September 29, 2020

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College football bowl games face concerns about their viability amid the COVID-19 pandemic

11 min read

Bernie Olivas’ second day on the job as executive director of the Sun Bowl was 9/11. His first major directive to his staff was easy: “I got to the office,” he said. “Everybody was there. The first thing I said was, ‘Let’s go home.'”

It’s not as simple this time with COVID-19 bearing down on his city (El Paso), his state (Texas) and the United States.

It is not necessary to compare these tragedies, but even following the tragic events of 9/11, Olivas was still able to look ahead to a football postseason at some point in 2001.

“Back then, it was September, and I didn’t figure it would affect us in December,” he said. “This one here is not a one-day thing. This is still going on. This is different., definitely different. This one is just rolling and rolling and rolling.”

The coronavirus continues to hold college football in its grip. It’s a given that the regular season is in doubt. That means, with the bowl season still five months away, COVID-19 remains an up-front issue for the sport’s postseason.

Bowl games will almost certainly be affected by the pandemic, even if only indirectly.

An already-bloated bowl system is loaded with a record 41 games whose executives don’t know when or if their games will be played. Bowls will have to be more than flexible.

The Rose Bowl on Memorial Day? A possibility if the season is pushed to 2021. All that traditional bowl pageantry could be diffused by empty stadiums due to health concerns. What even is bowl eligibility with different teams playing different numbers of games?

“I do think, in a lot of ways, we may need to minimize the impact of the final record,” said Nick Carparelli, executive director of the Football Bowl Association. “If a team happens to be under .500 in a given year just because they didn’t have the advantage of playing as many games as someone else, they shouldn’t be penalized for that.”

Before COVID-19, bowl season was already going to be a curious struggle. Simple math says as much.

Too many bowls? If you like crisp, quality football played by winning teams, yeah. A shortfall of bowl-eligible — some would suggest watchable teams — has become the norm. 

If and when the season is played, those 41 bowls will account for 82 slots. That’s equal to 65% of the FBS. (Not including the three College Football Playoff games.)

Over the last five years, the sport has averaged less than 79 bowl-eligible teams (78.8 with at least six wins). You can see where this is headed — a lot more mediocre, if not bad, football.

“There are still communities out there, TV partners, sponsors that still want to do this,” said Bret Gilliland, a member of the NCAA Football Oversight Committee that oversees the bowls. “From the other side of the equation, I’ve never talked to a coach or student-athlete who ever said a bowl experience was a bad thing. The marketplace at large still wants these games.”

First, the games have to be played. The Bahamas Bowl would be in question if it was scheduled today. Until Friday, the Bahamian prime minister had banned air travel from the United States. That restriction was lifted over the weekend. However, visitors still must quarantine for 14 days at their own expense.

The Bahamas Bowl has been in existence since 2014, one of six bowls that debuted that year. There were only eight bowls until 1968. As the number of bowls grew, the eligibility standard dropped — first to 6-6 in 2010, then to 5-7 in 2012. In 2016, a quarter of bowl teams did not have winning records. On Dec. 26 that year, none of the six teams in three specific bowls had winning records.

“Who are we to say what’s right for the games and the cities?” said Derrick Fox, CEO/president of the Alamo Bowl. “I would prefer a winning team … but once we went to 6-6, the inevitable 5-7 was going to happen.”

If anybody cared, it wasn’t immediately apparent. The bowls keep expanding, and we keep watching. Seventeen bowls have been added since 2000.

Consequently, the NCAA’s grip on bowl certification loosened. The association went from requiring a five-figure letter of credit to start a bowl to basically laissez-faire. These days, any bowl that can find a couple of conference partners is in.

The age of studio football has long been in effect. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how many people are in the stands. We continue to watch.

Overall bowl attendance has declined in recent years. Following the 2019 season, the seven games run by the CFP combined for record-low attendance, declining by a combined 8%.

“The TV ratings of those games is the answer to your question,” Carparelli said. “The average bowl game rates higher than the best regular-season college basketball games. That’s a fact.”

We’re at 41 bowl games because of a failed power play by the Power Five. Those conferences didn’t want their berths in the New Year’s Six at-large bowls (Fiesta, Peach, Orange) to count against their conference total.

The NCAA ruled otherwise, meaning three more bowls (six more slots) could be allowed. Hello, LA Bowl, Fenway Bowl and Myrtle Beach Bowl, all of which are scheduled debut this year. Hopefully.

Maneuverability will be key

Bowls are still going to have to be more flexible than ever. Carparelli said all the bowls could be played in a compressed period of time to accommodate the College Football Playoff. FBS conferences are already looking at pushing their league championship games back two weeks to Dec. 19, right around the time the bowls normally kick off.

The good: The bowls will have a season’s worth of safety protocols to reference. The bad: They might be played in the blink of an eye for expediency’s sake.

“When you get to late December, bowl season is one of those times of year [where] people don’t even know who’s playing sometimes,” Carparelli said. “They turn on their TV between Christmas and New Year’s because they know there’s going to be a bowl game on.”

The bowls are flexible enough to be played next spring if the season if pushed back. They’d have to be in order to fulfill their mission. They are largely non-profit entities that were started as community-minded events. ESPN televises 36 of 41 and outright owns 17 bowls.

“Some of those bowls [among the 41] might go under, all those built on straw and glue” one Power Five administrator said. “They have no foundation, no income coming in. They’re really three-hour time blocks for ESPN.

“It would be like them canceling a TV series. They would look at their losses and say, ‘You know what? We can’t continue to carry this thing.'”

It just doesn’t look that way at the moment.

FBS membership has grown from 120 to 130 since 2010. Mathematically, that would explain more bowl eligible teams in the system.

It doesn’t explain why college football has more teams eligible for the postseason (by percentage) than the NHL, NBA and MLB.

“This is obviously entirely unprecedented. We’re just going to have to figure it out,” said Gilliland, also the Mountain West’s deputy commissioner. “Even without the virus, there was a pretty good chance we would have extra slots. Then you have to go to those alternative criteria.”

If there are more than one of those 5-7 teams, they are prioritized by Academic Progress Rate (APR). The first year that rule was in effect, Nebraska, San Jose State and Minnesota all went bowling at 5-7. They all won. There have been five such teams total, none since 2016.

Who knows what the standard is going to be with teams playing different amounts of regular-season games?

“First of all, I don’t think you can ever have too many football games,” Carparelli said. “Next to the NFL, it’s easily the biggest sports venture in the United States. No one is forcing people to have bowl games.”

Jack Swarbrick has his doubts. The Notre Dame athletic director told the Associated Press he wondered if schools will give it go after a season of fighting the opposition as well as the coronavirus.

“I imagine the top bowls will want to try and still do it, but you’ve got to wonder if the schools will be willing to play. You made it through the regular season, and now you’re going to add another event that adds complexity and cost,” Swarbrick said.

There are likely to be greater numbers of players than normal who opt out of bowl games to avoid infection, heal injuries or get ready for the NFL Draft as is.

If the season is pushed to 2021? That will necessitate a delay for bowl games. Why would any top draft pick put his health at risk in a mid-level bowl or even some higher-level games so close to starting their professional careers?

Ticket sales will impact bowl payouts, bottom lines

None of that concerns Olivas and his Sun Bowl, which turns 86 this year. The second-oldest game behind the Rose Bowl features teams from the ACC and Pac-12.

The Sun Bowl’s tradition is woven into the fabric of the Texas border town. The New Year’s Eve game’s contract with CBS is the longest continuous relationship between a bowl game and a TV network; it dates back to 1968.

The bowl’s annual parade draws up to 300,000, and 80% of its tickets are sold locally. The El Paso mayor recently declared parades couldn’t include more than 100 persons due to the virus.

“When the Rose Bowl Parade said [on July 15 that] they were canceling this year, that kind of put a hurting on us,” Olivas said. “As you know, that’s the biggest parade in the world, probably. If it’s not going to happen, what else is going to happen?”

Bowl games started with the Rose in 1902 as a way to boost tourism. Cities/bowls invited teams and their fans from cold weather climates to warm weather in the middle of winter as a means of pumping up the local economy. That basic philosophy hasn’t changed.

“The idea was take what used to be one of the slowest tourist weeks of the year and make it one of the most robust,” said Fox, head of the Alamo Bowl for all 28 years of its existence in San Antonio, Texas.

In the early days, the city used the week between Christmas and New Year’s to clean the River Walk, the channeled San Antonio River that runs through the heart of downtown bordered by shops and restaurants. That quickly changed as the Alamo grew. The River Walk has long been one of the city’s main tourist attractions. It is on fire during bowl week.

That explains why the Alamo Bowl’s economic impact is estimated at more than $40 million. A 2017 study showed that the total economic impact for all bowls was more than $1.5 billion.

The civic pride angle can’t be stressed enough. To some, the loss of The Rose Parade was bigger than the possible cancellation of the Rose Bowl game.

The heart of former Fiesta Bowl executive director John Junker can never be doubted. Junker served time for his role in making illegal payments to politicians. But it was his efforts that put the Fiesta Bowl on the national map and eventually in the BCS and CFP rotation.

The Alamo Bowl typically starts selling tickets on April 1, the beginning of its fiscal year. That on-sale date has yet to come amid the pandemic. After all, how do you sell tickets to a game that may not played on a date that may not be certain?

That’s a big deal when ticket revenue accounts for 38% of the Alamo Bowl’s $13 million budget.

“There certainly are going to be people that are hesitant to go to any events whether it’s a movie theater, concert or anything,” Fox said. “We certainly understand that, in this environment, we’re going to do everything we can to encourage people to come.”

With ticket revenue having that big an impact on the bottom line, how long before it affects team payouts? The Alamo Bowl has a total payout of nearly $8 million that is split between second-choice programs from the Pac-12 and Big 12. After the New Year’s Six, that’s the second-highest payout behind the Citrus Bowl.

“One of the things that will be a discussion at some point is, if we’re all facing years with unusual circumstances, then you may need to talk about what those payouts might be,” Fox said.

Bowls typically have three main sources of income: TV rights fees, sponsorships and ticket revenue. Because of the uncertainty, Olivas hasn’t completed his budget yet.

“Are teams going to want to come and spend a full five days, or are they going to come and play the game and leave?” Olivas wondered. “I believe that would have an impact on the payout.

“We are going to budget as if we’re going to pay the full amount. After that, are they going to bring the band? Are they going to travel with an official party? Are they going to stay two days, three days, four days? Doing a budget right now is pretty difficult.”

Olivas estimates that 30% to 40% of his revenue comes from ticket sales. That income is hard to estimate when the Texas governor has limited stadium attendance to half — for now.

Sun Bowl tickets are on sale, but until Olivas knows the number of seats he can sell, the uncertainly is heightened.

Olivas will take part of his cue from UTEP’s season. The Miners, at least for now, have six home games. That will act as some sort of safety walk-through as the Sun Bowl stadium facility is owned by UTEP.  

“What comes into question is, if you’re going to go every other row, every other seat, what are you going to do with a family of four who sits together?” Olivas asked.

 The answer to that question may be months away from being answered.

The finality of the ACC and Pac-12 scheduling announcements provided a small ray of sunshine for Olivas’ game. The Sun Bowl matches teams from those two conferences. The total payout is $3.5 million.

“That gives us good hope there is going to be a bowl season,” he said. “We have a little direction so far. We were working, but we didn’t know what we were working for.” 

The Independence Bowl is not unlike those community-minded soldiers all over the bowl landscape who stage parades, operate nonprofits and fill up December TV slots, if not all the seats.

It has gone through more sponsors (nine) than some long-running sitcoms. It is known by many only because it was sponsored by Poulan Weed Eater. But it was always one of the biggest events in Shreveport, Louisiana. The Shreveport Captains were affiliated with the Angels, Brewers, Pirates and Giants from 1971-2002. The Arena Football League and Canadian Football League also once called home the 141st largest metro area in the country.

If the Independence Bowl is played, in whatever form, Shreveport will be proud. The Independence Bowl has been a constant for 45 years.

“We don’t have much in the way of sports left here,” said public address announcer Patrick Netherton. “The bowl has always been kind of a stalwart. Even in years when the matchup wasn’t good locally, people showed up. It means something.”

Dennis Dodd

2020-08-01 00:24:37

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