Bowled Under

I talk about baseball’s holidays from time to time. Perhaps you’ve noticed? We’re in one of them now–the Winter Meetings are going on even as I type this. Trades are being made, free agents are being signed, and fans are alternately thrilled and horrified.

But while we’re observing a minor, albeit significant, holiday, let’s not forget that we’re approaching the high holy days of a different faith.

We’re less than two weeks away from the first of the college football bowl games*. The bowls are then followed (with some slight overlap) by the NFL’s playoffs. This two month stretch dwarfs the playoffs for any other sport.

* I gather that there are some doctrinal differences between college football fans and professional football fans. From my outsider’s perspective they appear to be similar to the distinctions between Orthodox and Reform Judaism: very important to members of the church, but largely opaque to outsiders. If I’ve misinterpreted any important elements of your faith, please feel free to set me straight in the comments.

The problem is, in this outsider’s view, that there are too many college bowl games. Yes, I know, it’s a religious matter, and my opinion as an outsider is largely irrelevant. But really.

By my count, there are 41 bowl games, not counting the game that determines the national champion. The Chron says there are 40. I’m not sure where the discrepancy lies–I was counting bowls on the list in the very same newspaper–but that extra game is pretty much beside the point.

According to NCAA rules, in order for a team to play in a bowl game, they need to have at least six victories during the season. (That’s a .500 record.) Seems like a pretty low bar, but since there are only around 125 teams competing for those 80 (or 82) bowl slots, that means two-thirds of the schools need to hit that mark.

As you might expect, that doesn’t always happen. This year, the bowl selection committees came up three teams short. Of course, since the bowls are corporately sponsored, and there’s no standardized ranking of the bowls, they can’t just drop the two least important ones. So three teams who finished at 5-7 were given waivers. How did they decide which three teams got the nod? Not by their performance on the field. What does athletic prowess have to do with college football? No, the choice was made based on the schools “Academic Progress Rates“. The APR is essentially a measure of how many members of the team have kept their grades high enough to be eligible to play–essentially, keep a GPA high enough to graduate under their individual school’s rules. That’s usually a 2.0 on a four point scale. This “50% as a cutoff” thing seems to be popular with the NCAA.

But I digress slightly. The point is that once a sponsor puts up the cash for a bowl game, that game is going to happen. And for the record, nearly all of the games are sponsored–and the few exceptions are among the oldest, most honored, bowls. They’re not going away.

Yes, even the games named after the city or state they take place in (fourteen of the forty) have corporate sponsors. For example, the “New Orleans Bowl” is officially known as the “R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl” and Nashville TN’s “Music City Bowl” is, in reality, the “Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl”. Those sponsors sure are getting a great value for their advertising dollars–nobody ever hears their names!

Which brings me to the real point here. If we’re going to cut down on the number of bowl games so that there are enough teams to go around and so getting a bowl invitation actually means something, we need to raise the bar on corporate sponsorships.

As it stands, any company can put up a few million dollars to put their name on a bowl game. If the return on the advertising investment isn’t high enough to suit them, they can just end the agreement and walk away. Someone else will step up to fund the game the next year. It may move to a different city and appear under a different name, but so what? It’s still a bowl game.

My suggestion: The NCAA should mandate that the minimum length of a corporate sponsorship must be ten years and that the sponsor must contribute an amount equal to their sponsorship commitment to a social service or quality of life service in the host city. The ten year term ensures that the bowl will remain in one place long enough to build a little bit of tradition, and the doubled price tag over a longer term than many business plans last should cut down on the number of companies willing to sponsor a bowl game.

With fewer potential sponsors, it should be possible to cut the number of games down to something more manageable. How about 31 games? That would mean 62 teams would have to be bowl-eligible: just about 50% of the NCAA Division I schools would have to win 50% of their games. What do you say, NCAA?

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