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Commentary: College football bowl games are a sham

Terry Johnston

The people who sell bowl games need us to believe a few things:

  • Their games are rewards for great seasons;
  • They offer players and fans a much-wanted vacation;
  • The bowls are non-profits, while the schools make a killing. 

These claims are nice, and would be even nicer if they were true.
Forty years ago, college football got by with just eleven bowl games.

The 22 teams they invited were truly elite, and so were the bowls – like the Orange Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, the Cotton Bowl and The Granddaddy of Them All, the Rose Bowl.

When your team got into a bowl game back then, you knew they’d done something special.

But the number of bowls has more than tripled, to a staggering 35, including such timeless classics as the The Meineke Car Care Bowl, the Advocare V100 Independence Bowl, and the legendary Taxslayer.com Bowl.

How many Taxslayer.coms fit into a bowl?  It’s a question for theologists.

To fill this glut of games, they need 70 willing teams.

But there are 124 teams out there, and obviously only 62 are above average.


So some bowls settle for teams that didn’t even finish in the top half of the sport – let alone their conferences.  This year, 13 bowl teams don’t have winning records.

When your team gets into a bowl game today, you know they… must not be on probation.

What used to be a special trip is now a chore.

If they’re not going to one of the elite bowls, most players would rather skip the 15 mandatory practices, and a trip to Shreveport, Boise, or Detroit, and stay home for the holidays. 

Fans feel the same way.

Very few bowls sell out, and a third of them draw fewer than 40,000 fans.  You could fire a canon in those stadiums, then find the canon ball and fire it again, and still not hit anybody. 

This is all silly excess, but it crosses the line into corruption when you look at the finances.

The bowls are non-profit, and want you to believe schools make out like bandits.


But the only ones not profiting are the schools and their players.

It’s the bowls themselves that make the money – and the coaches and athletic directors who receive bonuses for dragging their teams.

Here’s how their scam works:

  • The schools have to pay for their flights, hotels and meals, which adds up fast for 150 players, coaches, staffers and university VIPs.
  • Then the bowls force them to buy thousands of tickets they can’t give away – and that sets up the final outrage:
  • They make the schools accept far less than the advertised pay-out, right down to nothing, which is exactly what the Motor City Bowl actually paid Florida Atlantic in 2009.

Only half the teams lose bowl games, of course, but almost all of them lose their shirts going to them. 
That’s bad enough, but get this: the men in the ugly blazers who run these “non-profit” bowls walk off with hundreds of thousands dollars in salary – all for setting up one game a year, that no one wants to play, or watch.

How to fix this mess?

Simple: Prohibit forcing schools to buy tickets they don’t want.  Make the bowls actually pay the schools what they proudly announce they’re paying them.  And while we’re at it: make them pay for their travel expenses, too. 

If the bowls think it’s still worth it – and the better ones will -- great.  Everybody wins, just like the old days. 

But if they don’t, they can close shop, and end the charade. 

They won’t be missed.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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