Friday, December 20, 2013

College Football Bowl Games: How Much is Enough?

Photo by Flikr user Sean J under
Creative Commons license
      The college football  bowl season is upon us. A slate of 35 bowls begins tomorrow with four games. The climax of the bowl season will be the BCS Championship game on January 6 in Pasadena, California, between Florida State and Auburn. The abundant supply of bowl games means that 70 out of the 125 NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools enjoy a trip to the postseason. There was a time when a bowl game was considered a reward for a successful season. But with 56% of all teams making a bowl and able to do so with a.500 record (6-6),has the prestige of bowl games taken a hit?

Demand Exceeds Supply?
The bowl game roster includes diversity in locations, dates, and match ups. These variables and others including costs of travel to a bowl game and tickets challenge some bowl game operators and participants' athletic departments to fill seats. Recent headlines about bowl game ticket sales provide evidence of this challenge:
  • Badgers football: Ticket sales for Capital One Bowl slow so far
  • Gator Bowl ticket sales 'lukewarm'
  • UCF struggling to sell Fiesta Bowl ticket allotment
  • Texas Bowl not exactly a hot ticket
  • Outback Bowl Ticket Sales Sluggish for LSU Tigers, Puzzling to Les Miles
It would be easy to dismiss sluggish ticket sales as a problem faced by lesser bowls, but these headlines represent not only lower tier bowls (e.g., Texas Bowl) but New Year's Day staples Outback Bowl, Capital One Bowl and Gator Bowl as well as a BCS bowl (Fiesta). Even the lure of Florida sunshine in January cannot magically sell tickets, at least that is what LSU, Wisconsin, and Georgia are experiencing this year. The novelty of attending bowl games is long gone. Making the trek to one's favorite team's bowl destination becomes an added financial cost of fandom beyond supporting the team in the regular season. Besides, the game will be available for consumption in your living room, at home with family during the holidays. Motivations to attend are diminished compared to years gone by.

The Successful Bowl Playbook
The current number of bowls suggests that demand does indeed exist, whether it is for ticket sales, sponsorships, or media rights. Some bowls consistently enjoy good support and have solid ticket sales. Among the reasons why are:

  1. Match-ups: Bowls that have conference tie-ins have in many cases created natural geographic rivalries. For example, the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl  pits teams from the ACC and SEC. The regional appeal usually draws many fans from both teams to Nashville.
  2. Geography: Bowls that are accessible to fans of the participating teams stand a better chance of selling tickets. This year's Music City Bowl match-up of Georgia Tech and Ole Miss is attractive to both fan bases as travel to Nashville will be convenient. In contrast, the Texas Bowl in Houston played tomorrow between Minnesota and Syracuse is hardly an easy trip for fans of either team.
  3. Entertainment: A bowl game is but one stop on the itinerary of many game attendees. Other entertainment options, whether orchestrated by the bowl organizer or part of a city's tourism offerings, add to the overall experience. Returning to the Music City Bowl example again, Nashville is not only a tourist destination, but in the days around the bowl game there are two NHL games, one NFL game, and a New Year's Eve party downtown. 
A Vibrant Business
Despite the many empty seats we will see during telecasts of some bowl games in the next two weeks, the bowl business is doing just fine, thank you. One indicator of the strength of bowl games is that ESPN has made a significant commitment to bowls, owning eight of the 34 bowls (the BCS Championship makes the bowl total 35). With sport media outlets constantly craving desirable content, owning your own bowl game is certainly a means of ensuring there is content to air and valuable advertising inventory to sell. 

As the Andy Williams classic tune used to promote Capital One Bowl Week proclaims ""It's the most wonderful time of the year." College football fans, advertisers, and sponsors all agree.