SBJ/December 19-25, 2011/Opinion

Making the case for what is right about the bowl system

To understand the current bowl system, including what and why it is, it must be understood that the bowl system operates under a few guidelines that must be taken as “givens.” These are the facts that university presidents want football to be a one-semester sport, they want to include the bowls because of their more than 100 years of building the tradition of college football and they do not favor a playoff.

Another thing that must be understood is that “bowl system” does not mean “BCS.” The Bowl Championship Series is part of the bowl system. Obviously, as CEO and president of the Chick-fil-A Bowl, I truly believe that the bowl system is the best for all involved in college football, including the student athletes, coaches, administrators, fans and media.

So let’s consider what is right about the bowls and the reasons why the current system works.

College football has never been healthier or more popular than it is right now. Measure it any way you want, and the numbers will show this to be true. Attendance, TV ratings, bowl payouts, sponsorship, popularity, relevance — all better than they have ever been. In fact, fan avidity studies show that college football is ranked third behind the NFL and Major League Baseball.

Bowl attendance is at an all-time high. More than 1.8 million fans are expected to attend bowls this year. Television ratings are up as well, with more viewers watching the national championship game than the NCAA Final Four, World Series or NBA Finals.

Bowls are open to all teams. Every team can qualify and has the chance to be selected to play in a bowl game. They allow 70 teams to participate and 35 to finish their seasons as a bowl champion, with 7,000 student athletes experiencing a meaningful and rewarding week of activities that is often left out of the discussion. It shouldn’t be. My belief is that bowls, outside of the national championship game, are a reward for the players.

Everyone benefits. In the current system, $260 million in bowl payouts is shared among all teams in the participating conferences so that even teams that do not qualify for a bowl are benefiting financially from the bowl system. The Chick-fil-A Bowl’s combined team payout this year is $6.9 million. Of the payout that goes to each team, the participating university keeps $1 million to $2 million to cover expenses for the bowl trip, and the rest goes into a conference pool. The conference splits all the bowl payouts and divides the money evenly, sending money back to all the schools in their respective conferences. Universities do not lose money on bowl trips because of the bowl system.

Bowls can have a host of other benefits to their communities and others in a variety of ways. The Chick-fil-A Bowl, including this year, has paid out more than $110 million to universities over its 44 years. In addition, it has donated more than $12 million to scholarship and charity since 2002, including the operation of endowed scholarships totaling $1.3 million at 15 universities within its partner conferences.

Whether you like the BCS or not, it has nationalized college football. Fans across the country care about, and are tuning in to, games outside their region in huge numbers because those games matter to them and to their teams’ success. What happens in Tuscaloosa, Ala., or Baton Rouge, La., matters in Palo Alto, Calif., and Norman, Okla., and Madison, Wis. And it matters every week of the season.

The goal of the BCS is to match No. 1 vs. No. 2 at the end of the season. That’s it.

For 13 straight years now, the system has matched No. 1 and No. 2 in a championship game. This cannot be argued, debated or disagreed with. It is a fact. Prior to 1998, the top two teams met only 11 times dating to 1963.

You don’t get that guarantee in any other sport. Look at the most recent championships in the NFL, Major League Baseball, NBA and the NCAA tournament. Did No. 1 play No. 2 in any of those finals? They did not. College football uses the entire regular season to let the teams play out their entire schedules to determine the two best teams.

Our current system even allows a team to lose a game and still earn its way back into the national championship game. Look no further than Alabama this year.

The current system gets it right. The top two teams will meet for the national title, again, as they have every year for the last 13 years.

And that gets me to the best benefit of all: the unrivaled, unmatched and undeniable significance of college football’s regular season. It is the most relevant in all of sports, and it’s not even close. Every single game counts in every conference, every Saturday. It’s magical. It’s exciting. It dominates the lives of college football fans across the country all year.

So I urge you to take a good look back at this season. Not just at the incredible games and the drama of the season, but think about how passionate you felt. About how much it mattered to you.

Would you really want to change that? Take it away?

I humbly contend that the regular season in college football is a kind of a playoff. It started in September and it will end in January with No. 1 playing No. 2 … for the 14th straight year.

Gary Stokan is president and CEO of the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

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