Why Do College Football Teams Play In So Many Unprofitable Bowl Games? Ask ESPN.

East-West Shrine Game
East-West Shrine Game / Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

College football optimizes nearly everything for profit, except the postseason. Teams that would play on Tuesday for extra ESPN ducats in October pay six or seven-figure premiums to play one-off December and January exhibitions. None are competitively valid. Most are unpopular. Rationally, the system that has arisen makes no sense. Why do these games exist? Why did Central Florida take a $1.1 million loss to send its players on a “once-in-a-lifetime” trip to Memphis?

Bowls can’t be justified by tradition. Yes, there’s the Rose, the Sugar, the Cotton and the Orange. Now, explain the existence of the TicketCity, the New Orleans, the Armed Forces, the Little Caesars, the Military, the Kraft Fight Hunger, the GoDaddy.com, the New Mexico, the Humanitarian, the Beef O’Brady’s, the Hawaii, the Champs Sports, the BBVA Compass, the Insight, the Pinstripe, the Poinsettia, the Texas, the Las Vegas and the Music City bowls.

To grasp why these games exist, we must look at who is benefitting from them.

Fans are not. They watch college football in whatever format it’s on, whether it’s their team or one of the major ones. Beer cracking and channel flipping do not indicate investment and support for the bowl format. That comes from attendance. Fans don’t want to travel to these games, which bowls counter in many cases by selecting regional teams. Bowls also force schools to assume the burden of selling their tickets (without doing so many games would perish). Schools then eat the cost and shift it, directly or indirectly, back to the fans themselves.

Connecticut playing in the Fiesta Bowl is an extreme case. Let’s look at “football schools” playing in the purportedly marquee bowls. Oklahoma ate $2.2 million, second highest figure in the country, playing in the Fiesta Bowl. Ohio State sold out its Sugar Bowl allotment, by opening it to the general public, including Arkansas fans. Auburn ate $781,825 in unsold tickets for the freaking BCS title game. The biggest football schools playing in the best bowls can’t entice their fans to attend these games. Whether fans are uninterested or just being priced out the system isn’t serving them.

Players are not the beneficiaries. A few get toasted by Pasadena or Miami. For every one of those there are kids missing class, missing Holidays with their families and bumming around hotels in Detroit, Memphis, Dallas, Jacksonville and Charlotte. The bowl system also denies them competitive opportunities. Concocted polls state the players would rather play bowl games. These polls always use weighted hypotheticals such as “would you rather be eliminated in a playoff once in three years or go to a bowl game every three years.” Such polls achieve their desired result. Of course they would choose the latter option. Ask a practical question in December to teams it affects. TCU, Stanford, Wisconsin and Oklahoma players, would you rather play in a closed off BCS Bowl game or compete for a national title? That poll’s results would be different.

Bowl committees argue they bring in millions to local communities. They don’t. It’s similar to the “new stadium” argument. The “economic impact” does not magically appear. It’s displaced spending. Whatever money fans spend, it is money they are not spending somewhere else. Since 17 Bowl Games featured de facto home teams, that somewhere else was often the very same area the game took place. Whatever the rhetoric the economic affect is negligible.

Schools don’t benefit tangibly from the bowl system. In exchange for the massive losses, there are posited intangible benefits. Proponents argue schools receive high-profile exposure and recruiting benefits, both for football players and prospective students. Perhaps, though it’s hard to differentiate those benefits, if they do exist, from the regular season. LSU is LSU because it’s in the SEC and nationally televised during the season, not because it played in the Cotton Bowl. Even if one can attribute the intangible benefits specifically to the bowls. Is it worth the massive financial hit?

Those making the decisions for schools, however, do benefit. Coaches and athletic directors receive trips to junkets such as the Fiesta Frolic. They have performance incentives built into their contracts for making bowl games. Most importantly, their jobs are predicated on the football team’s success. “Bowl eligibility” provides an attainable benchmark for success.

UTEP wasn’t a good team in 2010. They finished 6-6, 5-6 against FBS opponents. In the final Sagarin ratings, they were 121st, below 22 FCS teams. Yet, UTEP was “bowl eligible.” This earned Mike Price and his staff $133,639 in performance incentives (More money than UTEP received for playing in the bowl. It also assuaged legitimate concerns about his job security. Unsurprisingly, coaches prefer the bowl system.

Coaches and ADs do benefit from the bowl system, but the true beneficiary is ESPN. The bowl system has expanded because of ESPN. In 2000, there were 25 bowl games with ESPN televising 14 of them. Now, there are 35 bowl games. Including ABC in the equation, ESPN televises 33 of them. An ESPN subsidiary owns an operates seven of the games itself.

College football draws an audience. Even the worst of the worst bowl games in a down year do well on cable. Troy-Ohio and Florida International-Toledo still got 1.3 and 1.4 ratings, about on par with a mundane Sunday Night Baseball telecast. The BCS title game received the highest rating in cable history. ESPN profits substantially from the college football postseason, without much competition and without having to share enough of the revenue to ensure teams turn a profit.

ESPN, passively or actively, shapes the perception of college football. Bowl games are exhibitions played on neutral sites more than a month after the season’s end. Both teams are out of rhythm. There’s little competitively to read into them. College football functioned for most if its history with them playing a frivolous role. They weren’t factored into the final voting until the 1960s. Not until the 1980s were there even enough bowl games to accommodate the Top 25.

As sports media hegemon, ESPN has trumpeted and enhanced the perception of these games. What were New Year’s Day exhibitions have become THE games, with purported playoff-level intensity. They are treated as indelible parts of the college football season. It’s nearly impossible to conceive of the college football season without them. Though, schools would be better off not playing in them.

Our perceptions have changed. Consider Bob Stoops’ legacy. Why does his 6-6 record in exhibitions played more than a month after the season overshadow his 129-31 overall record, his 78-18 Big 12 record and finishing in the Top 11 nine times in 12 years? He can’t win a big game? The guy is 7-1 in Big 12 title games. He has seven wins against Texas. From 1967 to 1974 Bear Bryant went 0-1-7 in Bowl Games. He cost his teams four undefeated seasons. If he does that now, he’s a choker.

Through its promotion and coverage, ESPN inflates the importance of bowl games. It persistently increases the number of them. It creates an environment where not attending a bowl game is failure and not having your conference cram as many teams as possible into these games jettisons you from the national discussion. Teams feel they need to play in these games, to stay on ESPN’s radar. ESPN promotes the bowl system and may be the reason we don’t advance beyond it.

What happens with the playoff? Ratings increase, possibly pushing into the neighborhood of NFL playoff ratings. This gets the broadcast networks interested and prices ESPN out or, at the very least, forces them to pay far more than they are presently paying scattershot to individual bowl games. Conferences would demand that the schools profit from the system. Broadsides against the BCS in favor of a playoff from ESPN seem to have stopped, since ESPN got the rights back.

College football teams play bowl games for the same reason they do almost everything schedule related. It serves ESPN’s purposes.

[Photo via Getty]