- The Washington Times - Friday, December 24, 1999

Indigestion is a staple of the holidays, but sports fans may be choking this season on a smorgasbord of 23 bowl games that is overshadowed by one main course the Bowl Championship Series.The series which culminates this year with the Sugar Bowl threatens the very existence of several lesser bowls already weakened by runaway growth, diluted competition and lagging TV ratings and attendance.Now in its second year, the BCS has successfully undercut supporters of a college football playoff tournament by creating a single bowl game between the two best teams in the country. No. 1-ranked Florida State will play No. 2 Virginia Tech Jan. 4 in New Orleans.The game also has helped remove some of the luster of and interest in the lower-prestige games, college football officials say. Contests like the Sun Bowl and Outback Bowl never really played a key role in determining the champion, or even the Top 10 in the final rankings. But for years, the games still represented a significant reward for top regular season play and generated widespread fan attention.No longer. With eight top teams now separated into the big-money BCS bowls the Sugar, Fiesta, Orange and Rose the implied message is that the other bowls don't really matter anymore.The result is a revolving December slate of bowl games largely devoid of either history or meaning. The Bluebonnet, Cherry and Carquest bowls are history, replaced by the Micronpc.com Bowl, the Humanitarian Bowl and the Music City Bowl. The bowl lineup this year comprises a record 23 games, involving 46 of 112 Division I teams.And as the number of bowls surges and minimum payouts to schools rise to $750,000, the quality of competition clearly has diminished. This year's bowl lineup will include six teams with 6-5 records, the bare minimum for bowl eligibility. Syracuse, playing in the Music City Bowl, limped in with four losses in its last five games, including a 62-0 pasting by Virginia Tech.Fans have begun to show their disgust. Attendance for the Insight.com Bowl in Tucson, Ariz., fell 27 percent last year to 36,147 persons. The Micronpc.com Bowl in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., formerly the Blockbuster and Carquest bowls, now draws about half of what it did during its 1990s heyday. Schools competing in the recent Las Vegas and Mobile Alabama bowls failed to sell their allotted numbers of tickets.Even the Gator Bowl, held Jan. 1 in football-mad Jacksonville, Fla., now draws about 10 percent less than it did during the 1980s.TV ratings, too, have been spotty for ESPN and ESPN2, which broadcast nearly all of the early bowls."If I said the BCS didn't have some effect on us, I'd be lying," said John Folmer, chairman of El Paso, Texas' Sun Bowl, which dates to 1935. "Fans obviously want to see as many ranked teams as possible, regardless of what game it is. The premium has been and remains creating a high-quality matchup year in and year out, and that can be a challenge."A key element hurting the lesser bowls, sports industry experts say, is the way the teams are selected.The large bowls, such as the Rose, automatically pit the champion of a major conference against the winner of another large conference, a practice guaranteed to draw interest. Many of the small bowls also have automatic bids from conferences, but their teams are usually the third, fourth, fifth or even sixth best team."Over time, it's just inevitable that some of these games are really going to struggle and not provide the compelling TV ratings the networks want. Just look at all the 6-5 teams we have this year," said Rick Burton, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon."The schools, of course, want to be in a bowl, and alumni and boosters in most cases will always be strong supporters and go to these games, but after that, then what?"The BCS effect on the lesser games even extends to logistics because many of the smaller contests cannot finish planning until the BCS lineup is set. The major bowl matchups were formally decided on Dec. 5, several days earlier than last year. But for some games, that's still too late for fans to make travel plans and get the best air fares."The decisions were streamlined this year, and that sprung other people free a bit earlier, but we still recognize El Paso can be a tough place to get to," Folmer said.Roy Kramer, Southeastern Conference chairman and head of the BCS, denied the new setup was hurting the smaller bowls."You're going to have good bowls and bad bowls, but you have to remember that these games succeed mainly on a local level," Kramer said. "These games aren't often a huge deal in New York, Chicago or Washington. But they are absolutely a huge deal in college towns like Starkville, Mississippi; College Station, Texas; and Shreveport, Louisiana."With lesser matchups becoming the norm, the most successful of the smaller bowls have worked harder than ever to package their product.For example, the Aloha and Oahu bowls, once separate games played in Hawaii, are now staged in a Christmas Day doubleheader designed to stimulate tourist traffic.And organizers for San Antonio's Alamo Bowl, a fast-growing event that sold out weeks ago, successfully sold a two-game ticket package that paired their game with the Big 12 Conference title contest on Dec. 4."The big bowls have always been the big bowls and always will be the big bowls," said Steve Schmader, executive director of the Boise, Idaho, Humanitarian Bowl, played for the past two years on the Boise State University's blue artificial turf. "I really can't worry about that. My aim is simply remaining financially viable and putting on a great end product with real value for the fans and people of Boise."Remaining financially viable, however, is where the bowl business gets tricky and what can drive a game out of existence.The cost to stage a bowl usually starts at $3 million, and with attendance and TV rights flat or falling, organizers have had little choice but to turn to corporate naming rights despite widespread fan sentiment against the practice.The companies, in turn, have used college bowls for years to reach young and middle-aged males with little to do over the holidays but sit in front of the TV.But again, the might of the BCS and the uncertain future of the lesser games have led several companies to make their naming right buys a short-term deal. Crucial.com, a maker of computer memory chips, is sponsoring the Humanitarian Bowl, but for this year only."This is a new venture for us, and we only signed the contract five or six weeks ago," said Tyler Andrew, spokesman for Crucial.com. "We still need to get a feel for return on investment and if this is something we're going to continue with. Right now, we're not making any long-term commitments."With support for a 16-team college football playoff still growing, life for small bowl organizers will ultimately boil down to tourism. Like their counterparts at the Humanitarian Bowl, organizers for the Sun Bowl and several other lesser games have long since given up on any delusions of holding a game involving a Top 10 team.Instead, the Sun Bowl has become one of west Texas' primary tourism promotion efforts. City officials and residents recognized this by approving a rental-car-tax increase that funnels $2 million annually to the game."That money is critical, a third of our total budget," Folmer said. "We plan in being in business for a long time."Similarly, several cities, including Houston and San Francisco, are now trying to create bowls and get a piece of the holiday travel pie."We're not trying to pretend to be anything we're not with the football," said Scott Ramsey, executive director of the Music City Bowl. "Our game is not going to determine the national champion. But it is absolutely going to be a showcase for the city of Nashville."

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