With viewership usually passing at least one million for even the least-interesting game, there’s enough exposure for sponsors to pony up to put their name on it.
Inside sports business
It’s far too easy to poke fun at the plethora of inferior college bowl games offered up every holiday season.
This space has piled on before with its share of shots at these matchups and they are deserved. The notion that any football team should get a postseason appearance with a 6-6 or 5-7 record — as many of these bowl games offer up — is baffling given how a chunk of the win total is already padded with triumphs over “cupcake’’ opponents to begin with.
But you learn in life that even dumb-sounding ideas usually have rationale behind them. And whether it’s the R & L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl or the Cheribundi Tart Cherry Boca Raton Bowl, there was usually a good business idea or two that spawned their creation.
Take the aforementioned Potato Bowl. Please. No? OK.
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For no rational reason, this mediocre bowl game annually irritates me more than any other. Maybe it’s the blue field, the freezing weather or the stands being half empty in an already modest-sized Albertsons Stadium in Boise. Perhaps it’s the game still being in the pre-Christmas schedule and reminding us we must endure another 10 days of this to get to the good stuff.
This year’s game actually featured two winning teams in the Central Michigan Chippewas (8-4) and the Wyoming Cowboys (7-5). but it was still mediocre football at best. The Chippewas turned the ball over eight times, effectively ending things in the first half for the announced crowd of 16,512 in the 36,000-seat venue.
That said, the Idaho Potato Commission last week agreed to a five-year extension of its sponsorship of the game, pledging to keep funding it with $450,000 annually. In a story by The Capital Press, an Oregon-based agricultural weekly, the potato commission’s president was quoted saying a recent study by an independent group found the “media value’’ of the sponsorship was worth $13 million annually.
The commission says that since the game drew about 2 million television viewers, it’s equivalent to roughly a four-hour infomercial about Idaho potatoes. Not only that, but the football conferences represented in the game include four of the nation’s five top potato-consuming states.
Now, it starts to make sense why the potato commission agreed to begin funding the bowl in 2011, taking over from what began as the Humanitarian Bowl in 1997.
In essence, the survival of these inferior bowls requires a one-two business punch from television and sponsors. You’ve got TV providing the base numbers to lure the title sponsors and those companies throwing around extra cash to make the games work when the gate numbers don’t.
We already mostly knew that as bad and poorly attended as some of these bowl games are, people actually watch them on TV. Drawing even a million viewers for any game is a strong number that trumps studio content and gives ESPN — which has a near-monopoly on bowl games — incentive to use them as draws during otherwise slow midweek periods.
The Famous Potato Bowl drew about 1.5 million viewers on ESPN this year, so the potato commission’s comment about “2 million viewers’’ annually could be a reference to those watching via streaming devices as well. But it was still a jump from 1.1 million viewers that took in last year’s game and an indication why the commission’s sponsorship is now sealed.
Still, it hasn’t been a total success for bottom-end bowls this month. The Potato Bowl aside, ratings overall have trended downward from where they were a year ago.
Last year, only a single bowl game — the Miami Beach Bowl — failed to top 1 million viewers. This year, three games — the Camellia Bowl, Bahamas Bowl and New Orleans Bowl — missed that mark.
The Bahamas Bowl was particularly interesting in that it lost its title sponsor, Popeyes, earlier this year and did not find a replacement.
Popeyes had been the Nassau-based game’s sponsor since its 2014 inception. But the bowl has been plagued by dismal attendance — camera shots at times appearing to show only hundreds of fans at the 15,000-seat cricket stadium where the bowl takes place — and only marginally decent TV numbers.
So, there is, apparently, a floor as to how bad sponsors will let a bowl get before bolting.
But we won’t know for a while whether this foreshadows any emerging trend.
The declining TV numbers for some bowls this year could be attributable to scheduling, the fact that a number of games have featured blowouts, more viewers watching via streaming devices or something else at-play. Perhaps viewers are finally figuring out that hoisting a Camellia Bowl Trophy isn’t something that even the players doing it have dreamed about?
Whatever the reason, it’s something to keep an eye on. For this entire bad bowl thing to work, the TV numbers have to be there to offset the half-empty stadiums and keep sponsors interested.
Up to now, at least, the system has worked rather well on the business side.
And for now, on the fans’ side of things, the mediocrity is at long last over. Starting Monday, we get to watch the two College Football Playoff semifinal games as well as a bunch of powerhouse bowls named after fruit that no one has ever dared compare to an infomercial.