‘Tis the Season for Bowl Scams – Ho Ho Ho

[To listen to the audio version, click here: Bacon_final_bowl_sham_w_web_open_12-7-12]

College football’s regular season ended Saturday, with the various conference championship games closing out a 14-week season. The next day, Sunday, the 35 bowl games sent out their invitations to 70 lucky teams. But when you look a little closer at their bowl offers, you have to wonder if those 70 teams were really that lucky at all.

The people who sell bowl games need us to believe a few things:

-Their games are rewards for teams that had a great season;

-They offer players and fans a much-wanted vacation;

-The bowls are non-profits, while the schools make a killing.

These claims are nice – and would be even nicer if any of them they were actually true.

Forty years ago, college football got by with just eleven bowl games. The 22 teams the bowls invited were truly elite, and so were the bowls themselves – like the Orange Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, the Cotton Bowl and The Granddaddy of Them All, the Rose Bowl. Back then, when your team got into a bowl game, you knew they’d done something special.

But in the past four decades, the number of bowls has more than tripled, to a staggering 35. The “bowl season” now stretches almost a full month, which is how many days you need to fit in such timeless classics as the The Meineke Car Care Bowl, the Advocare V100 Independence Bowl, and the legendary Taxslayer.com Bowl.

How many Taxslayer.coms fit into a bowl? It’s a question only theologians can answer.

To fill this glut of games, the bowls need 70 willing teams. But there are just 124 teams to choose from, and by definition, only 62 are above average. So some bowls have to settle for teams that didn’t finish in the top half of their sport – let alone their conferences. This year, 13 bowl teams don’t even have winning records.

When your team gets into a bowl game today, you know they… must not be on probation.

What used to be a special trip to be savored is now a chore to be completed. I’ve talked to hundreds of players, who’ve told me if they’re not going to one of the best bowls, they would rather skip the 15 mandatory practices, and the trip to Shreveport, or Boise, or Detroit, and stay home for the holidays.

The fans apparently feel the same way. Very few bowls sell their seats, and more than a third of them draw fewer than 40,000 fans. You can fire a canon in those stadiums, then go find the canon ball and fire it again, and still not hit anybody.

This is all silly excess, but it crosses the line into corruption when you look at the bowls’ finances. The bowls are officially non-profit, and they want you to believe it’s the schools they invite that are making out like bandits. But the only ones not profiting are the schools, their players, and the bands, which often have to pay for their seats before providing free half-time entertainment.

No, it’s the bowls themselves that make the money – and the coaches and athletic directors who receive bonuses for dragging their teams to these games.

Here’s how the bowl scam works: The schools have to pay for their flights, hotels and meals – which adds up to real money pretty fast when you start counting the hundreds of players, coaches, staffers, university VIPs and band members they bring. Then the bowls force them to buy tens of thousands of tickets they couldn’t give away if they tried.

And all that sets up the final outrage.  According to Dan Wetzel, Josh Peter and Jeff Passan’s authoritative book, Death to the BCS, which includes the best reporting on this subject I’ve seen, because the bowls can pick their guests from a number of different schools, they can take advantage of the schools’ irrational desire to play in a post-season game, by making them negotiate against each other for a coveted invitation. And this results in schools agreeing to accept less and less of the advertised pay-out, all the way down to nothing. And that is exactly what the Motor City Bowl actually paid Florida Atlantic in 2009. Shameless.

Only half the teams lose their bowl games, of course – but almost all of them lose their shirts going to them.

All this is bad enough, but right when you think it couldn’t get worse, here you go: the men in the gaudy blazers who run these “non-profit” bowls walk off with solid six-figure salaries – all for setting up one game a year, that no one wants to play in, or watch.

How do you fix this mess? Simple: Prohibit the practice of forcing schools to buy tickets they don’t want. (If the NCAA can prohibit schools from letting their student-athletes put cream cheese on a bagel for breakfast, they can prohibit this.) Second, make the bowls actually pay the schools exactly what they proudly announce they’re paying them. And while we’re at it: make the bowls pay for the schools travel expenses, too.

If the bowls decide it’s still worth it – and the better ones will — great. Everybody wins, just like the old days.

But if they don’t – and the lesser ones won’t – they’re free to close shop, and end the charade.

They won’t be missed.

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Radio stuff: On Friday mornings, these commentaries run at 8:50 on Michigan Radio (91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit, Flint, 104.1 Grand Rapids), and a few minutes later,  I join Sam Webb and Ira Weintraub LIVE from 9:05 to 9:25 on WTKA.com, 1050 AM.  And on Sunday mornings, from the start of football season to the end of March Madness, I co-host “Off the Field” with the legendary Jamie Morris on WTKA from 10-11 a.m.  And yes, there will be a quiz, so “stop what you’re doing, and listen!”

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“Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football” can be ordered now, in hardcover or paperback.

My next book, “Fourth and Long,” about the future of college football, will be published by Simon & Schuster in September, 2013.


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9 comments Leave a comment  

  • Mike Burkons December 7, 2012 at 7:33 am

    Great post. Can you give some examples of the high compensation paid to these “non-profit” bowl execs? What does the top guy make? How did he/she get the gig?? Did they have any relatable experience or just political connections? How much does their top staff make? Who are the people on these “non-profit” boards approving this comp? How did they get their board seats?

    I think this would be a great follow up. Turn on the lights!!!

    • johnubacon December 7, 2012 at 8:03 am


      Your answer is found in Death to the BCS, which I cited in the piece. In the chapter, “High Paid Blazers,” Wetzel et al. list many of the bowl CEO salaries. All are in six figures, many mid- to high-six figures — often about 10-percent of the bowl’s overall revenue.

      What’s more galling is this: what, exactly, are they paying them for? Selection, scouting? The picks are largely fixed by agreement with the leagues. Scouting? These are not football experts. Business savvy — needed to process million-dollar checks from sponsors and networks, and fleece universities out of millions?

      I suspect many would sign up for that job and do it for less.

      It goes without saying, but this needs to end.


      • Mike Burkons December 7, 2012 at 8:45 am

        Thanks for the reply and direction to that book. I hope someone like you can bring enough attention and embarrassment to this issue that things change. Btw, I am a Culver grad ’93. Too bad our time there didn’t overlap.

  • Ned December 7, 2012 at 7:34 am

    Truth in broadcasting…I love it! I used to look forward to a chance to make a bowl trip. Now it’s so watered down, not so much. And even as a huge Badger fan I’m not going to follow a five loss Wisconsin team to Pasadena.

  • GregShea December 7, 2012 at 9:46 am

    All of this begins and ends with the college presidents. There are no unwitting victims here among university leadership, athletic dept leadership, and coaches. So while the bowl directors clearly make out well, they are responding to market demand set by these others, in partnership with conference leadership and big television.

    Of course… all of this just shines a brighter light on the exploitation of the student-athletes themselves.

    And we haven’t even begun the discussion about the athletes not being allowed to study their desired curriculum because of conflicts with their sport obligations. (But the education is free!) Yep, nothing like a free degree in a field you have absolutely no interest in.

    Again… University Presidents.

  • John M. December 7, 2012 at 12:13 pm

    John U – like we have discussed before, Im all for the Bowl System and Polls and I am Anti Play-off. but the Bowl business has been killing itself, Let’s make “earning” a Bowl invite something special again not ordinary and run of the mill. eliminate at least 10-12 Bowls, im all for Bowls for the so -called smaller Confernces, MAC, Conf USA, Mtn West,Sun belt, Big East, but there is No way the MAC and Mtn should have 4-5 Bowl Slots, also get rid of these pre-determined Bowl tie-ins from the BCS Conferences. No way should the Big 10 have 8 Bowl Slots , SEC have 10 Bowl Slots, Im all for Bowls that want a good geographic Fit ( IE sending Rutgers, or North Carolina out to Hawaii may not be the best fit ) have 20-25 Bowl Games MAX

    Go to a Tier System Tier III Bowls for the smaller conferences and middle pack BCS Conf. teams IE: Independence,Hawaii,Liberty,Texas Bowl,Music City,Las vegas etc

    Tier II – Chick Fil-a, Outback, Cap one, Holiday, Gator,Alamo,Sun,etc

    Tier I – The traditional New Years Day Bowl Games, Rose, Orange,Cotton,Sugar, Fiesta

    ESPN could have a great selection, have Bowl Comm this team Qualifies for a only a Tier III Bowl, only Tier III Bowls can select the School, this Team Qualifies for Tier II Bowl a Tier II Bowl selects the team or drops down to the Tier III selection spot,etc,etc I thing it would a pretty neat concept, give a Bowl Invite the prestige it once had

    • Kurt OKeefe December 7, 2012 at 12:37 pm

      Amen. I believe the book discloses that Ohio lost money on that Fiesta Bowl trip. The coaches want more bowls, so they can argue they are successful, by, getting their terms to a bowl game.

  • Erin Amundson December 7, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    Very well said. I remember when the Rose Bowl was THE game to be in. Now you have the 5th best team in the Big Ten going to the Rose Bowl because they had a great game against Nebraska and because 2 of the remaining 4 teams are on probation. If it came down to just statistics, Nebraska should have gone to the Rose Bowl because apart from OSU, they were the best in the conference. On top of that, NIU is going to a BCS bowl game after having a season playing only all unranked opponents but one. In my opinion, getting rid of the BCS would solve many of these bowl issues.

    I had no idea the money flowed the way it did for the bowl games. I know that in instances like the Cowboy Classic, Alabama and Michigan both made quite a bit of money from it, but I did not know that the schools in some bowl games make out so poorly.

    Anyway, this was a great piece. I loved “Three and Out.” I’m looking forward to “Fourth and Long.”

  • Ed Kornblue December 9, 2012 at 9:25 am

    John: Your take on the existing system is right on!

    I have some strong feelings about the BCS and playoff system, myself. Let’s take a look at what has transpired for decades in Div II, Div III, and NAIA. They all have sixteen team playoffs starting in Dec. and ending by Jan.

    This same 16 team playoff could work with our major colleges as well, if only the college Presidents, the Knight Commission, and the NCAA get behind something like this. The “major bowls” can still partake for all those games involved in December, with perhaps the Final bowl game held on Jan 1st.
    This would necessitate casting aside many of the lesser and nonsensical bowls, along with eliminating the big TV influence to keep the present system going. Not so easy, but doable.
    This playoff system has worked forever in most of the other college sports, as well as the lesser Divisions in football. The time has come!


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