By Jim McCarthy Jan 3, 2011 0 comments

Bowling for Dollars

At the end of each college football seasons, the “best” teams are invited to play in “Bowl” games.  This started, innocently enough, years ago when my own hometown of Pasadena, California built a football stadium that, like the Yale Bowl back in Connecticut, looked like a bowl.  But being far more picturesque than New Haven, Pasadena’s city father’s decided to name the place the Rose Bowl.  It would be the site of a game that, until then, had been called simply the Tournament East West Football Game.  It was a game each year on New Year’s Day that brought an eastern team together with a western team for a showdown and an extra feature of the Tournament of Roses Parade.

Time marched on and with the Rose Bowl’s success, more “Bowls” were added: Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Cotton Bowl.  All of these followed the basic pattern of taking something agricultural and indicative of the area in which it was played and put it in a major stadium of the same name, pitting two of the year’s best teams in a day of football gluttony on January 1st.

Time marched on further and it got a little silly:  Holiday Bowl, Bluebonnet Bowl, Peach Bowl, Gator Bowl, Sun Bowl.  The list grew, and now a LOT Of teams were playing in Bowl Games.

Time marched on further and it got a little stupid.  Companies started to put their names on these bowls as sponsors, so that rather than simply sponsoring the Sun Bowl, John Hancock had to change the name of the game to the John Hancock Sun Bowl.  This is in itself a little nasty, basically forcing a commercial into any kind of discussions around those bowls in hopes that somehow, football fans are going to buy more financial services from John Hancock while cheering for their just a little better than average team plays for Sun Bowl (sorry, John Hancock Sun Bowl) glory.

Time marched on further and it went from a little stupid to super-stupid.  John Hancock decided it didn’t need the distraction of actually having the “Sun” part of the Sun Bowl, and that it should just be called the John Hancock Bowl.  Wha?  Ok, at least that doesn’t sound atrocious.  John Hancock has a great name and he’s a founding father.  We’ll do a patriotic theme for this bowl.  Fine.  Sorta.

It got worse.  How’s the Meineke Car Care Bowl strike you?  I didn’t make that up.  It’s a real thing.  The Capital One Bowl.  Also a real thing.  The Beef O’Brady Bowl.  Believe it or not, also a real thing.  I don’t even know what Beef O’Brady is, but at this point, I’m afraid to ask.

Here’s the point: this is bad stuff.  This is culture-killing stuff in college football.  Don’t retort that it makes money, because it doesn’t.  If it did, the names on these bowl games would stay the same, but they don’t.  It’s a carousel of brands that put their name on something for a few years, eventually realize it’s a dog and then move on.

And for the fans, it’s a pointless game with no heritage, no future, and no meaning.  There will be no passion or nostalgia for the Beef O’Brady Bowl, ever, because no one cares.  Many of these bowls don’t sell out and don’t make money.

And even if they did marginally make money, in the long term, they will gradually make college football worse because when your product offering is a joke (and if the Beef O’Brady Bowl isn’t a joke, why not just go all the way and have a Cat’s Ass Bowl and see if anyone chuckles), no one takes it seriously.  This is part of what the NFL does right.  Yes, they make a lot of money on sponsorships, but they keep it off the field, the uniforms and the game itself.  How much money would it take for the NFL to consider changing the name of the Super Bowl to the CitiBank Bowl?  Would a billion do it?  I don’t think so.

Because the value, as they understand, is in the product and the experience itself.  People like at this bowl game stuff, and even the big bowls like the Rose Bowl are affected by that.  When there were a dozen meaningful games, almost all on New Year’s Day with names that sounded like the organizers respected themselves to some degree, college football was increasing in value.  My prediction is that college football is on the path that college basketball has gone much further down:  basically just an irrelevant stopover on the way to the pros, with declining audiences and culture relevance.  Sure, the kids will play 2 or 3 years instead of just 1 in basketball, but it’s going in that direction.

People complain a lot about the college football post-season system, and that complaining, I believe, is the misdirected frustration of watching something that used to be meaningful, good, enjoyable and important turn into a tawdry joke.

Nobody likes a tawdry joke.

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