Now it’s the bowls’ turn to pay. And the commissioners are on the mother.
“Since we’ve made such a significant change with the playoff, it’s a perfect time to look at the bowls and how they work,” SEC commissioner Mike Slive said this week. “This is a very good time to take a hard look at how we do our bowl relationships and see if there’s a better way.”
Now we all know what that really means. There’s not really a crisis.
As the FBA’s media guide points out, no conference lost money during the 2011-12 bowl season. The leagues combined to make nearly $180 million after expenses. The conferences choose to split that money among all members.
There’s just a situation waiting to be squeezed. And Jim Delany thinks he’s getting pretty good at that.
Delany and potential Big Ten bowls have discussed possible models in which the bowls and conferences combine to “share both the upside and downside.” For instance, in the case of a dud matchup, both the bowl and the schools/conferences would absorb the blow in ticket sales. However, in the case of a particularly popular matchup, the schools/conferences would have the chance to earn more than their expected payout by selling more than their initial allotment.
Mandel has a pretty good handle on where things are headed.
In the new cycle, conferences will dictate the terms rather than vice versa. The SEC and Big 12 provided the blueprint with last year’s creation of their so-called Champions Bowl matchup, subsequently awarded to the Sugar Bowl. In a departure from the traditional paradigm, the leagues, not the bowl, sold the event to ESPN. Terms have not been disclosed, but sources who saw the original proposal say the leagues planned to retain nearly all the television and sponsorship revenue while essentially paying the bowl committee a fee to run the event.
With the exception of the Rose, already co-managed by the Big Ten and Pac-12, it’s believed the other five playoff-host bowls will fall under a similar operating structure. Each bowl (the Fiesta, Cotton and Chick-fil-A are expected to join the Rose, Sugar and Orange) will host four semifinal games over 12 years, and if this year’s Sugar Bowl was an indication, they may have to rely heavily on those playoff games to subsidize the other years. In years the Sugar Bowl “is not a semifinal, it could be viewed as a letdown [for fans],” said Bowlsby. “One of the reasons we went with New Orleans is because we look at it as a significant tourist attraction.”
It’s unlikely the Sugar Bowl model would trickle down to the lower bowls, as the ticket revenue most generate is not enough to sustain themselves. Given the current climate, one director of a mid-level bowl told SI.com he doesn’t expect the game to continue in the next cycle. There may be others that don’t survive, either.
If that’s the case, don’t be surprised if ESPN, which currently owns seven bowls, creates new ones to replace the fallen. Even its lowest-tier bowls (Beef ‘O’ Brady’s, GoDaddy.com, etc.) garner decent enough ratings to support a 35-bowl system. In a telling example, the network’s Dec. 15 Arizona-Nevada New Mexico Bowl broadcast drew a higher rating (1.9) than Butler’s overtime upset of No. 1 Indiana on CBS during the same time window (1.5). It doesn’t affect ESPN, which owns and operates the New Mexico Bowl, that only 24,610 fans attended the game in person.
In other words, the middleman is being eliminated. The conferences will take control of the glamor bowls – more importantly, the matchups in the glamor bowls - and ESPN will control the rest. TV’s role will become even more outsized. The conferences will negotiate smaller ticket guarantees for the lesser bowls and leave those to fend for themselves with the secondary ticket market (not that ESPN cares about that).
So get used to what you’re seeing before New Year’s. It’s not going to change much, other than a location move here and there. The product will continue to be there. The crowds won’t.