As always, this college football bowl season will feature not only marquee games like the Rose Bowl, the Cotton Bowl, or even the Citrus Bowl, but also less esteemed events such as the Cure Bowl, the Camellia Bowl, and the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
These lower-tier bowls often draw poor attendance, little media coverage and limited fan interest and have particularly suffered as the College Football Playoff has sapped interest in other games. So how do these obscure bowls survive? Well according to a fascinating USA Today feature, the system is being propped up largely by ESPN Events, a division of ESPN.
Per USA Today, lower-tier bowls are shifting away from non-profit ownership meant to drive tourism, toward a TV-centric model. As attendance at these games has dropped, ESPN Events has swept in to buy up games so they can broadcast them without paying rights fees to a middle man.
The other 13 “for-profit” games are owned by ESPN Events, a division of the cable sports network. That’s crept up considerably since 2005, when ESPN Events owned just three of the 28 bowl games.
“The ownership and operation of a bowl game is something that is more in the wheelhouse of ESPN Events,” said Chuck Sullivan, spokesman for the American Athletic Conference, which owned the Miami Beach Bowl before selling it to ESPN Events. “So as long as we maintained a spot in the bowl on an annual basis, it made sense to sell the game to them.”
USA Today cites the Miami Beach Bowl, which was struggling to draw fans to Marlins Park before ESPN Events bought it, moved it to a soccer stadium Frisco, Texas, renamed it the Frisco Bowl, and sold sponsorship rights. How many people actually show up matters only a little to ESPN, which is chiefly interested in drawing television viewers when it broadcasts the game on December 20.
Such games arguably make more financial sense for ESPN than traditional non-profit bowl organizations because the currency of the realm for ESPN is eyeballs on screens and not so much butts in stadium seats.
“The ESPN bowl games, which account for the growth in bowl games, are essentially made-for-TV events,” Stanford economist Roger Noll told USA TODAY Sports.
The bottom line here is that most of the lower-tier games are likely safe in the near future thanks largely to ESPN’s desire for live events. It seems the network considers the games an affordable way to stock its December schedule with original content.
Per USA Today, 17 of the 40 bowls are now owned by larger for-profit companies: 13 by ESPN, three by pro sports teams and one (the national championship) by College Football Playoff Administration LLC. And as long as those deep-pocketed businesses remain interested, the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl et al. could be here to stay.