Bowl dreams and “tablegating”

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?

21 Comments

Filed under College Football, It's Just Bidness

21 responses to “Bowl dreams and “tablegating”

  1. TennesseeDawg

    In the not too distant past, we were constantly hearing about stadium expansions at the big programs. Not so much anymore

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  2. stuckinred

    And I can’t find a bus trip to Charlotte!

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  3. Well, I think we must convene a Senate select committe to study this and work to save the noble Idaho spud.

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  4. Again I propose the “green screen fill in the sponsor ” bowl. No stadium or attendance needed. Let his cut to the chase folks.

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  5. Mayor

    What we’re really witnessing is the transition (bowls at least) from a spectator sport to a made for television sport. It would be wise for bowls with that many empty seats to not show pictures of the stadium.

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  6. TrboDawg

    I too was surprised at how empty the Famous Idaho stands were. My thoughtwas,”They should be paying people to attend, like extras on a movie set. “

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  7. adam

    I really struggle to see students going to the Belk Bowl in large numbers. Charlotte isn’t exactly an exciting destination and the tickets are $85 a pop for students.

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    • stuckinred

      Students aren’t dumb enough to fall for that. Can you say “secondary market”?

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    • AlphaDawg

      My ex wife is from Charlotte, it’s extremely underrated, has a great bar scene and is a safe walk-able city, they do big events really well. If you attend I almost guarentee you’ll enjoy it.

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  8. Hackerdog

    But how often can you hear Baba O’Reilly at BWW?

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  9. Macallanlover

    My idea of allowing RS players to play in these exhibition/bowl games hasn’t developed any traction but let’s throw out one more: why not hold bowls, exclusively, in attractive, warm weather locations and hold double and triple headers in the same stadium? So you bring in four-six fan bases to one city and hold games on the same day, or back-to-back days. The fans would get more value for their trip by getting the opportunity to see multiple games and the atmosphere where all those fans mingle for 3-4 days would be electric. That would put more fans in the stadium seats and be a trip fans would look forward to.

    I think of the River Walk in San Antonio, or Ebor City in Tampa, as places that would be fun to be around even if your team weren’t there. It would make that city bid more to host bowls and maybe lower the cost to schools to purchase so many tickets. The idea of playing bowls in New York, Detroit, Boise, Nashville, etc. is just so against what the bowls were ever intended to be.

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    • stuckinred

      Bowls are whatever bowls are. There aren’t some rules on some tablets somewhere.

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    • Keese

      I like your thought on this

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    • Skeptic Dawg's Better Half Relative

      Why is everyone trying to screw the little guy and keep him out of the money? First it was the lower tier schools, then the lower tier conferences, and now you’re proposing to screw both the North and the little guy cities like Mobile that are just trying to get some love.
      The little guy just can’t get a break.

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  10. Russ

    I was travelling from Houston to Atlanta yesterday and either listened to or watched these games. I enjoyed them. More football is fine by me. The Camellia Bowl was exciting football.

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  11. IndyDawg

    We’ll have truly jumped the shark when Wal-Mart sponsors a bowl game. Until then the NCAA and ESPN whill continue counting the cash.

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    • IndyDawg

      “We’ll” as in “the college football fans” and “whill” should be edited to “will”. Drinking too may Screwdrivers while watching the Colts vs the Cowboys. Tough day to be an Iny fan when the coaches and fans care more than the players.

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  12. W Cobb Dawg

    When reading about the investment Buffalo Wild Wing has made, I was reminded of the ‘ESPN End Zone’ restaurants/bars. Am I wrong or was that a pretty big failure?

    And I got a chuckle reading “Sponsorship gives advertisers exposure to the valuable affluent, 18 to 40 year old male demographic .” Affluent?! Most of the guys I know of that age are close to broke (particularly if they have a mortgage and/or kids), work 50+ hours a week, and are convinced they’ll never retire. The middle class, relatively affluent lifestyle of the babyboom generation with significant free time has been relegated to the dustbin of history.

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  13. Smitty

    Uh oh I saw the word “underserved”. I see that term has jumped from politics to college football….ugh

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  14. BulldogBen

    Tip of the cap to the Senator for this post. Good thought provoking read and a reminder of why this blog is bookmarked.

    I turned 40 this year and my wife had a baby. For the first time in 20 years, we had a discussion about whether or not to renew our season tickets. We decided that this was a part of our family culture and that we wanted to continue our support. That said, this should be a time where I’m entering mid-life, making more money, and upping my tailgate game but I’ve stopped tailgating altogether when we go to games. The restrictions about what you can bring on campus, the inability to find parking anywhere near the stadium to actually set up a tailgate (I’m not interested in tailgating 3 miles from the stadium) have caused us to not bother anymore. It’s just far easier to come into town, grab a beer downtown, then walk to the game. Maybe that’s what UGA wants.

    The other component is that we looked at next year’s schedule and immediately identified the USC, Bama, and Mizzou games as ones we hope to attend. Zero desire to attend the rest. I barely even want to watch us play a Charleston Southern or Tenn Tech on TV. We usually sell the cupcake games at face value to families who want to take their kids.

    Typing that all out, it’s easy to see why the BBW model is gaining in popularity.

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  15. BulldogBen

    W Cobb Dawg, ESPN Zone was a victim of the Recession and a risky business model. There were only about 9 or 10 of them in the country and they were located in some of the most expensive commercial districts in the country and averaged around 20-25,000 sq feet in size. Not to mention overpriced in every way imaginable.

    BBW has around 700 locations throughout the country and focuses on being your local neighborhood sports bars.

    Apples to Oranges business model.

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