The college bowl product is already watered down with sub-.500 teams playing. What will happen to ratings if more players decide it’s not worth risking injury when they’re not playing for a national title?
Inside sports business
Late last week, I was trapped on a cardio machine at the local gym when the flash of blue on a far off television screen caught my eye.
The blue turned out to be from one of the nation’s more unique football fields in Boise, upon which a game was being played between teams with uniform colors far less recognizable to the average fan. My investigative reporter instincts kicked in. “Must be the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl!’’ I reckoned.
Yep, nothing screams Christmas week college football quite like mediocre squads playing a meaningless game on a frigid field the wrong color. This is what bowl season has become: A slate of 41 mostly made-for-TV contests, usually featuring yawner teams you had no intention of watching until stumbling on to them.
That the game produced a 61-50 score, with Idaho topping Colorado State, also didn’t impress. It merely confirmed both teams had serious defensive shortcomings — usually not the calling card of championship-level football squads.
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While few fans buy actual tickets to watch the Potato Bowl, the Bahamas Bowl, the Cure Bowl or the Poinsettia Bowl, they usually draw enough TV viewers who are either desperate football die-hards or trapped on an exercise machine without a remote control. If it’s a bigger audience than ESPN might generate for late-night Ping-Pong replays, your made-up bowl game might have a shelf life.
But putting a few more dollars in ESPN’s pocket is one thing. Getting guys who actually have to play in these glorified exhibitions to risk physical health and future earnings potential is quite another.
Hence, star running backs Leonard Fournette of LSU and Christian McCaffrey of Stanford skipping the Citrus Bowl and Sun Bowl, respectively, to focus on the upcoming NFL draft.
Yes, those bowls are a notch above their Potato counterpart. The Sun Bowl is the second oldest bowl in the nation, won by Washington State last year in a thriller over Miami.
Still, the watering down of bowls weakens even the best. With the College Football Playoff system, even the Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl lose some shine when not hosting a semifinal contest.
So, the Citrus and Sun Bowls had no chance.
Nobody wants to be the next Jaylon Smith, the Notre Dame linebacker who injured his knee in last winter’s Fiesta Bowl and lost millions dropping from a projected midlevel first-round NFL pick down to 34th overall. They especially don’t want to become Smith by risking it all for third-tier bowl bragging rights.
“From the players’ perspective, they have gotten the message that they’re amateur athletes and that they play for the game and the love of their school and that’s wonderful,’’ said Marc Isenberg, a Los Angeles-based author, sports agent and adviser for college and high school athletes. “But now, let’s go back to reality and that this is a coldhearted business. It’s a business for the universities and for the television networks. The proliferation of bowl games to the point where you have teams that are .500 and you have to dig down to the dregs to get teams that are under .500.
“If there was some kind of legitimate national championship that encompassed more bowl games, then certainly you would have more of an argument that they ought to continue on.’’
Isenberg has authored “Money Players: A guide to success in Sports, Business & Life for Current and Future Pro Athletes” as well as “The Student Athlete Survival Guide.” He says many college players feel the NFL combine is far better for showcasing future pro skills than a bowl — especially when a national title isn’t at stake.
Isenberg sees this becoming a larger sports business trend. Even if the number of bowl-skipping players eventually tops out at 10 or fewer, that’s potentially 10 “stars” impacting an equal number of the best bowls outside the CFP.
While ESPN is likely willing to absorb losses from the weakest bowls, it could feel a ratings pinch when stronger games are skipped. After all, no one really expects to see future Fournettes or McCaffreys running wild on blue fields or alongside Bahamian beaches in late December.
But a star presence is expected at midlevel bowls left to carry the ratings freight after the Christmas weekend as New Year’s Eve approaches. Isenberg feels the only way to safeguard the business model is for the NCAA to share more profits.
“At the end of the day, incentives matter when it comes to a lot of things in life,’’ Isenberg said. “We’re motivated by incentives in every aspect of our life.’’
Bowl committees can offer no more than $550 per player for merchandise, steak dinners or other goodies. The Washington Huskies will each receive $300 Visa gift cards from the Peach Bowl committee, as will members of the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Meanwhile, the NCAA is being paid $7.3 billion over 12 years to televise the college playoffs.
“As the concept of amateurism evolves, I would have to believe that there are some meetings going on along the lines of ‘What can we do to provide the proper economic incentive to have players like McCaffrey and Fournette participate in a bowl game?’ ’’ Isenberg said. “And that leads you to pay-for-play. If you want them to play, then give them the economic incentive to play.’’
Otherwise, you risk player absenteeism spreading.
And if fans sense the players don’t care about these games, even die-hards may not bother watching. That’s where this entire made-for-TV business model begins to crumble.