In the beginning, every college football team, its alums and its fans had no greater aspirations than to end the season in the glory of participating in and winning a legendary bowl game.
Pacific Coast and Midwest players and their fans grew up yearning for the ultimate ratification of winning "The Granddaddy Of Them All "-- The Rose Bowl. For players in the South, the Sugar Bowl or the Orange Bowl was the goal. In the Southwest, the Cotton Bowl conferred legitimacy. The country sat transfixed on New Year's Day following this cornucopia of football excellence. There has been an exponential explosion in college football bowl games -- 35 in all will be played, leading up to Monday's BCS championship at the Orange Bowl. But is more, less? Questions have been raised as to whether this plethora of games is diluting quality matchups, attracting sufficient attendance and financially benefiting the schools involved.
Participation in a bowl game has always been seen as a reward for outstanding performance by a team during the regular season. Ten of the teams competing this year had 6-6 regular seasons. Georgia Tech had a losing season at 6-7 (though it did beat USC in the Sun Bowl). Being .500 has always been regarded as a disappointing, mediocre season -- yet six games qualify a team for a bowl. This leads to matchups with teams that were often regarded as having failing seasons. At many institutions a 6-6 season would be a firing offense. So what is being rewarded except the desire of bowls and television networks to make money?
The first way that schools experience financial difficulties with bowls is in having to live up to ticket guarantees. The Sugar Bowl charged LSU a full $350 per ticket for supposedly "complimentary tickets" last year. LSU had to pay for players to get tickets as well as band members and owed the Sugar Bowl $562,000 just for tickets. This year's Orange Bowl required Northern Illinois and Florida State to purchase 17,500 tickets apiece at prices ranging from $75 to $225. That is 2,000 more than Northern Illinois averaged for home games last year. NIU distributed 15,000 seats, but only sold 3,000 and had to donate the remainder. Connecticut lost $2.9 million in tickets at the 2011 Fiesta Bowl.
Travel and lodging expenses are also exorbitant. At the Fiesta Bowl in Arizona in 2011, Oregon and the Pac-12 had to reserve 580 hotel rooms, some for six nights, many of which cost $319 a night. LSU spent $754,118 on meals and lodging at the Sugar Bowl last year. The bowls benefit mightily from the television rights and other various revenue. The Sugar Bowl Inc. filed federal tax returns that show it ended its fiscal year 2011 with $34.2 million in assets. The last year in which it hosted both the traditional Sugar Bowl and the BCS title game it did $34.1 million in revenue and turned an $11.6 million profit. And that games enjoys a 501 (c)(3) non-profit status, that was all tax-free.
How the participating schools fare is largely a function of the way their conferences split the proceeds and expenses. Curtis Eichelberger wrote in Bloomberg in 2010 that 13 public schools lost money on their participation. Northern Illinois was saved this year by the MAC Conference agreement to pay $4 million in travel expenses.
There are many other tangible benefits of school bowl participation. Every school that participates reports that the national showcase and buildup is very helpful with recruiting efforts for their program. High school players can attend the game itself if the expenses are low enough. There is a NBER paper by Michael Anderson that found that a winning football program enhances the number of overall applications a university receives, in-state enrollment, SAT scores and raises a school's overall academic performance. Schools participating in bowl games report greatly increased alumni giving to the football program and the athletic department.
In most schools football revenue supports the less generating revenue sports, providing opportunities for many athletes. This paper also illustrates that alumni giving to non-athletic aspects of the universities increases. The experience can greatly enhance the prestige of the university. College football consistently polls as the nation's second most popular team sport.
This year we were treated to legendary institutions such as the "Famous Idaho Potato Bowl," "Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl," "TaxSlayer.com Bowl," "GoDaddy.com Bowl," and the "Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl." The cow left the barn on the creation of this new college football tableau some years ago and shows no sign of abating.
But let the colleges beware that the Golden Goose may have hidden wings of financial lead.
-- Leigh Steinberg has represented many of the most successful athletes and coaches in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing and golf, including the first overall pick in the NFL draft an unprecedented eight times, among more than 60 first-round selections. His clients have included Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon, and he served as the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire." Follow him on Twitter @SteinbergSports.