Mark Story: Bowl games on brink of irrelevance

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJanuary 5, 2013 

Sugar Bowl Football

Florida offensive linesman Chaz Green (75) reacts near the end of a 33-23 loss to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl NCAA college football game Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

DAVE MARTIN — AP

In college football history, it is entirely possible that 2012-13 will be remembered as the point when the bowl system reached its tipping point on the road toward irrelevancy.

Almost as shocking as Louisville's dismantling of Florida in the Sugar Bowl is how few people were in the Superdome to see it. The announced crowd, 54,178, was the smallest for a Sugar Bowl since 1939 and the smallest ever for any BCS bowl.

With a few exceptions, fans just saying no to attending bowl games has been the story of the current college football post-season.

According to figures compiled by The Birmingham News (which do not include the whopping 87,025 that turned out in Cowboys Stadium to see the fabulous Johnny Manziel torch Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl), average attendance was down 5 percent from last year's bowl season and 8 percent from 2010-11 through the first 30 of this season's 35 bowl games.

As the Birmingham newspaper noted, particularly hard hit have been bowls with SEC tie-ins.

The Gator Bowl (Mississippi State-Northwestern) in Jacksonville drew its second-smallest crowd (48,612) since 1960.

In Orlando, the Capital One Bowl (Georgia-Nebraska) saw its crowd (43,416) decline for the fourth straight season.

Atlanta's Chick-fil-A Bowl (Clemson-LSU) drew its second-smallest attendance (68,027) in the past 16 years.

With a crowd of 54,527, the Outback Bowl (South Carolina-Michigan) in Tampa was up 10 percent over last year — but under 60,000 for the fourth time in five years. From 2001-08, the Outback averaged 64,532.

Worst of all was the Sugar Bowl, the mac daddy of Southern bowl games.

From 1975-2009, the New Orleans-based bowl drew more than 70,000 fans every year but twice. Now, it has been below that mark in three of the past four seasons.

According to published reports, the blame for this year's smallish crowd rested primarily with Florida. While Louisville sold more than 15,000 of its bowl-allotted 17,500 tickets, Florida reportedly sold some 7,000.

You can't help but ask: If bowls are losing their cachet with fans in the pigskin-obsessed Deep South, what hope do they have anywhere long-term?

Other than the economy, two primary factors, I think, are undermining the appeal of bowl games.

One is an issue that almost never gets commented upon: Conference tie-ins with bowl games.

The practical effect of leagues sending teams to the same games every season is that fan bases are being asked to make the same trips over and over and over.

Consider:

Pittsburgh of the Big East (for now) has played in Birmingham's BBVA Compass Bowl for the past three seasons.

Poor Vanderbilt of the SEC has made three bowl trips since 2008, yet has never gotten to leave the state of Tennessee (two Music City Bowls in Nashville; one trip to Memphis for the Liberty Bowl).

Between 1999 and 2009, Kentucky played in the Music City Bowl four times. South Carolina has been in the Outback Bowl four times in the 2000s. Mississippi State has now competed in the Gator Bowl twice in the past three seasons.

Bottom line: Even trips to good locations become old-hat if you are asked to visit the same destination over and over and over.

The other thing undermining the appeal of the bowl system is the BCS Championship Game. Once it came into being, all the post-season bowls other than the title game became different levels of a football NIT.

That phenomenon is only going to get worse. Once the four-team college football playoff begins in 2014, even more oxygen will be sucked from the bowl system.

As adamant as university presidents have been that the playoff will not grow beyond four, the same pressures that led to multiple expansions of the NCAA men's basketball tournament are likely to prove irresistible in college football, too.

If — when — the playoff system starts to expand, any bowl games trying to exist outside the tournament will only lose more prestige.

Which is not to say the bowls will die quickly. It's possible that ESPN and other cable sports outlets, with their need for programming inventory, will prop up the bowls and keep many alive.

Still, if this season's bowl attendance trends continue and the games become viewed as even less meaningful, at some point don't they lose much of their appeal as TV programming, too?

Tipping point.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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