If you cut on the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl yesterday, like I did, this would have caught your eye:
I know the weather sucked, the two schools were playing in Boise and neither has much of a fan base that travels, but I’ve seen high school games with bigger crowds. Much bigger.
The thing is, most of these bowl games aren’t being played for the live crowds. It’s about something else.
The bowl seems less a game than a civic endeavor, a chance at a quick economic boost and a way to show off Montgomery to a prime-time audience, which could be about 2.2 million, based on viewership for the ESPN-owned bowls that were shown on ESPN and ESPNU. It is also a way for Montgomery to pull even with Birmingham and Mobile, which have long hosted bowls.
“It’s about community pride,” said Mayor Todd Strange, for whom the game is one item on a list of economic development projects. “It’s about revenue. Mobile says GoDaddy is worth $20 million. That might be on the high side. This year, we think we’ll have a $5 million to $7 million impact.”
Throw in that bowl expansion has allowed more mid-majors to participate (per the Sun Belt commissioner: “If you look at the number of new bowl games created in the last 18 months, they’ve all been done to accommodate the conferences that have been underserved by the bowl system.”) and it’s easy to see why we’re now at 39 bowl games.
There’s a reason ESPN keeps adding on games like the Camellia Bowl. It’s the same reason the WWL has pushed for a weekly selection committee show – more broadcasting fodder. As long as there’s an audience, it’ll keep upping the supply. It’s profitable.
Just ask Buffalo Wild Wings.
Buffalo Wild Wings moved up to the big leagues for the 2014-2015 season when it snared the Citrus Bowl sponsorship. Previously sponsored by Capital One Financial, which moved onto the Orange Bowl after Discover Financial Services dropped out, B-Dubs is now behind the seventh oldest bowl game in the country.
A valuable piece of real estate
Sponsorship gives advertisers exposure to the valuable affluent, 18 to 40 year old male demographic. And B-Dubs says the Citrus Bowl gives it national exposure through television, radio, and social media. Previously the restaurant chain had sponsored what is now known as the Cactus Bowl, which immediately gives you a sense of the low stakes at play. Think deserts and tumbleweeds.
And this is where things start getting a little ominous for the long term.
Buffalo Wild Wings has spent a lot of money to make its restaurants a destination for such events, including reimagining the interior with its stadia design and the inclusion of technology to hold customer attention while they’re there.
This has cost Buffalo Wild Wings approximately $12,000 to $15,000 per site to put tablets into each of the 1,045 or so restaurants it operates, and IT infrastructure costs for the fourth quarter of 2014 alone were expected to be between $4 million and $6 million.
Such tech spending has included its online gaming platform, GameBreak, introducing tablets at three quarters of the restaurants’ tables, a proprietary B-Dubs TV Network, and a soon-to-be unveiled member loyalty program. “Tablegating” has never been easier or more exciting.
When does tablegating trump tailgating? Before you dismiss that out of hand, think about what outfits like BWW are doing to attract CFB fans. Then compare that to what you see most college athletic departments doing. And consider that BWW has a larger platform to offer fans.
Beyond its own Citrus Bowl, B-Dubs also tied into the entire bowl schedule by launching the “Million Dollar Bowl Pick’Em Challenge” through GameBreak, in which participants vie for prizes and the chance to win $1 million by guessing correctly the winners of all 39 college bowl games.
Looking to bowl over fans
The football marathon begins this weekend with the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl and ends on Jan. 4 with the GoDaddy Bowl. In between you’ll find not only the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl and the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl, but also the Russell Athletic Bowl, Belk Bowl, and Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
The Citrus Bowl will kickoff at 1 p.m. on New Year’s Day, and though perhaps slightly overshadowed by the Cotton Bowl, which begins a half hour earlier, it immediately precedes the highly-viewed Rose Bowl.
While a department store like Belk may be supporting the city where it’s headquartered and hopes to derive some local sales benefit as a result, Buffalo Wild Wings with its national footprint and tie-ins to all the games can potentially see a much larger payoff.
And don’t think it doesn’t sense the opportunity. It can smell vulnerability.
TheWall Street Journal says student attendance at bowl games has dropped 7% since 2009, partly due to high ticket prices and the proliferation of televised games. Buffalo Wild Wings sees this as an opportunity to draw students into its doors for game-watching.
We’re watching the slow evolution of college football from a sport that’s strength is regional support to one of national interest. Certainly there’s more money in that, but the revenue increase comes at a cost, as we’ve seen evidenced by the mad scramble of conference realignment and the steady ditching of long standing traditions. And why not? The audience that’s being chased doesn’t care as much about those things as we have.
But as these kids are peeled off for the new era’s priorities, consider that most of them will have viewing habits that will be transformed for good. They won’t be interested in becoming season ticket holders. It’s not that they necessarily want to stay home. But if by going to a place like BWW they can get that communal feeling with friends, tie into the latest technology and have access to more action than they can get sitting in a stadium, eat and drink to their hearts’ content, all for much less than they’d have to spend to attend a game, what’s not to like?
How many schools are prepared to deal with a trend like that? And even if some have ideas about what to do, how hard can they fight when they’re ever more dependent on the money flow from ESPN?