football Playoff.

A few quick thoughts.

Almost half of the bowl games (15) will take place after the Playoff Semi-Finals are held on Saturday, Dec. 28 in the Peach and Fiesta Bowls. When the non-ESPN games on Fox and CBS are added, there could be as many as 19 bowls between the semis and the Championship Game on Jan. 13.

Given our national obsession with the playoff, all those games will likely be viewed as anti-climactic, suffer from “bowl exhaustion syndrome,” and quite possibly get lost in the buildup to the championship.

That’s particularly true for the five games to be played after Jan. 1. Will anybody really care about the Birmingham Bowl (Jan. 2), the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (Jan. 3) the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl (Jan. 4) or the Mobile Alabama Bowl (Jan. 6)?

Semis Date: So why, you ask, are the semi-finals scheduled on Dec. 28 rather than New Year’s Day or New Year’s Eve?

The original idea was to play the semis on January 1 when the Rose and Sugar were the hosts, and on New Year’s Eve when two of the other four “New Year’s Six” bowls (Orange, Fiesta, Cotton or Peach) were hosting.

It seems the CFP suits believed that the playoff would “change the paradigm of New Year’s Eve,” and that people would choose football over partying.

Seriously?

After a few New Year’s Eve semis with disastrous ratings, they decided to move the games to the last Saturday before New Year’s, other than when Rose and Sugar host on New Year’s Day.

And that has worked out much better for the playoff, but worse for the other bowls, which continue to suffer from playoff mania.

Financials Disappoint: The Pac-12 released its financial results for 2017-18 and they were, well, quite unimpressive. Profits decreased, and the distributions to conference members came in at a paltry (by Power Five standards) $31 million per school. The actual payout would’ve been less than $30 mil, were it not for some deferred Rose Bowl payments.

Compare that to the Big Ten, which doled out more than $53 million to each of its schools, the SEC, with a distribution of just under $44 million per, and the Big 12 at $36 mil. (The ACC, traditionally last in payouts, checked in at $29.5 but will pass the Pac-12 with the launch of its TV network this year).

Despite that revenue gap, a failing TV network, and the conference’s embarrassing performance both on and off the court, Commissioner Larry Scott pulled in a cool $5.3 million.

$5.3 million.

At the same time the student-athletes, whose labors generate fortunes for the conferences, the coaches and the commissioners, get nothing but the “cost of attendance.”

(Our thanks to Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports, Dan Wolken of USA Today and Jon Wilner of the Pac-12 Hotline for their reporting on these matters).

Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//gacavalli49@gmail.com

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