It's Time To Pop The Bowl Bubble

The general opinion of the college football blogosphere regarding bowl bloat is a laissez-faire one. My reading of the zeitgeist is "let them eat cake in Shreveport" if someone—these days usually ESPN—is willing to pay for it. The continued existence of bowl games in New Mexico, and Boise paying teams that participate in them a combined total of $1.5 million, is an economic miracle along the same lines as perpetually rising home prices that keep aloft an ever-more-frantic housing market and -- oh wait, that didn't work out very well after all.

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With the quiet announcement that the requirements for bowl eligibility are now "have a bowl that is interested in you" and nothing more, it's time to call a stop on bowl mania. This is the point where bowl executives are packaging up Somalia and Juarez and selling them to unsuspecting local populaces without disclosing their contents.

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Scrubby bowls harm small college football teams coming and going. The scrabble for six wins (or, now, the prettiest five wins) causes low-end teams to load up on I-AA schools when they could be fattening their wallets in marginally more watchable contests against big schools. The bowls themselves end up huge money sinks because bowls require schools to buy thousands of tickets they know will go unsold. Yours truly in December:

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Since a sizable cut of their guarantee is being fed right back to the bowl in the form of ticket guarantees that aren't coming close to being met even for BCS games, the result is a net loss for everyone except the bowl operators. (One reason you'll never see this story on ESPN: the network now operates a half-dozen bowl games of little repute.) The MAC received a $2.1 million kickback from the BCS last year; bowl games the conference actually played in lost more money than they brought in.

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Bowls 25 through 37 are parasites rather than fun junkets for underappreciated gladiators from Division I's obscurer conferences. Teams like Western Michigan are all but guaranteed to take a significant loss when more than half of their payout is eaten up by mandatory ticket purchases at exorbitant rates. Western Michigan dares not turn down a bowl bid, however, because it would strip them of critical practice time and crush recruiting when other MAC schools crow that, even if the Broncos get invited to the Mongolia Bowl, they won't go.

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Three steps to minimize these perverse incentives:

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  1. Ban mandatory ticket allotment scams. Bowls can still give teams ticket allotments, but the NCAA should mandate that any bowl that wants to be certified will allow teams to return any unsold tickets.
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  3. I-AA teams don't count for anything. Remove the motivation for small schools to schedule even smaller schools in a futile effort to waste a lot of money.
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  5. Bowl practice for everyone. There should be no "think of the children" responses when half of D-I is already signing itself up for an additional 14 practices. Bowl-less teams could even schedule theirs so as to not conflict with hallowed finals.
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Whereas my rattling on about guarantee games and horrible scheduling incentives has the potential to drain money out of the system, these steps are either revenue-neutral or actually profitable for beleaguered athletic departments facing hard choices. Therefore they are feasible. Six or seven bowl games would probably evaporate, but no one would miss them, especially not the athletic departments currently shelling out to keep them afloat.

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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