In the bad old days before the College Football Playoff, one of the loudest arguments against it was that it would kill the bowl system.
Oh, we should be that lucky.
The bowl season kicks off Saturday, and it won’t be long before we’re reminded of how bloated and out-of-control the system has become. The last game of the day is the Participation Trophy Award Bowl, featuring Louisiana-Lafayette and Southern Miss in a snooze-inducing clash of two 6-6 teams.
OK, so it’s really the New Orleans Bowl. But Participation Trophy Award is more appropriate given how the bowl system has run amok.
There are 41 bowls this year and 128 FBS teams. That means a whopping 62.5% of teams are getting the “honor” of playing in the postseason. Making it even more ridiculous, 20 of the games will have teams with 6-6 records – or worse.
My personal favorite is the St. Pete Bowl on Dec. 26, which features Miami (Ohio) with a 6-6 record and Mississippi State, one of two bowl teams with a 5-7 record. That’s a game even alumni can’t love.
There’s also the Miami Beach Bowl, which will be played in the middle of the afternoon on Monday, Dec. 19. Featuring one of those 6-6 teams, no less. If you’re wondering if that’s the bowl equivalent of a tree falling in the forest when no one is around to hear it, you are not alone.
Once upon a time, the bowl system actually meant something. With fewer games — there were just 18 only 20 years ago — each was significant, an event as much as a game. How many other sporting events could throw a parade and not only not look foolish, but have it become a time-honored tradition?
And winning a bowl like the Rose, the Cotton or even the Citrus Bowl gave a team a certain cachet.
The Rose Bowl has been played longer than Alaska and Hawaii have been states. The Cotton Bowl’s proud history includes Bear Bryant, the great Texas teams and Notre Dame’s return to the postseason after a 45-year absence.
But promoters and tourism officials got greedy, and now the market is flooded with cheap knockoffs like the Quick Lane, Pinstripe and Russell Athletic bowls — the last of which has also been known as the Carquest, Florida Tourism and MicronPC Bowl. Nothing says national powerhouse quite like champion of the Quick Lane Bowl.
As the number of games has increased, the value of all but a few of the signature bowls has diminished. Bowl officials will squawk at that, touting the economic boost to host cities and teams, along with the added exposure and practice time for the teams.
You can’t argue with the numbers, however. USA TODAY Sports reported this week that six bowls had not yet found lucrative title or presenting sponsors. One of those, that Miami Beach Bowl, has never had a title sponsor in its three-year history.
This on top of eight consecutive years of declines in average bowl attendance.
For years, ESPN has helped bankroll the bowl glut because it provides the network with programming fodder. ESPN will broadcast 28 bowls this years, along with the “New Year’s Six” and the playoff semifinals at the Peach and Fiesta bowls.
ESPN also has the College Football title game.
“The bowl system is incredibly healthy,” Clint Overby, vice president of ESPN Events, insisted.
He says that now. But as cord cutting continues and ESPN finds the financial landscape increasingly challenging, it’s easy to see how the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl or the Heart of Dallas Bowl could suddenly become expendable.
At least, let’s hope.
By paring back the number of lower-tier bowls, it will restore luster to the ones that really matter. You know, the ones that don’t have to fake enthusiasm as they invite a team with a .500 record.
Kids generally outgrow the participation awards by the time they’re in middle school. It’s time the bowl system did, too.
By Nancy Armour
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.