The Washington Times - January 8, 2009, 01:46PM

Count me among the cynics when it comes to college bowl games. I never understood the point of seeing two 7-5 teams show up two days before Christmas in Albequerque or Shreveport for a game sponsored by the latest dot-com or local bank.

But the reality is that bowls are pretty popular, according to ESPN, which televises most of the non-BCS bowls.


The Worldwide Leader reported yesterday that the 23 bowl games it televised this year averaged 2.81 million households, an 8 percent increase over last year. That’s a 2.5 rating, which is roughly twice what the network normally gets for a regular season NBA game. Now, keep in mind this an an average, so there are some games that were probably watched by only a million households or so. But that also means that several games did quite well, namely the Champs Sports Bowl between Florida State and Wisconsin, which drew nearly 5.1 million households to make it the second most-watched bowl game in ESPN history.

Local ratings were also high in some areas. The Roady’s Humanatarian Bowl, featuring Maryland against Nevada, drew a 5.8 rating in Baltimore, making it the most-watched cable broadcast in the city in December, save for a handful of Monday Night Football games.

Any executive at ESPN will tell you that college sports is a major driver of their programming, with college football right at the top. That’s why the network paid $500 million for the rights to the BCS from 2011 to 2014, and why it also owns and operates many of the bowls it televises.

It is worth pointing out, however, that the ratings for the BCS games on Fox have so far have been mixed at best. The Orange Bowl between Cincinnati and Virginia Tech drew a 6.1 rating, which is an all-time low. The Sugar Bowl between Utah and Alabama drew a 7.8 rating, up 11 percent from last year but still among the all-time worst. Meanwhile, the Rose Bowl on ABC drew 12.6 rating, the third-lowest in the BCS era. Stewart Mandel in Sports Illustrated speculates that the addition of a stand-alone national championship game may have taken the luster off of some of the BCS games.

It could be that ESPN just does a stellar job of promoting its games. It could be that many of the lower bowl games are on around Christmas, when folks are home and there’s not much else on TV. Or it could be that there are more die-hard college football fans out there than us cynical media types think.

Whatever the reason, it’s clear that non-BCS bowls are getting some of the best viewership in their history, while the BCS is sagging. Seems backwards, but the numbers tell the story.

- Tim Lemke