College football bowl slate could be maxed out

NEW YORK -- After years of relentless expansion, college football's nearly monthlong holiday party -- the bowl season -- finally seems to have maxed out.

Those involved in the bowl business say that, with the national economy flailing, events that are as much about tourism and corporate sponsorship as football are now staring at a set of challenges that will level off the number of second-tier bowls -- if not reduce them.

There are a lot of second-tier bowls to choose from.

"We're talking about disposable income and that's drying up as fast as water in the desert," said Paul Hoolahan, chairman of the Football Bowl Association and CEO of the Sugar Bowl.

The bowl roster now stands at 34, giving 68 teams the opportunity to play a nationally televised game and be pampered by the host community. That's more than half of the 119 schools playing college football at its highest level.

The NCAA has been liberally licensing new bowls in recent years. Since 2002, 11 new bowl games have been established, while only three have closed up shop. Two games will debut this season, the EagleBank Bowl in Washington, D.C., and the St. Petersburg Bowl in central Florida.

To get a license, organizers need a stadium, sponsorship, an agreement with two major college football conferences to put teams in the game and a network willing to televise the show.

People in the industry suspect that getting licensed and keeping that license will be tougher because of the economic crisis.

"As they are evaluated on an annual basis, I think a stricter criteria would probably be implemented to establish the fiscal viability of the business model," Hoolahan said.

In other words, can you raise enough money to pull this off?

Hoolahan runs a game with little to worry about. The Sugar Bowl is part of the Bowl Championship Series, along with the Rose, Orange and Fiesta bowls and the national championship game.

ESPN agreed this week to a pay the BCS $125 million per year over four years, starting in 2011, to televise its games, excluding the Rose Bowl, which has its own lucrative TV deal. That's up about $40 million a year from the current deal the BCS has with Fox.

The Sugar and the other BCS games pay about $17 million to each participating team, and the school splits that money with the rest of its conference.

With all that TV money, plus insurance giant Allstate as the title sponsor, the Sugar Bowl will have no problem paying its bills. Hoolahan expects another sellout crowd -- or close to it -- at the 72,000-seat Superdome on Jan. 2.

Bowls attract thousands of fans/tourists and media members, who fill hotels and restaurants and boost local businesses. Whether they'll be as big a financial bonanza this year is uncertain.

"That's the reason we do a bowl game," said Scott Ramsey, executive director of the Music City Bowl in Nashville. "We want people to come to Nashville and spend money and to get 3½ hours of television time for our sponsors and city."

Ramsey said he's seeing an uptick in local ticket sales. Usually, the Music City Bowl's goal is to sell about 20,000 tickets locally, before a matchup is set in early December. Each team is on the hook for between 10,000 and 15,000 tickets. While the numbers vary, every school that plays in a bowl is obliged to buy tickets and do its best to get them in the hands of its fans.

Ramsey said the Music City Bowl is already close to its local ticket sales target.

"I don't know if that's more people staying home for the holidays and we're creating a local option for fans," Ramsey speculated.

Ramsey said the Music City Bowl builds its budget around 55,000 to 57,000 tickets sold to LP Field, which seats 67,000. So it, like many second-tier games, doesn't need a sellout to meet its financial needs.

"We need to raise $5 to $5.1 million to break even," said Ramsey, who has also served as the Football Bowl Association chairman.

For the majority of bowl games, breaking even is the goal, Ramsey said.

The Music City Bowl matches teams from the Southeastern Conference and the Atlantic Coast Conference. It's a model most second-tier bowl games use: Pick teams from the region so fans don't have to spend a fortune to get to the game.

Ramsey said that in this economic climate, bowl organizers and conferences will likely emphasize, as best they can, keeping teams closer to home.

"All things being equal, the more regional the fan base, the better this year," he said.

It's a good plan, but for some bowls, it's impossible. The Humanitarian Bowl in Boise, Idaho, has the ACC as one of its partners.

And nobody wants to get a bid to the Hawaii Bowl this year.

The Music City Bowl guarantees a total payout of $3.4 million to its partner conferences. It's one of 21 games with a payout of less than $2 million dollars per teams. Thirteen games guarantee less than $1 million per team.

For teams playing in games that dole out less than $1 million, going to a bowl can be a financial loss, especially if it's a long trip.

The bowl explosion in recent years has provided more bowl opportunities for teams with smaller athletic budgets in less prominent conferences, such as the Western Athletic Conference, Mid-American Conference and Sun Belt Conference.

Even before the economic downturn, those leagues have had to be careful about where they commit to send their teams.

The FBA has been warning about over-saturating the bowl market for years.

Now, with money tight for everyone, MAC commissioner Rick Cryst said, "I think it's brought us into better rhythm with the Bowl Association."

Sun Belt commissioner Wright Waters, who is also the chairman of the NCAA's postseason football licensing subcommittee, said he believes oversaturation, and not the economic crisis, is more likely to keep the bowl lineup from growing.

He said the passion of college football fans is the game's greatest resource.

"I'm not willing to say college football is recession-proof," he said, "but it sure is close."