The Changing Value of College Bowls
We have more college-football bowl games than ever, but less than half of them will sell out their stadiums. What this means for the future of New Year’s football.
In the long history of college-football bowl-game commercialism, Tampa has been the perennial upstart. Dating back to the Cigar Bowl, first played in 1947, Tampa has always been on the outside looking in.
This season, however, that vantage point has changed as Tampa will host the first national championship game not held at a “New Year’s Six” location. The game, which takes place Jan. 9, will have 11 blue-chip sponsors, from All State to Gatorade—a long way from the Cigar Bowl, which was sponsored by the Tampa-based Shriners as a fundraiser. The Cigar Bowl’s peak came in 1950, when another upstart, Florida State, won its first bowl ever, in front of 14,000 fans. This year’s St. Petersburg Bowl had an announced crowd of 15,717 fans. While very much in the shadow of the championship game this year, the game between Mississippi State and Miami of Ohio—two teams with a combined losing record—may be a preview of a new model not just for college bowls, but all of sports.
Of the 41 bowls being played over the next two weeks, less than half will sell out and more games will have tickets available for less than $25 than ever before. Even the once-storied Cotton Bowl has over 10,000 tickets available on the secondary market, starting from $3. In addition to a flooded secondary market, there are many bowl games with demand so low you can’t even buy a ticket on the secondary market, including the St. Pete. With a $450,000 payout split between the two teams, and close to 2 million viewers tuning in each year, the St. Petersburg Bowl, like the Boca Raton Bowl, Armed Forces, and 11 others, is owned and operated by Charlotte-based ESPN Events. Despite the fact that these bowls are not coming anywhere close to their seating capacity, they appear to a money-making model for parent company Disney.
As context, last year the St. Petersburg Bowl was watched by 2.4 million fans, 200,000 more than My Diet Is Better Than Yours, ABC’s lowest-rated “non-scripted” show.
Regardless of how low-profile the matchup is, sporting events almost always have a story to tell. For anyone who has watched ESPN’s College Game Day, the backstory of players and teams overcoming adversity is a familiar one. With these pre-built narratives and predictable ratings, its no surprise that ESPN is all-in on cheap, live sporting events. For the current bowl season, there are only two bowls not being broadcast on ESPN or ABC.
In the new world of Bowl Economics, regardless of how many $3 tickets are available for the Cotton Bowl, as long as the broadcast comes anywhere close to its 9.18 million five-year average, it will be a financial success. At that rating, the Cotton Bowl would be watched by as many people as ABC’s most popular show, Modern Family. For a company that is very good at selling advertising, that’s extremely valuable and low-cost content, which means we should expect to see more of it in the years to come.
While the deluge of bowl games is driving cheap tickets for second and third-tier bowls, it also seems to be affecting demand for many of the New Year’s six bowls. The average price to see the Fiesta Bowl semifinal matchup is $207, which is lower than the average price of $289 for Ohio State home games this season. It’s also lower than last year’s Fiesta Bowl, which was against Notre Dame, and not a playoff game. In the three college-football playoffs to date, other than this year’s Peach Bowl, no semifinal game has had an average ticket price above $250. With more than 20 million fans expected to tune in to see Ohio State battle Clemson for a trip to Tampa, however, the “studio audience” is no longer required for economic viability.
With virtual reality on the horizon, there’s a dystopic view of future live events where everyone has the same front-row seat on their couch and the actual stadium is empty. In such a world, there’s never a sellout and there’s always a sideline seat available at a fraction of the price of a real one. Companies like Jaunt VR and Next VR are already pushing toward a virtual future with unlimited supply. As the CEO of a ticketing company, I believe VR is poised to disrupt the current event-attendance model in meaningful ways. As that happens, we should expect the nature of demand for the live experience to change. While the St. Pete and Bahamas Bowls may feel like a crude version one of this new reality, a future without the need to actually sell tickets could create evolutionary opportunities for event promoters that actually benefit fans. Smaller, more-intimate stadium experiences that are a throwback to the old days of smaller stadiums, for one, are already happening, and will likely continue.
While such a vision of the future may be somewhat unsettling, traditionalists can take comfort in the fact that even amidst all this dilution there are still some bowls that can draw like the old days. First played in 1902, the Rose Bowl, the “granddaddy of them all,” remains a marquee event at which prices for tickets on the secondary market far exceed the original face price. Despite the lack of playoff implication, this year’s Rose Bowl has an average price of $655, which makes it the second most expensive bowl game over the last seven years. That means it’s more expensive than every semifinal matchup in the playoff era, and even more expensive than the 2014 and 2016 national championship games. Situated amongst the San Gabriel Mountains just outside of L.A., the Rose Bowl, which was built at a cost of $3.8 million, is recognized as a National Historic Landmark and is a magical place to watch a football game. On Jan. 2, almost 100,000 fans will descend to see Penn State and Southern Cal, two teams with long and successful histories, play for their share of a $35 million purse. Twenty million more fans will tune in on TV, and, other than the athletes, it will make everyone involved a tremendous amount of money.
Jesse Lawrence is the founder and CEO of ticketIQ.