Which one of these college football bowl games is actually real: the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl, the TaxSlayer Bowl or the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl?
If you guessed all of the above, congratulations; all of those ridiculously named brand showcases bowl games (sadly missing the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl, now boringly rebranded the St. Petersburg Bowl) are real. And thanks to the greedy, ever-increasing amount of bowl games this year, several of them promise to be as bad as they sound.
Kicking off with the AutoNation Cure Bowl on Dec. 19, this year’s bowl season will feature a new high of 40 games (along with one playoff championship game) requiring 80 eligible teams to finish .500 or better. After this past weekend’s action, that won’t happen.
Going into the sport’s final regular season weekend, there are only 75 technically eligible teams (Wisconsin, one of those teams, is projected to head to the Holiday Bowl). Three – Georgia State, Kansas State and South Alabama – still have a chance to qualify with one final win, but they’re all underdogs. And even if they all manage to pull out victories, it’s still a guarantee that two losing teams will be rewarded for their sub-mediocre seasons with a trip to a bowl game.
There are literally not enough good teams this season – or, more accurately, there are literally too many bowl games.
Two decades ago, there were only 18 bowls. Over the years, the only thing that’s grown more than the number of bowl games is the outcry about the number of bowl games – many of them generally meaningless, moderately watched and poorly attended.
That’s a shot from the kickoff of last year’s Popeyes Bahamas Bowl between Western Kentucky and Central Michigan. And no, the crowd did not eventually arrive late; the crowd just didn’t arrive. It ended up being an entertaining and insane game, ending 49-48 with Western Kentucky surviving a crazed comeback from the wily Chippewas. But it was also kind of depressing hearing big plays greeted by cheers no louder than a bad high school JV game (the official number was 13,667, but judging from shots of the game, that seems … dubious). If a bowl game plays in the woods and no one is around to watch it, does it make a sound?
Talking heads and announcers will defend the number of bowl games by saying they give smaller schools – and their little-seen, but often equally talented players – nationwide exposure and reward good seasons. But really how much exposure do you get from these games, save from some hardcore fans and desperate gamblers? And is it worth the exposure when schools have to pay for the tickets they don’t sell, adding up to $23.8 million in unsold tickets in the 2013-14 season? And if bowls are a reward for the regular season, why are we rewarding teams that can’t even get over the low bar of hitting .500?
In case the bowls’ subtle and catchy names didn’t give it away, the real reason why there are so many games is business. Bowls cheaply fill large chunks of airtime for ESPN; all but three of the games are on ESPN or one of its sister networks. In fact, last season, ESPN itself owned and operated 11 bowl games. If you’re the network, there’s no reason to stop creating these bowls out of air – and therefore getting to sell ad time and sponsorships for said games. It's like gift card companies and Sweetest Day – except times 40.
So bowl games may be good business, but with so many now, they're starting to sell a bad product.
I used to love bowl season back when there were literally half as many games. I would try my best to not miss a single one, recording games and keeping score in little notebooks. As a habitual fan of the underdog, I liked watching small teams I’d usually never see get a chance to have some time in the spotlight. And as the announcers will plead to their mostly apathetic audiences, the players care. They clearly do; teams rarely mail it in during the bowl games, and as a result, there are often several competitive games and impressive performances.
But now that we have more bowls than deserving teams (almost two-thirds of Division I football teams will get an invite) and the regularity of middling, much less losing, teams playing in front of crowds of empty seats for manufactured titles like GoDaddy Bowl champion, the games somehow don’t feel as special. The reason the bowls exist has been diluted to the point that they feel like "Whose Line Is It Anyway," where the titles are made up and the games don’t matter.
At this point, ESPN might as well create enough bowls for everyone. 4-7 Texas? Sure, why not; that's almost a good record. Have them play 5-7 Nebraska in a bowl and call it the 1999 Big 12 Championship Bowl sponsored by "Back to the Future" on Blu-ray. Maybe you could pit the winless UCF Golden Knights and Kansas Jayhawks against one another in the Velveeta Thanks For Participating Bowl. Marquette University’s long-defunct football team could even earn an invite. We are undefeated this year after all. Here we come, Shake Weight Fight Obesity Bowl presented by Cracker Barrel!
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.