Like Salvation Army bell ringers, it's the time of year when complaints about college football bowl games descend on our nation like a pitiless plague.
The whining is everywhere. And for all of the good reasons one might propose for trimming the annual bowl game slate, the most common complaint seems to center around the exhaustion of being forced to endure all 38 (39, if you count the title game) bowl games scheduled to air in the next month or so.
Torturous as that would be, no such mandate exists.
The second-most common complaint -- and one that actually has legs -- is that bowl games have been expanded to the point that they have been stripped of all meaning.
Thirty years ago, there were 16 bowl games. Thirty-two of Division-I's 112 teams made a bowl game, and the rest stayed home. There were a lot of teams with winning records that didn't get to sniff the postseason.
This year, 15 teams bowl-bound teams have managed just six wins. Thanks to its conference championship loss, Fresno State could end the season 6-8 by losing to Rice in the Hawaii Bowl.
And don't sleep on the Camellia Bowl, which pits Bowling Green vs. South Alabama.
That very sentence alone is enough to make a traditionalist go blind.
At the same time, the effects of bowl-mania are relatively benign -- at least as far as game itself is concerned. Yes, reaching a bowl game may carry less significance than it once did.
But who ever said all bowls carry the same merit? Reaching the Rose Bowl still means the same thing it did 30 years ago. If its value has been diluted, it's only because the new four-team playoff bracket is the primary attention-getter over the traditional big-name bowls.
Football programs don't exactly line the the stadium hallways with elaborate displays of TaxSlayer.com Bowl trophies. Nobody's jealous of making the Camelia Bowl -- other than the 50 teams who aren't making a bowl appearance, and even some of them would probably turn an offer down.
Thirty-nine bowl games exist because all of them generate revenue.
That's not the most inspiring genesis for holding a good ol' football game, granted. But it would be inconsistent to decide now, after years of allowing money-minded college athletic departments to fatten their revenues on the backs of athletes who haven't received one dime of extra compensation, that suddenly we are taking a stand and telling prospective bowl hosts to go shove it.
Bowl games make money, even if they they're terrible at passing on the benefits to participating schools -- a criticism best saved for a different day.
The important point is that schools continue to accept bowl invites because of the benefits they do see: the national TV exposure (a huge boon for smaller programs), the slight recruiting edge, and the excitement a bowl berth can stir in a fan base.
Just got off a teleconference for the Camellia Bowl. South Alabama says they sold 1,700 tickets the first day.
— Stacy Long (@AStacyLong) December 8, 2014
Of course, teams also get extra practice time to prep for a bowl game, which helps programs moving forward, although the benefits might be overstated by some.
Some schools fear the PR backlash of turning down a bowl invite -- particularly schools that struggle to gain such exposure during the regular season. Unfortunately, those very schools that toil in the shadows are usually the ones whose bowl bottom-line runs into the red.
Does the sum of these fringe benefits still fall short of justifying such a broad slate of bowl games? It depends on how you look at it. The quality of the bowl season product certainly seems to suffer, and yet the money it earns only grows bigger and bigger -- for the bowls and the networks broadcasting the games.
But bowl attendance has slipped in recent years. Bowl games have become commonplace for many schools from power conferences, and their fan bases are particularly disinterested in traveling 2,000 miles to watch a ho-hum matchup of underperforming teams.
Travel agencies said there doesn’t appear to be enough interest among NE FB fans to charter flights for Holiday Bowl. http://t.co/mBBrSvzVFV
— Randy Richardson (@RandyISEA) December 8, 2014
Where such broad bowl offerings do make the most sense -- and I'm sure no one with any authority genuinely shares this perspective -- is in the way they honor a broad range of teams for having relative success in the regular season.
Inviting two-thirds of teams to bowl games is more in line with the spirit of amateur sports and college athletics.
But by all means, let's keep saying there are too many bowl games. They clearly mean NOTHING to the young men.
— Joe Suhoski (@VaBeachRep) December 8, 2014
Complaints aren't nearly as numerous about the college basketball tournament season, which has spawned not only the NCAA Tournament and the NIT, but also the CBI and the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament.
These tournaments persist despite relatively low interest from most college basketball fans, marginal revenue opportunities, and -- unlikely football bowl games -- much higher rates of schools opting out of participation.
Yet no one really cares, perhaps because they exist on the periphery and through Internet broadcasts, while bowl season dominates ABC and ESPN for weeks on end.
Pitting mediocre teams in unappealing bowl games doesn't imperil the bowl season as a whole. Those teams show up, they play a game meaningful only to them, and they go home.
At worst, the games go down as a contest no one watches nor remembers. At best, they offer a brief thrill -- exciting for excitement's sake, free of any larger implications.
And if you don't care? No need to tune in.
-- Follow Jonathan Crowl on Twitter @jonathancrowl.