There was nothing particularly different about this year's crop of bowl games relative years past. Just like last season and years prior, December and January saw lots of empty seats, lots of boring matchups and lots of uninspired fan bases.
Yet with the 2014 playoff looming, there's a chance for reform, not only for the postseason structure that determines college football's undisputed champion, but the entire bloated slate of bowls, right down to your GoDaddies and BBVA Compasses.
Might we suggest Nashville, Tenn., as a model solution for non-BCS 2.0 bowls? Despite being stuck with Vanderbilt, a hometown team that would do little to push hotel reservations or downtown bar tabs, the Music City Bowl drew strong numbers - strong as in once-woeful Vandy nearly doubling its allotment of 10,000 tickets - for yet another year.
The game, played outdoors in the usually mucky Nashville holiday weather, has become a quiet success in recent years partially because of what CEO Scott Ramsey has noticed is a combination of curb appeal and a little luck of the draw. Rather than select teams closer to the top of college football's elite that might be disinterested or suffering travel fatigue, the Music City Bowl continues to land in that sweet spot: SEC teams returning to the postseason after a drought with fans looking to party.
It was certainly cold and gloomy at domeless LP Field on New Year's Eve morning, but the Music City Bowl was still a rousing success.
In 2012 it was a Vandy team that recorded a historic ninth win when they defeated N.C. State in front of more than 55,000 fans. The year prior it was a Mississippi State team that had never been to the bowl and was playing in only its third postseason game since 2001. Another crowd of 55,000. The game was even lucky enough to land the apex of the Derek Dooley era in 2010, when the Vols lost to North Carolina in front of 69,000 people. Two of the four years prior, Kentucky and Clemson played to announced crowds of 68,000 and 57,000, respectively.
Shudder to think: fans filling up a touristy downtown, buying up hotel rooms and booze and gleefully watching their near-.500 team play another also-ran. In the post-playoff landscape, isn't that supposed to be the model of success for the bowls that survive?
Vandy kept the Music City Bowl's streak of strong turnout alive and then some, but they weren't the school everyone was after. At scummy Legion Field an estimated 45,000 Ole Miss fans packed out the BBVA Compass Bowl last Saturday amid terrible weather and even worse conditions. Normally the Compass is a pointless post-BCS, pre-title castaway game designed solely to sell TV ads (ESPN owns the bowl -- this year it was scheduled to air as filler preceding the start of the first NFL playoff game). But thanks to the game's agreement with the SEC, the bowl landed Ole Miss, which, thanks to agressive ticket demand, became the most-desired school among the bowls with a non-BCS SEC tie-in. Meanwhile, bowls higher up in the selection process (including the mighty Sugar) failed to sell close to the Compass' announced total of 59,124.
That's because of the impractical selection system itself. At 6-6, the Rebels were bowl eligible for the first time in three seasons, and coming off of a win over rival Mississippi State, fan enthusiasm was at a three-season high. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs finished 8-4 after their loss to the Rebels, a two-win gap that invokes what's known as the "gentlemen's agreement" among non-BCS bowls with SEC tie-ins: bowls can't skip one team for another if there's more than a one-game difference in wins. Added to the mix was Vanderbilt, which at 8-4 had just put up its strongest record in decades but still carried the stigma of having a sparse and uninterested fan base (despite selling out its allotment to the Liberty Bowl in 2011).
The Music City Bowl provides a simple lesson: meaningless football games are only profitable when the players and fans involved are excited enough to make the game meaningful, if only to them (and a home viewing audience that's proven it will pretty much watch any football game).
If lackluster attendance at some of the year's biggest bowl games taught college football anything, it's that sometimes getting stuck with six and seven-win teams is the best business model for a severely flawed postseason system.
That said, here are a few gentle suggestions for any and all potential revisions:
1. Kill the mandatory ticket allotment. It's one of the blackest eyes for bowl PR, and its removal would help smaller schools actually afford these events. The Independence Bowl states that the participating SEC school must sell 10,000 tickets, but when ULM replaced the SEC this year, the bowl was freed of that agreement and raised the allotment to 15,000, a number the Warhawks didn't hit and thus lost money on.
And in the age of third-party brokers it's counterproductive for schools to try and hype up a bowl by directing their fans to buy more expensive tickets through official channels. Ramsey admitted that allotment sales figures have always been an inexact measurement of each school's turnout.
"You always wait around until kickoff and then you'll see true numbers by the colors in the stands," he said, estimating after the game that Vandy might've almost doubled their numbers from their initial allotment just by the eye test at LP Field.
2. Drop tie-ins that can't possibly be filled. Currently the SEC has a record nine non-BCS bowl tie-ins, meaning that in order to realistically place a team in each game, they'd need 11 teams (nine plus two for the BCS or playoff bowls, given recent trends) with six or more wins. The potential for that happening is insanely low, so let's open lower-tier bowls like the BBVA Compass to a wider market.
For instance, had the Independence Bowl - the lowest on the current SEC tie-in totem pole - actually received say, a 6-6 Missouri team this season, it's a stretch to think it would've sold more tickets than it did to excited bowl newbies ULM. The Sun Belt sent four teams this season, but couldn't find a home for eligible Western Kentucky last season and Middle Tennessee this year. Surely a market of bowls free from prior agreements would give more teams wanting to play in bowls better shots.
3. Declare survival of the fittest bowls. In the case of the SEC, a four-team playoff plus partnered bowls could easily take three member schools each season, meaning that remaining bowl-eligible teams would move up. If more major conferences adopt nine-game conference schedules, that means less bowl-eligible teams (subtract one automatic win) available from those sources anyway. That might hurt bowls at the very bottom and even some in the middle, but not others.
Consider that Georgia came a play short of their first national title game appearance in a generation, yet the Capital One Bowl in Orlando was teeming with fans for a game that meant nothing against a Nebraska team that had just been blown out by Wisconsin. Why? Because Orlando is sunny and warm and kids like theme parks. Some places are simply better than others to visit in winter.
You know that crap bowl game you can't believed you watched, like, say, the Compass? ESPN owns that. ESPN*, not a state or city or local partnership of business, but the network conglomerate with more money than God.
(*Seven bowls are owned by ESPN Regional Television, a subsidiary of ESPN. Check out more on that here.)
4. Create new equity. No matter how a fan purchases a ticket - box office, StubHub, etc. - allow for every arriving person at a bowl game to be counted for one school or another. It's a far more accurate way of judging turnout by school, and it builds a more accurate reflection of support.
And since any game that isn't a playoff is an arbitrary exhibition for profit, that allows schools to be valued fairly. Bowls are for-profit (ignore whatever the tax return designates them), so they should have the freedom to invite whichever team they feel best generates revenue. If smaller or growing schools want in, do what Vandy did - sell more than your than your allotment and increase your numbers as you go from a smaller bowl (Liberty in '11) to a mid-sized one (Music City in '12).
One athletic director of a school in a bowl this season summed it up: "Our fan base, and I don't blame them one bit, took the more logical route of buying cheaper tickets outside of the school. When you looked out at the stadium, it's obvious we had more than sold the allotment given to us, but not officially. So our school paid almost what you could consider a penalty fee because cheaper tickets were available, even though we made up almost the entire crowd at the game."
5. Focus on matchups. Shudder to think someone actually worry about creating an interesting pairing of teams based on the actual football played. After all, the ESPN-owned bowls exist solely to create ad revenue (we're all watching the GoDaddy Bowl -- that's why it's still on). That means the moment that game can't prove to draw ratings and thus earn ad revenue, it's gone.
Bowls should create spectacles, and if a game is irrelevant to the title, why not chase a match-up of the best available offense vs. the best available defense, affiliations and records be damned?
6. Go back in time, at least in theory. Under their original guise, it takes more than even ticket sales and TV ratings to deem a bowl a success. The original model was designed to boost revenue for cities and communities (not just pair the best available teams together). If non-playoff bowls are to still exist after 2014, they'd do better to go back to their roots and build up an event, not a game.
"The rhetoric moved away from the original missions of the bowls," Ramsey said. "When you look at those historic bowls – Cotton, Citrus, Rose, Orange, Sugar – they created a model similar to ours: A community-based effort to use football as a means to bring people to a city. You have to create a great event, not just a game.
I think the national media and the pressures around not having a playoff changed things. It became centered around the fact that bowls shouldn't be an event, they should be a game. There's a pressure now to create a game and not an event. We want to be an event, we're a great destination, a place to come have fun for a few days and follow your team"
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