Texas just finished a disappointing 5-7 for the second straight season, fired its coach – and is being viewed as a bowl eligible team.
Welcome to post-season college football, where winning isn’t everything, it isn’t even a requirement.
80 teams will play in 41 bowl games (including the 3-game playoff system), and it is entirely possible that, like last year, a number teams with losing records will play. As is everything else attached to the sport, money, specifically TV money, drove the inflationary expansion over the past several decades.
In the early 20th Century communities in the southern and western part of the U.S. were looking for ways to encourage tourism in the winter. They formed non-profit organizations to create events centered on a college football game. The Pasadena Tournament of Roses Committee was the first to host a game. In 1901, Michigan, unbeaten and unscored on, defeated Stanford 49-0 in the inaugural contest.
The game didn’t become an annual event until 1916 and officially became the Rose Bowl in 1923 when the stadium was completed. There was a slow incremental increase in bowl games over the next 8 decades. Then Oklahoma and Georgia won their anti-trust suit against the NCAA and ESPN became a major player in the sport.
“We Don’t Buy Games. We Buy Content”
This Sunday ESPN will have almost 24 hours of coverage across all its platforms as it announces the four participants in the College Football Playoffs, along with the matchups in all the other bowl games. As ESPN and other content providers fight cord cutting in the cable & satellite industries, live programing, especially live sports programming, continues to be at the heart of their profit center.
It is all the peripheral programming – pre-and post-game shows, College Football Today, College Football This Week, SportsCenter drop-ins, that also create advertising revenue with very little overhead.
ABC/ESPN isn’t just telecasting 38 bowl games. ESPN Events, a division of the WWL, owns and operates 13 of the 38 bowls. Overall attendance in bowls has dropped about 4% a year over the past 3 years, teams are forced to buy thousands of un-purchased tickets. But for ESPN, ratings make it worthwhile programming.
Last December, 21,000 fans watched Appalachian State edged Ohio U. 31-29 in Lafayette, LA in something called the Camellia Bowl. 1.9 million viewers tuned in, double the 980 thousand who watched the TCU-Texas contest the Friday after Thanksgiving. As long as games like this pull numbers like that, ESPN will be more than happy to show them.
One outcome from this bowl expansion is the devaluation of results, which is easily expressed in Longhorn bowl history.
In 1957 there were 112 D-1 football teams hoping to get into 6 bowls. That means 11% of all programs played in a post-season contest. Royal’s teams failed to make a bowl game in 4 out of 20 seasons. The Longhorns record those 4 years were 7-3, 6-4, 6-4, 5-5-1. (ah, the “Good Old Days”)
Royal’s bowl record was 8-7-1, a seemingly pedestrian mark, until you look into the competition. 14 of those 16 bowls were against Top Ten opponents (87.5%). Royal was 5-3 as the higher ranked team, 3-3-1 as the lower ranked team. The 1966 Bluebonnet Bowl against Ole Miss was the only contest where neither was ranked.
Fred Akers In 1977 (Akers’ first season) there were 145 teams in D-1, with 13 bowls. That meant 18% of eligible teams would play in a bowl contest. Akers went to a bowl game 9 out of 10 seasons, going 0-5 as the higher ranked team, one data point that helped to make it easier to fire him after his first losing season.
When Mack came on board in 1998 there were only 112 teams playing at the D-1 level, with 22 bowls. So 39% of all the D-1 programs went bowling. Mack was 10-5 in post-season play. Five times Texas played Top Ten opponents, five times the opposition was ranked 11-25, and five came into the bowl game unranked. Mack went 2-3 against Top Ten opponents, and went in as the lower ranked team all five times.
Now less than 20 years later, we have 80 out of 128 D-1 teams going bowling. That’s 62.5% of all D-1 teams. The bowl system, once a reward for teams having successful seasons is now, for many, a glorified spring training – extra practices with a swag bag and a trip thrown in for good measure.
The bottom line is still the bottom line.
Last year The Power Five and Group of Five Conferences collected over $599 million in bowl payouts. The Big 10 took in $118 million, the Pac 12 garnered $105 million, the SEC took in $93 million, the ACC collected 84 million and the Big 12 gathered in 83 million.
The College Football Play off has turned the other 38 bowls into an extended exhibition season, which means we will have plenty of opportunity to ignore relatives at Holiday gatherings as long as over 4 million will tune in to watch Duke and Indiana slug it out in football at the Pinstripe Bowl.