Saturday, December 29, 2012

Too many bowls? Blame ESPN

image There is a debate currently raging on talk radio, social media and internet message boards over the number of college football bowl games being played. Some say that the nearly non-stop schedule of 35 games played between December 15, 2012 and January 7, 2013 devalue the significance of postseason play. The other side contends that any college football is better than no college football at all, and the number of opportunities for postseason play is a good thing for the sport and the players who suit up for the games.

Whichever side of this argument you fall on, you have to acknowledge that the reason we have all of these games is because ESPN wanted the inventory and made sure the Worldwide Leader got the rights to most of the games. ESPN owns seven bowls outright—Gildan New Mexico, Beef O’Brady’s, MAACO, Sheraton Hawai’i, Meineke Car Care, Bell Helicopter Armed Forces and BBVA Compass. The parent network ABC and the three primary ESPN channels broadcast all but two—the Hyundai Sun and the AT&T Cotton.

It’s a saturated market, according to one report from the Birmingham News’ Jon Solomon, who explains that the 2011-12 season saw the lowest average TV ratings since the 1998 peak of the BCS era and another report on attendance shows declining average attendance.

These reports can be taken two ways. The first is that a saturated market means fewer people going to and watching each of the lesser bowl games. But the other is that with more bowl games to choose from, more people than ever are watching and going to bowls.

I touched on this back in January. While the average attendance is down, total attendance is historically high. I don’t have ready access to historical TV ratings data, but if there’s any correlation between bowl attendance and TV viewers (I’m betting that there is), there are more people watching bowl games now than ever before. The last two to three years have indeed seen a leveling off and/or a slight decline in attendance and viewership, but the long term trend shows that ESPN was business smart. They sensed an unmet demand for college postseason games. Of the 12 bowl games added to the slate since 2002, ESPN either bought or founded seven of them and now has an iron grip on the TV rights.

During the off-season, a few conference commissioners floated the idea of increasing the number of wins for bowl eligibility from six to seven. The matter never came up for a vote. When the commissioners went back to their conference member schools, they found little support for a move that would certainly have killed off several of the smaller bowls.

College football is the second most popular sport, trailing only the NFL in fan following and TV marketability. While there have been some serious ho-hummers between 6-6 teams in tiny no-name bowls, it's still a valuable inventory and the real powers that be--the presidents and chancellors--understand that.

When you have a valuable inventory that you know people will buy, you don’t remove it from the marketplace. You package it and sell it for the best price you can get for it while giving your players an opportunity to play a team they rarely face, in a venue they may never get to play in again.

The story linked in the January post uses fuzzy math to suggest that the inventory isn’t valuable. Maybe that was intentional. Maybe it was just sloppy journalism. But the fact remains that using average bowl attendance and viewership figures to argue that the total level of interest is the lowest in history is simply wrong.

The argument for or against the current bowl schedule then becomes qualitative rather than quantitative. You can make a strong case that a lot of the teams playing in bowls this season don’t really deserve to be there. You can argue that East Popcorn State against Northeastern State West is bad football. But you can’t argue that people aren’t interested in the college football postseason. If they weren’t, ESPN wouldn’t be showing so many games and those presidents and chancellors would have let a bunch of them go dark.

The four team playoff that arrives for the 2014 season may change the landscape dramatically. Those who want fewer bowl games may get their wish when the market reevaluates the postseason slate. No one yet knows exactly how the playoff will affect games like and BBVA Compass Bowls. But if ESPN and the powers that be have their way, the change will be incremental rather than monumental.

Here’s a change that makes sense from a free market perspective: Forbid any bowl game from requiring schools to purchase a set amount of tickets, hotel rooms at ridiculous rates and seats at pricey banquets. Let these games sink or swim on their own and watch what happens. Schools shouldn’t lose money on bowl games that can’t sell their own tickets or generate tourism revenue on their own. If Presidents just say no to ticket, travel and entertainment allotments, the market will take care of the bowls that don’t belong.

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