USA TODAY Sports’ Paul Myerberg breaks down the latest Amway Coaches Poll.
In every year but this one, the main purpose of modern college football bowl games could be easily explained:
They exist to increase local tourism and produce a festive experience for participating teams and their fans, according to their stated missions. They also provide valuable live television programming during the holiday season for The Walt Disney Company, which owns ESPN and ABC.
But then came the COVID-19 pandemic, turning much of that upside down:
What is the point of them if tourism is discouraged and fan attendance is severely limited because of public health restrictions? And just how festive can these games be during a dark winter like this, when pregame parades have been canceled and bowl teams are mostly confined to their hotels?
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We’re about to find out. Disney still will get plenty of TV inventory for its investment, starting Saturday. Yet the field of willing participants has shrunk to 34 games from a postseason that originally planned to have a record 44.
Here are 10 ways they will be different in style and substance:
It’s sort of political
Eleven bowl games have been canceled, including nine in states that were won by Democratic President-elect Joe Biden. One of those games – the Fenway Bowl in the Democratic stronghold of Boston – was replaced by a recently added, one-time game in politically red Alabama: the Montgomery Bowl.
The two other canceled games are the Bahamas Bowl in Nassau and the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, which has been hit hard by COVID-19 deaths.
Of the 34 remaining games, 33 are being held in states that recently were won by President Trump, a Republican, or have Republican governors, who generally favor looser health restrictions than Democrats. One game — the New Mexico Bowl — even moved its game to Republican red Texas, evading restrictions in New Mexico, a Democratic state that had forbidden gatherings of more than five people.
The only bowl game still scheduled in a Biden state with a Democratic governor is the Rose Bowl, which will not allow fan attendance.
“You’re seeing a very big difference from one state to the next, so I think you’re likely to see that during the bowl season as well,” Bowl Season executive director Nick Carparelli said this month during an online discussion for the LEAD1 Association, which represents the 130 athletics directors in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Cabin fever a concern
Disneyland is closed and so are other major tourist attractions near bowl games. Normally, participating bowl teams tour such sites as part of a trip that lasts several days, including Disneyland for Rose Bowl players. Not this year.
Teams instead might only be in town for two nights, more like a regular-season road game. At the Military Bowl near Washington, D.C., teams might only get a riding tour of the National Mall and monuments. Entertainment otherwise is mostly limited to the game room at the hotel, where players will be isolated.
“There’s just so much to do and see and being trapped inside that hotel is not going to be easy for the guys,” Military Bowl executive director Steve Beck said during the LEAD1 discussion.
By contrast, the Holiday Bowl in San Diego factored this into its decision to cancel this year after playing every year since 1978.
“We’re a nonprofit, and we’re in the business of generating tourism for San Diego,” Holiday Bowl executive director Mark Neville told USA TODAY Sports. “Well, we weren’t going to be able to generate any tourism even if we did play. … We weren’t going to be able to provide the experience for players and fans coming into town.”
Some teams might rather go home
Boston College (6-5), Pitt (6-5), Virginia (5-5) and Stanford (3-2) decided not to play in bowl games, choosing to go home to their families for the holidays after a grueling year instead of participating in a minor bowl game with no festivities.
Boston College coach Jeff Hafley noted the pandemic was “getting worse” and said his players hadn’t been with their families since June after being isolated with teammates. He questioned whether it was worth it “for us to go through three weeks of practice, continue to stay healthy, continue to stay away from our families, and then not know: Is the bowl game really going to happen? Are we are going to miss Christmas with our families and then be told on the 25th that we’re really not going to play?”
Bowls are struggling
Bowl games generally make money from television revenue, ticket sales and sponsorships. In the case of the Military Bowl, it normally gets about 60% of its revenue from ticket sales but will not be allowed to have fans this year. The game has had to rely on reserve funds instead.
“We know we’re going to lose money this year,” said Beck, whose game benefits current and former service members — a unique mission among bowls. “It would be losing more money if we don’t have the bowl game this year.”
Bowl games also had to renegotiate contracts with teams’ conferences, reducing the payouts that bowls normally would give teams through their league offices.
In 2017-18, the combined bowl payout “profit” for all schools and conferences was $448 million for 40 major college games after subtracting combined bowl expenses, according to the most recently available expense forms.
This year, expenses will be down for teams because of shorter trips, but so will the revenue from the games. Bowl organizations also have had to cut costs and reduce pay for employees.
“I do know the bowls have been committed to doing the best they can to cover team expenses,” Carparelli said. “I don’t think there’s too many teams that are going to be faced with losing money going to bowl games.”
The Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium is one of the postseason games that will not be held this year. (Photo: Vincent Carchietta, USA TODAY Sports)
Disney is driving this bus more than usual
Of the 34 games remaining, 13 are owned by ESPN Events, a division of ESPN, and 20 are owned by local nonprofit organizations. The other game, the College Football Playoff national championship, is run by the for-profit playoff.
All but one will be televised by ABC or ESPN Inc., which agreed to pay $7.3 billion over 12 years just to televise the biggest postseason games alone: the College Football Playoff and New Year’s Six bowls. Even as other businesses suffer because of shutdowns, Disney will continue to benefit from people staying home and watching.
“In many respects they could care less about how many people are in the stands,” said Gary Cavalli, former executive director of what is now the Redbox Bowl in the Bay Area. “They’ve become masters at using camera angles that don’t show the stands. This year, with empty stadiums … the games are really just made-for-TV events.”
ESPN declined an interview request from USA TODAY Sports to talk about the bowl business. In a statement, ESPN said, “We are committed to creating a safe environment for each of our bowl games, complying with respective local and state guidelines, as well as those of the NCAA and each team and conference. Hotel arrangements, travel, stadium setup and other game elements will resemble what teams have encountered throughout this season.”
Bowl bosses more nervous than usual
This is the time of year when they really earn their pay, like the Cotton Bowl’s Rick Baker did in 2018 with $959,000, according to the bowl’s tax form. But after team selections are finalized around Dec. 20, they will have a much shorter turnaround time than usual. Instead of having several weeks to prepare for games and sell tickets after selections are made, many will have 11 days or fewer.
Then there’s the possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak on a team before the game. What if teams can’t play? One idea that’s been floated is to have a “bullpen” of alternate teams ready, which might not be practical.
“I don’t think there’s going to be anybody in reserve after that point, so either the game goes on or the game is canceled at the end, which would be just terrible,” Beck said.
Pro team owners bailed
All five of the games that had been affiliated with pro sports team owners have been canceled, including the Quick Lane Bowl (Detroit Lions) and Pinstripe Bowl (New York Yankees). The Fenway Bowl had been introduced as a partnership between ESPN Events and the marketing arm of the Boston Red Sox. In Los Angeles, the L.A. Bowl is owned and operated by SoFi Stadium, which was built by Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke.
Also canceled is the Redbox Bowl, which had been operated by the San Francisco 49ers before they decided to get out of the bowl business last winter.
Without much ticket sales on tap this year, such for-profit operators pulled the plug on these lower-tier games.
Pregame parades will be virtual
The Rose Parade in Pasadena, California, is canceled and being replaced with a “reimagined” two-hour show on New Year’s Day featuring “live-to-tape musical and marching band performances, heartwarming segments about the Rose Parade, celebrity guest appearances and more,” according to its website.
The Military Bowl Parade in Annapolis, Maryland, is being replaced by a “virtual parade” Dec. 27 featuring various short video submissions from the public that include group performances and messages of support for the military.
Cities and businesses will be suffering
They’ve been hit hard since March by COVID-19 cases, shutdowns and reduced travel. In normal years, many got an added boost from the thousands of fans that flooded town for bowl games. This year, the games that haven’t been canceled won’t bring in very many fans for more than a couple of days, which is still better than nothing for local businesses.
The Holiday Bowl generated $49.5 million in economic impact for San Diego in 2018, according to a study from San Diego State. After the game was canceled this year, bowl organizers have been trying to help the 78,000 newly unemployed tourism workers in a San Diego economy that had more than 200,000 in that sector before the pandemic, according to an October report from the San Diego Association of Governments.
“A lot of them are now food-insecure as well, so we’re working with them and the San Diego Food Bank to help raise some moneys and provide meals for at least some of those folks who are out of work,” Neville said.
Normality is the goal
Despite the pandemic, there is still demand for bowl games – from teams that want to play in them and viewers who want to watch them. That’s why the system has expanded from 18 games in 1996-97 to the original plan of 44 this season.
With a reduction in the supply of games, the demand for teams with winning records this season also is expected to be strong even though there are no win-loss requirements for teams to become bowl-eligible.
The apparent goal is to gain as much normality as possible before a vaccine is expected to help restore even more of it next year.
“It’s so important to the teams and the communities,” Carparelli said. “I think that’s been reinforced this year, and I think as we get into next year, I think as a society we’re going to appreciate a lot of things more than we did. But I think the bowl system in general is going to be one of those things.”
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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