UNDER FURTHER REVIEW – Made-for-TV bowl games have changed everything

In case you haven’t noticed—and it’s perfectly fine, and even understandable, if you haven’t—college football bowl season is upon us. And as they say, it ain’t what it used to be.

As of today, THIRTEEN bowl games already have been played, and TWO MORE will be contested today (one in the afternoon, another at night). That leaves TWENTY-EIGHT to be played (and televised) in the 12 days between Christmas Eve and January 4, 2022. (That makes FORTY-THREE.)

Remember when an invitation to a bowl game was something teams waited anxiously to receive and often were disappointed . . . when only the best teams got to play an extra game—and some very good and deserving teams didn’t make the cut? For example, when Michigan State finished 8-1 and ranked third in the nation in 1957, but didn’t receive a bowl bid?

In 1958 (for the 1957 season) there were seven major bowl games—SEVEN: Rose (played annually since 1916), Sun, Sugar and Orange (all since 1935), Cotton (since 1937), Gator (since 1946) and Tangerine (since 1947). The 43 this year does not include the College Football Playoff championship game, which is scheduled for January 10.

What happened, you ask?  In call letters: ESPN. 

Launched in 1979, the 24-hour sports television network has grown into ESPN2, ESPN 3, ESPN News, ESPNU, ESPN Classic, ESPN+ (streaming), 10 specialty and conference channels, and multinational sporting event promoter ESPN Events. It’s the latter that has contributed to the proliferation of second-rate bowl games in the last two decades.

About two-thirds of this year’s bowl games exist because of ESPN or ESPN Events. The cable network will televise 36—THIRTY-SIX—of the 43 bowls, and its sister event promoter owns—OWNS—17 of them. Few will attract enough fans to survive on their own, but ESPN’s rights fees keep them solvent. Ad revenues cover those fees, and then some.

The upshot is that EIGHTY-SIX schools will play in bowl games this year—more than six times the number following the 1957 season. Of those 86, FORTY-ONE have seven or fewer victories (17 at 7-5 and one 7-6), TWENTY-TWO of them lost as many games as they won (6), and one has a losing record (Hawaii, 6-7) yet qualifies with six victories. 

Six is the magic number, set by the NCAA as the number of victories required to be “bowl eligible.” More than 40 schools finished with six or more victories in 1957, and that was when many teams played nine-game schedules. Two-thirds of them stayed home.

What happens when there are more “bowl-eligible” teams than there are bowls? The answer is simple: add another game.

It happened this year, in fact. After the San Francisco Bowl went under, the NCAA, at virtually the last minute, approved the addition of the Frisco Football Classic game—that’s Frisco, Texas, not slang for the City By The Bay. It will be played two days after the Frisco Bowl and 16 days before the FCS national championship game in the same location (also televised, on ESPN2). Miami (Ohio) and North Texas, a pair of 6-6 teams, will meet in the FFC. 

Along with ensuring that no 6-6 team was left behind, the NCAA by approving the FFC was able to justify admitting the University of Hawaii to the 2021 Bowl Club despite its losing record. That way the Rainbow Warriors get to host Memphis, another of those 6-6 teams, in Honolulu on Christmas Eve.

So, what to make of all these bowl games?

Coaches love them for the extra practices and the head start on next season they represent, and ESPN obviously loves them, for the programming they provide and the revenue they generate. Sports Books no doubt relish the extra action.

But what about the fans and, especially TV viewers? Essentially, two-thirds of the bowl games are matchups that wouldn’t make a small ripple during the regular season. But they’re presented as “events” this time of year.

Ralph Russo, a writer for The Associated Press, penned a “Why Watch” piece last week that looked at each game and offered a reason to tune in—tongue-in-cheek in some cases.

I particularly liked his thinking on two December 29 games: the first Fenway Bowl in Boston between 8-4 SMU and 6-6 Virginia (because “You miss baseball.”); and the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium matching 6-6 Maryland and 6-6 Virginia Tech (because “You really miss baseball.”).

Even better, though, was his comment on why to watch the Hawaii Bowl: “How many times can you watch ‘It’s a Wonderful Life”? Really.” And his reason to watch the Camellia Bowl between Ball State (6-6) and Georgia State (7-5) on Christmas Day: “How many times can you watch ‘A Christmas Story’? Really.”

Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but Idaho Potato Bowl . . . Gasparilla Bowl . . . Cheez-It Bowl . . .  Duke’s Mayo Bowl . . . and Outback Bowl just don’t have the same ring as Rose Bowl . . . Sugar Bowl . . . Cotton Bowl . . . Orange Bowl . . . or Sun Bowl. 

Mostly, they just make me think of food, which I guess is the idea anyway.

Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 13 books, seven of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at dennydressman@comcast.net.