The Camping World Bowl. The Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl. If you’re a fan of college football, you’re used to seeing your favorite players become walking billboards every winter. The college football bowl season is so brand-saturated that fans no longer bat an eyelash at the absurd level to which this supposedly amateur game is commodified. Thirty-four of the 40 college football games set to take place between now and January 8 carry the name of a sponsor, so it’s easy to let bowl season lull you into thinking this is all somehow natural.
Before you gather around the flat-screen to take in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, though, it’s worth taking a minute to consider how we got to this point, how much money is now at stake during bowl season, and who profits. The first college bowl game was brought to you by the Valley Hunt Club of Pasadena, although it was known as the “Tournament East-West Football Game” rather than the Valley Hunt Club Bowl. First played on New Year’s Day 1902 as part of the annual Tournament of Roses, it pitted two of the best college teams in the country against each other for the entertainment of the locals. It became known as the Rose Bowl after moving into a 57,000-seat stadium of the same name.
A number of similar games cropped up in the warmer parts of the country. Stalwart in its defense of the purity of amateur sport, the NCAA condemned bowl games in 1937, saying “such promotions merely trade upon intercollegiate football for commercial purposes.” It then repeatedly relaxed its rules on bowl eligibility, allowing an entire industry to develop around bowl games while continuing to insist that the participating athletes were not entitled to payment. Though the NCAA’s sanction determines whether or not a bowl game is official, it’s not hard to see the influence of corporations on its decision-making. As local officials, businesspeople, and tourism boards began to realize bowls’ potential for profit, groups formed across the country to lobby for bowls.
From a just handful before World War II, the number of bowl games increased to 18 by 1984. Over the next two decades, as ESPN appeared on the scene and quickly got involved in the broadcasting and operation of bowl games, the number leapt to 32. Counting the recently-introduced playoff system, it now stands at 40. Once an honor reserved for undefeated or one-loss teams, reaching a bowl game has now ceased to require a winning record. This year, 14 bowl-bound teams are 6-6. The losers of the Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl and the Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman — yes, two of the biggest defense contractors in America sponsor military-themed bowl games — will finish their seasons 6-7.
Organizers’ need to raise more money, combined with the advertising opportunities provided by the rise of television, led many bowls to take on corporate sponsors in the 80s and 90s. It was during that period that bowl season transformed into the branded behemoth we are familiar with today. The Gator Bowl, for example, first took a title sponsor, Mazda, in 1986. Twenty years and five name changes later, it was the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. The titular reptile soon disappeared altogether: On December 30, Louisville and Mississippi State will square off in a game simply titled the TaxSlayer Bowl.
If that sounds tacky, keep in mind that advertisers send broadcasters dumptrucks full of money in exchange for naming rights. A report by the marketing agency ESP Properties estimated that $99 million was spent on bowl game naming rights for the 2012-13 season — before the introduction of the lucrative College Football Playoff. Capital One reportedly pays up to $25 million a year for title sponsorship of the Orange Bowl, while Allstate is believed to pay at least $18 million — and possibly double that — for title sponsorship of the Sugar Bowl.
That money goes to the broadcaster — more often than not, ESPN — which in turn pays the organizers for TV rights. A significant portion of their revenue goes to the participants – that is, the conferences and athletic departments whose unpaid “student-athletes” participate. Payouts, once a secondary enticement meant to make it worth the trip, are now routinely seven figures. This year’s Citrus Bowl, presented by Overton’s, will pay a total of $8.5 million to participating teams, and even the less-glamorous Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bowl will pay over $6 million.
Organizers have invented a nifty way of selling tickets: forcing schools to buy thousands of them. As a result, you might be able to buy a last-minute Hawaii Bowl ticket for $5, and schools sometimes claim to lose money on bowl games. UConn, for example, had to eat $1.8 million in unsold tickets after its appearance in the 2009 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. But those claims ignore the fact that major conferences pool bowl payouts and distribute the money amongst all their schools. Thanks to this practice, every Power Five school, from top-ranked Clemson to 4-8 Tennessee, will benefit financially from bowl season.
Besides, bowl season is good for a school’s brand. When the Central Michigan Chippewas lost around $145,000 on their trip to the 2014 Bahamas Bowl, Athletic Director Dave Heeke told The Detroit News, “Our institution views it as an investment for the exposure and the positive nature of being in the bowl spectrum and being in the postseason.” Plus, an extra game in the middle of the holiday season is a great opportunity for selling merchandise and soliciting donations. With the help of its conference and a fundraising campaign, the#ODUBowlBoundFund, Old Dominion ended up making about $250,000 from what could have been a $600,000 loss on its trip to last year’s Bahamas Bowl.
Bowl season is also a gift for coaches. Georgia head coach Kirby Smart received a bonus of $500,000 when his team earned a playoff berth earlier this month. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, who makes over $7 million a year, got a mere $200,000 for the same feat, but he stands to make $650,000 in bonuses if he takes the Tigers all the way.
If you question the assertion that a second-rate bowl game has generated more money for San Diego than the GDP of some island nations, you’re not alone.
“None of the high salaries make any sense,” said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College and author of Unpaid Professionals: Commercialism and Conflict in Big-time College Sports. “The reason that they’re high is, number one, the rule against paying athletes.” Indeed, not paying the most vital employees frees up a lot of money for everyone else. CEOs and presidents of bowl committees are among the best-paid nonprofit employees in the country. Jim McVay, President and CEO of the committee that organizes the Outback Bowl, was paid over $993,000 for his services last year, according to financial documents reviewed through ProPublica. Steve Beck, President and Executive Director of the Military Bowl, earned just shy of $545,000. (Correction: Beck's salary was incorrectly reported due to a filing error by the Military Bowl on its 2016 tax return: His annual salary is $272, 354.)To put that in perspective, the Sierra Club, a nonprofit with over ten times the assets of the Outback Bowl, pays its Executive Director less than $300,000.
And you don’t have to be on the board to reap tax-free benefits. A 2011 investigation by The Miami New Times found that the nonprofit Orange Bowl Committee spent over $575,000 on gifts, golf outings, and a cruise for a group made mostly of college athletic directors and their underlings. That same year, the organizers of the Fiesta Bowl were caught using bowl revenues to pay for strippers, and campaign contributions to Arizona lawmakers.
Bowl games often play up their charitable contributions, but the numbers can be underwhelming. The San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl reports donating a total of $16,000 to charitable causes (six separate scholarships) in 2015, but Executive Director Mark Neville puts the revenue the game has generated for the region over the last four decades at $800 million. “Our whole objective is to generate tourism and exposure for San Diego,” Neville told The Outline. “We fill hotel rooms, we put people in the restaurants, we put people in our local attractions.”
If you question the assertion that a second-rate bowl game has generated more money for San Diego than the GDP of some island nations, you’re not alone. Not only do such estimates sound fanciful, they also ignore opportunity costs and the money bowls take from the community. Zimbalist notes that warm-weather bowl games may replace wealthy tourists, like golfers and sport fishermen, with stingier college students. And, even setting aside tax exemptions, bowl games often receive millions of dollars in public funding. “To simply assert that this is a wonderful thing for the local economy is very questionable,” Zimbalist said.
Whatever it generates, the total amount paid to the athletes participating in bowl games this season will be $0. Pick a bowl game at random and you will find millions of dollars flowing from sponsors, broadcasters, and donors to schools, coaches, and middlemen, yet the NCAA still has the audacity to insist that paying the players in the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl would violate the sanctity of the amateur game. As such, the ungodly nomenclature of the Cheribundi Tart Cherry Boca Raton Bowl notwithstanding, the fact that all this profit is a product of unpaid labor is actually the most absurd thing about bowl season.