Something was amiss. Basketball teams from Duke and Michigan were running up and down the floor of stately Cameron Indoor Stadium on the second Saturday night in December, against the backdrop of varnished wood and brass railings that make the building seem as much like an old library as a gymnasium. Everything was in its place. Yet Cameron didn't seem quite so...well, stately. What was it?
The banner. That was it. Customarily the courtside tables sport a deep regal-blue facing unsullied by messages. Elegant, almost. But instead there was a long white sign, unfurled over the entire 94 feet of the north side of the court: HALL OF FAME BOWL TICKETS CALL 1-800-672-BLUE. Forget dignity. The Dukies might as well have advertised nickel drafts or 99-cent burgers.
But of course. No list of college football bowl traditions—the parades, the pageantry, the colorful names spiced with fruits, flowers, garden tools and car-rental companies—would be complete these days without the ticket pitch. That's because many bowl games invite schools in much the same way Don Corleone invited wedding guests into his office. He does you a favor. You do him a favor.
Duke, justifiably eager to seize the fruits of an 8-3 season (and a $1 million payoff), will play Wisconsin in the Jan. 2 Hall of Fame Bowl in Tampa. As part of its agreement with the bowl, Duke must buy—and then try to sell—11,250 tickets at $30 each. Having already sent a letter offering tickets for sale to each of its 102,000 alumni, Duke decided to broaden its marketing by hanging the banner. "This was a one-time opportunity on national television," said an athletic department official. Anyhow, it looks as if the Blue Devils will make it to their goal. Wisconsin, a much larger school that agreed to sell at least 23,000 seats, will sell them all. Maybe the Badgers used a bigger banner?
Bowl tradition? You bet, but it's of the nouveau variety. As in money. Consider the fact that next season two teams will get paid in excess of $12 million each for knocking helmets together in the Fiesta Bowl. That's a tradition athletic directors can't wait to embrace. But first things first. Herewith our guide to bowl realities:
1) Schools don't get rich by playing in bowls. Never mind the payout numbers you read. The catch is that if the Tulip Bowl is paying State U $1 million to play in its game and live in Tuliptown for a week, it expects State U to use that money to cover its expenses. Travel, lodging, food, tulips for loved ones—everything.
Also, most major conferences share a large portion of the revenue earned by member schools from bowl games. Example: Tennessee went to the 1993 Hall of Fame Bowl, which paid $850,000 per team. So, after the other 11 members of the SEC took their cut, the Vols ended up with $566,020. They spent $572,293. That's a loss of $6,273.
Bowls with big guarantees (Rose, $6.5 million; Sugar, $4.45 million; Orange, $4.3 million; Fiesta and Cotton, $3 million each) are more profitable for the participating schools. But the net gain is considerably smaller than the guarantee. SEC member Florida received $4.1 million for playing in the 1994 Sugar Bowl. After conference revenue sharing and expenses, the Gators wound up with just under $525,000 (chart, below). Texas A&M got $3 million from last year's Cotton Bowl and cleared a mere $225,000 after expenses.
The Aloha Bowl, which pays the NCAA bowl minimum of $750,000 per team and takes place on a costly, exotic island far from the mainland, has retired the red-ink trophy. Kansas played in Honolulu in 1992 and dropped $31,500 (chart, page 59). Alabama lost money on its Aloha appearance in '85. This year, Aloha invitee Kansas State (which plays Boston College) is paring its overhead by leaving its band at home.
2) Check that. Notre Dame and Miami make big money. Major bowls, no revenue sharing: the path to financial security. No, this isn't a late-night cable TV, no-money-down, fast-cash real estate seminar. It's the Fighting Irish Way, and for another year, the Hurricane Way. (The Big East, which Miami joined in 1991, begins bowl revenue sharing next year.) Notre Dame—the Irish may be 6-4-1, but without their cooperation and juice there would be neither this season's bowl coalition (which was supposed to arrange the best possible matchups in six top bowls) nor next season's three-bowl alliance, so put a sock in it—plays in the Jan. 2 Fiesta Bowl against 10-1 Colorado. Notre Dame figures to spend approximately $800,000, so it will net about $2.2 million.
3) Schools must sell tickets—or suffer. Duke is not alone in having to shamelessly hawk ducats to its alumni. Nearly every bowl deal contains a ticket clause. This doesn't ensure a full stadium—witness the throng of 38,516 who sat through last year's Carquest Bowl in Miami's 74,913-seat Joe Robbie Stadium. But it does shift some of the responsibility for ticket sales to the participating schools. In effect, a bowl-bound school receives tickets in lieu of good, hard cash as part of its bowl payout; only when the school sells the tickets does it get its loot. Last year North Carolina State was required by the Hall of Fame Bowl to take 15,000 tickets; the school sold just over 4,000 and thus had to eat almost 11,000 tickets at $30 each. Therefore almost $330,000 was subtracted from its projected bowl payout of $1 million.
Then there is West Virginia. After being invited to this year's Carquest Bowl game against South Carolina, the Mountaineers astonishingly agreed to sell 24,000 tickets, up from the 12,500 required by the bowl. The bad news is that the West Virginia athletic department overestimated the attractiveness of the 7-5 Mountaineers, and the school will have to eat about 9,000 tickets.
4) Players can legally scam the NCAA for money. We like this one. It actually returns some of the spoils to the athletes. The NCAA has a rule (if rules were food, the NCAA would be Buster Douglas) that allows a school to reimburse a player by the mile for travel from his hometown to the bowl site. This is significant because many teams declare a vacation for their players shortly before Christmas and have them reconvene at the bowl site. Players, ever resourceful in their attempts to score some cash from programs that are using them to mint money, then milk the system. Here's how: Let's say four guys from the University of Alabama live in Louisiana, New Jersey, North Carolina and Texas. The Crimson Tide is playing in the Sugar Bowl. All four guys go in one car from Tuscaloosa to Baton Rouge for Christmas dinner and then drive on to New Orleans. Each player gets reimbursed for mileage from his hometown. Voilà. Barbecued shrimp all week on the guy from Jersey.
5) Repeat after me: Nobody cares about most of these games. There are 19 bowl games this year. Only two have any real significance: No. 1 Nebraska versus No. 3 Miami in the Jan. 1 Orange, in which the Cornhuskers can win the national championship or the Hurricanes can put themselves in position to win it; and No. 2 Penn State versus Oregon in the Jan. 2 Rose Bowl, in which, if Nebraska has lost to Miami, the Nittany Lions can clinch the national championship by winning or hand it to the Hurricanes by losing.
Games to miss: the Alamo Bowl (Dec. 31), a much-clamored-for matchup between 7-4 Baylor of the condemned Southwest Conference and 7-4 Washington State of the Pac-10. Baylor is riding the momentum of a season-ending 63-35 loss to Texas. At home. With the SWC title on the line. And the Carquest Bowl (Jan. 2), featuring West Virginia and South Carolina (6-5), who between them have lost to Rutgers, Maryland, East Carolina and Mississippi State.
Meanwhile, Mississippi State coach Jackie Sherrill says that he isn't angry that his Bulldogs' New Year's-night Peach Bowl game against North Carolina State is up against the Orange Bowl on television. "That's part of the bowls," Sherrill says. "If our game is close, they'll flip back and forth." Yeah, right.
6) Well, some people care. College administrators and fat-cat alumni like bowls because schools use bowls as a "reward" for all the "hard work" that's done during the rest of the year, and bring along, gratis, folks with boardroom influence...and their families. This is one of the reasons why bowl expenses get so high. This mix can also provide comic relief: At last year's Liberty Bowl between Louisville and Michigan State, Spartan athletic director Merrily Dean Baker innocently showed up dressed in red and black (the Cardinals' colors) and was chewed out by trustee Joel Ferguson.
Recruiting coordinators like bowls. Their teams get to play on national TV and get to pose for cool pictures on the beach or on a boat or train ride, which are put in the next year's media guide as enticements for 17-year-olds to attend the recruiting coordinator's college.
Chambers of commerce like bowls because they bring tourists to their cities. Even if these tourists tend to sing, bark, sooey, tomahawk-chop and yell "Roll, Tide" at all hours of the day and night, they also spend lots of money—$153 a day per fan in 1993, according to a survey done by the Sugar Bowl.
Vanderbilt, Northwestern and Oregon State like bowls because, through revenue sharing, they get money from bowls without the hassle of actually traveling to and playing in them. Last season SEC member Vanderbilt, whose record was 4-7, got more than $350,000 from various bowls without leaving Nashville. When the Big East starts revenue sharing, Temple is just going to love Miami.
Players? The bigger the game, the more they love it. And the smaller the game? On Dec. 31 Illinois is playing in the Liberty Bowl against East Carolina. Illini quarterback Johnny Johnson says, "We're going to a bowl game, but if it's not the Rose Bowl, to me it means nothing."
7) National-championship games are mostly an accident. Good fortune is all that has allowed bowls to occasionally stage title games. In 1987 No. 1 Miami and No. 2 Penn State were independents, so the Fiesta hustled to bring them together. The bowl coalition mandated that No. 1 Miami play No. 2, SEC champ and automatic invitee Alabama, in the '93 Sugar Bowl, but the Hurricanes probably would have gone there anyway. Just as often, though, coalition and bowl contracts preclude de facto championship games.
This season is the paradigm for frustration. Penn State can't play Nebraska, because the Big Ten champion is committed to the Rose Bowl and the Big Eight champion to the Orange Bowl. Hence, if the Cornhuskers win in Miami, the most telling event of the 1994 college football season will have been the Nittany Lions' artificially close 35-29 victory on Nov. 5 at Indiana. The Hoosiers trailed 35-14 with less than two minutes to play and then scored two meaningless touchdowns, including a Hail Mary against Penn State reserves on the last play of the game. Almost certainly because of those freakish 15 points, the Lions fell from first place in the USA Today/CNN coaches' poll, leaving Nebraska No. 1 in both. "Once we got to Number 1," says Penn State quarterback Kerry Collins, "I thought all we had to do was keep winning. Now I wish we had beaten Indiana by three touchdowns."
A playoff system? Please. The NCAA appointed a committee, which appointed subcommittees, which sent out for lunch and then threw its hands in the air and quit last summer. No playoff. Penn State coach Joe Paterno would like to see a one-game playoff after the bowls. As he sat in his office in early December, it was almost as if Paterno were twitching to pick up the phone, call Nebraska coach Tom Osborne and arrange a game. Except, said Paterno with a shrug, "we can't work outside the NCAA."
One conference official sees a big problem with the one-game postbowl idea, anyway. "You do that," says the official, "and then you get teams ducking each other in the bowls, just trying to make the playoff game. The only thing that would work would be an open bowl system."
Which is why...
8)...there's hope for the future. Change is in the air. Change is on paper, in fact. Next year the coalition gives way to the alliance, which in simple terms (simple terms are necessary because college football fans equate the words coalition and alliance with nuclear fusion) means no more conference tie-ins; whenever possible, No. 1 will play No. 2; and much more money. The l-versus-2 game will rotate among the Fiesta, Sugar and Orange bowls. The Fiesta gets first pop next Jan. 2 and will pay more than $12 million per team. The Rose Bowl still isn't on board, because its contract, like the alliance contract, runs through January 2001. Despite last week's reports that the Big Ten is looking for an early escape from its commitment, both its commissioner, Jim Delany, and Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen say they are disinclined to interrupt that arrangement. This is a serious flaw, but it may not be a tragic one. Current Big Ten teams have won exactly three national titles since 1968—including the two won by new member Penn State in its pre-Big Ten days. Pac-10 teams have won four in that span.
With roughly $50 million a year committed to the three alliance bowls, minor bowls—including the newly demoted Cotton Bowl—will be endangered by a lack of sponsorship and television money. "After we bid on [and won the rights to] the Orange and Fiesta, we declined to bid on several others," says CBS Sports vice president for programming Len DeLuca. No sweat. With revenue sharing, conference-member schools that might have played in the now jeopardized Liberty Bowl will still get their chunk of the overall pot. Besides, is college football diminished by the loss of bowls matching three-and four-loss teams? Hardly.
One more thing: CBS already has a marketing strategy for its broadcasts of the Orange and Fiesta bowls. It goes something like this: The Road to the National Championship. Now doesn't that sound like an improvement?
Florida's visit to New Orleans last January produced fun and even some profit.
The Jayhawks said aloha to their shirts when they flew out to Honolulu for sun and games in '92.
With revenue sharing, stay-at-homes like Vanderbilt can reap a windfall.