A whole bunch of the college football bowl games have already happened. I have not been glued to my TV set for fear of missing some important event for most of the games. I did watch most of the Utah/BYU game because of the rivalry angle involved and what looked like a blowout early – 35-0 in the first half – turned out to be a 35-28 game with some excitement at the end. I do not want to harp on the fact that there are too many bowl games; you already know my position on that. Rather I want to talk about some of the economics of bowl games as they apply to the schools involved.
When schools accept bowl invitations, one of the strings attached to the invitation is that each bowl game will require the schools to sell an allotment of tickets to the game. If they do not meet the allotment, the school then owes the bowl committee the value of the unsold tickets. That is one of the reasons that I check in on many of the bowl games for enough time to get a couple of broad crowd shots on my TV. I want to see how full the stands are and – if possible – how big the cheering sections for both schools may be.
As you may expect, schools in the “prestigious bowl games” – and the ones played on “advantageous dates” – tend to sell out their ticket allotments entirely. For example, Michigan State announced that it has already sold out its allotment of 13,000 tickets for the Cotton Bowl game against Alabama on 31 December. In fact, Michigan State said that it had more than 16,000 requests for tickets and could easily have sold more. The Athletic Department at Michigan State has some sort of relationship with Stub Hub in the ticket reselling business and is directing alumni and other fans to Stub Hub to acquire tickets for the Cotton Bowl game.
Michigan State was in the Cotton Bowl last year playing Baylor but did not sell out its allotment for that game. This year, the Cotton Bowl is a stepping stone to the CFP Championship Game; last year it was merely a bowl game against Baylor. That should give you an indication that fan interest in bowl games – even ones with a long history – is marginal.
At the other end of the spectrum, consider the plight of Washington State as they prepare for the Sun Bowl game against Miami in El Paso, TX on 26 December. Washington State’s allotment is 6,000 tickets and based on a report late last week, they had only sold 1,900 of them. Let me try to figure out why:
El Paso is a couple thousand miles from Pullman WA. Attending the game is going to cost a lot more than the cost of the tickets plus parking.
The game is the day after Christmas. Fans will either spend Christmas away from home or will have to make a long journey with flight connections on game day.
Miami is not a “big rivalry game”.
El Paso is not exactly a tourist mecca or a “destination city”.
Washington State is probably going to eat the cost of at least half of their ticket allotment in addition to whatever costs it incurs in shipping the team and the coaching staff and the band and the cheerleaders to the venue; it is part of the cost of doing business in college football.
I am not picking on Washington State; their situation is mirrored at loads of other schools who are playing in games at inconvenient times against opponents with little meaning to their fans in inconvenient places at inconvenient times. So, why do teams accept bids to play in these minor bowl games in the first place? The reason is that coaches love them for the following reason:
Teams not in bowl games had their last practices in late November or the first week of December. Teams in bowl games get to practice up until the time of the game. That gives “bowl teams” an extra 2 – 4 weeks of practice before the players show up for spring practices when the weather is nicer.
Coaches love the extra practice time that non-bowl teams are not allowed to have.
That is correct; the college football system is set up to take the better teams this year – the ones nominally at or over .500 – and give them a greater advantage over the teams that were not-so-good this year. It is sort of the NFL Draft system with the logic inverted; it would be as if the team that won the Super Bowl would get the overall #1 pick…
The whole business of getting fans to travel long distances over the Holidays to go and see a meaningless football game is going on in the face of data saying that overall attendance at college football games is in decline. According to a report at CBSSports.com, average attendance at a college football game this year was 43,288 fans. That is down from last year; it continues a slow 5-year decline and it is down 7% from the peak average attendance of 45,456 in 2008.
The “major conferences” were well above this average but the “minor conferences were not. To fill all of the minor bowl games, they need lots of schools from the “minor conferences” where fans do not show up when the games are conveniently on campus. In 2015, 29 schools had average attendance at home games below 20,000 fans.
10 schools in the MAC were under 20,000; 5 averaged less than 15,000; 2 MAC schools averaged less than 8,000 fans per game.
7 schools in the Sun Belt were under 20,000; 3 averaged less than 15,000 fans per game.
[Aside: Idaho is in the Sun Belt Conference. Do they teach geography at Idaho?]
6 schools in Conference USA were under 20,000; 2 averaged less than 15,000 fans per game.
3 schools in the Mountain West were under 20,000 fans per game.
I understand that watching many of these teams play football is a lot more comfortable when done on TV. I also understand that football is not a big tradition at many of these schools. Nonetheless, it does point out that it is not going to be easy to get fans from those schools to undertake the expense and the inconvenience of Holiday travel just to see another football game that might well be ignored if it were played across the street.
Finally, there are these facts from one of the 2015 college bowl games that is already in the books:
San José St (average attendance 15,312) beat Georgia St (average attendance 10,347) 27-16 in the Cure Bowl game held at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, FL.
With that win, San José St. ended its season with a record of 6-7.
With that loss, Georgia St. ended its season with a record of 6-7.
The Citrus Bowl seats 70,000 fans; the announced attendance for the game was 18,000 souls. Even with that obviously inflated report of the attendance, the Citrus Bowl was 75% empty.
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………