Lending Club Blog

College Bowl Organizers Terrified as Economy Tackles Ticket Sales

At the end of every college football season, athletes gear up for their final games, coaches prepare for the bowl season, and fans flock to see their favorite teams play.

Well, except that last part.

You see, this bowl season, fans aren’t flocking so much as they are nesting, and bowl games are getting hurt because of it. Blame the economic landscape and high prices. This year’s bowl season just won’t be like it used to.

Signs of frugality are everywhere. Ticket sales are down for most every bowl. Travel packages are sitting around collecting dust. Fan gear is staying right on the shelf, thank you very much. This bowl season is unlike any other due to its lack of excess. Where is the pomp and circumstance? Where is the rabid fandom? Where is the money? (That last question was submitted by the chairman of the Humanitarian Bowl).

And it’s not like all of these bowls can stand a year or two without support. These games have names like the Emerald Bowl and the EagleBank Bowl – long on originality, short on credibility and usefulness. If no one shows up to these games, these games might not show up on the schedule after this season. Hundred-thousand dollar losses don’t go over too well in Emerald Bank land.

For a better look at just what some of these bowls are facing, let’s examine the case of our friends at the Humanitarian Bowl. The H-Bowl, as it’s affectionately called by locals and non-wordsmiths, began back in 1997, is played in Boise, Idaho, and sponsored by Roady’s truck stops (of which there are none in the Boise area). The home team, the Boise State Broncos, has played there multiple times, which was great for the bowl game and great for the local economy. However, the H-Bowl let the Broncos go this bowl season so that BSU could play in a more prestigious, less truck-stop-sponsored bowl down in San Diego, and the Humanitarian got a matchup between Nevada and Maryland as a result.


Nevada put together a decent season, winning seven games behind one of the most exciting quarterbacks in the West. Maryland was in the thick of the ACC title race on the East Coast before falling at the end. The game could very well be an exciting contest between two schools with very different styles of play.

Not that anyone from either Nevada or Maryland cares to see it.

Ticket sales for the Humanitarian Bowl are lagging, which is putting it nicely. Each school is allotted at least 3,000 tickets to sell to their local fan base. In a perfect world, these tickets would be snatched up immediately by players’ families, students, and season ticket holders. But in the very imperfect world of the Humanitarian Bowl, this is not happening, and how.

Maryland has sold less than 1,000 tickets to the game. Nevada has sold about 100. Can you feel that Humanitarian Bowl excitement? It’s contagious! (But ultimately, easily remedied by DayQuil.)

What is the H-Bowl to do? Bowl organizers have pinned their hopes on local Boise residents, planning on the allure of “hey, look, football!” to draw in about 20,000 or so non-partisan fans. Boiseans have done it before. They don’t mind braving the cold so long as there’ll be hot dogs and legalized violence. This is also why the roller derby is so big there.

The Humanitarian Bowl is one of several smaller bowls struggling to get tickets sold and seats filled. In tough economic times, people have decided against traveling and supporting their team, and they instead have opted for sitting at home, supporting their team.

The big bowls aren’t immune, either. Word spread quickly last week about ticket prices for the Orange Bowl, which is one of college football’s most prestigious bowl games. As one of the five games that are involved in the BCS selection process, the Orange Bowl is a huge money-maker and one of the biggest bowls in all the land. Try telling that to stubhub.

The online ticket agency is selling tickets for three dollars…OBO. Three dollars is unheard of for a college bowl game. These days, three dollars is unheard of for a high school football game! But that’s what the Orange Bowl finds itself with: game tickets for less than a game program.

The root of the problem could be traced to a number of different factors. First and foremost is the economy. That sucker is rough, and it undoubtedly has a say on what happens with the bowls. No money, no 50-dollar midfield seats. But who can pass up three-buck nosebleeds? The only thing you have to sacrifice for those is a night out at Wendy’s.

Another factor bunching the Orange Bowl’s pants is the two teams involved. While the other big bowls get matchups like Oklahoma vs. Florida and Penn State vs. USC, the Orange Bowl will have Cincinnati (yes, they have a football team) and Virginia Tech (no, they aren’t fun to watch) duking it out to the delight of people with direct ties to Cincinnati and Virginia Tech – and no one else. When you look at the teams, three dollars might be high-priced.

Yet despite the doom-and-gloom forecast of ticket sales at bowls around the country, the Grim Reaper doesn’t seem to be partying with any of these bowls. They’ll survive.

What gives? Small attendance means small gate receipts, and small gate receipts mean terrified bowl organizers. But these organizers have been around second-rate, chotchky bowl games forever. They don’t need people watching their bowl game for it to be profitable. The economics of bowl games is like the Twilight Zone of sports.

Bowl games make their money off of bowl sponsors and television contracts. And bowl sponsors and TV sets don’t buy tickets. Games make deals with advertisers months (and sometimes, years) before the actual game is played, meaning that they could basically set their budget in the college football preseason, well before the bowls have played. TV contracts are set early, too, so that the networks can plan what games they’ll be airing and when the games will run.

One of the bowl games’ biggest coups is bowl sponsorship. Almost everyone has noticed this phenomenon creeping into the bowl schedule. The Capital One Bowl is sponsored by Capital One (obviously). The Tostitos Fiesta Bowl has the backing of chips. Nearly every bowl has a title sponsor that hands out thousands to be attached to the game.

Fine by bowl organizers. The money from the sponsors, advertisers, and TV execs keeps these bowls afloat.

And at times like these, this type of money flow is more important than ever. No one might be going to bowl games, but that doesn’t mean that bowl games are going anywhere. Disappointing ticket sales aren’t good, yet they aren’t the end of the world. So long as the bowl games have their sugar daddy sources of dough pumping life into them, the bowls will be pumping life into the holiday season.

Well, maybe not “life.” But at least, Humanitarianism.


Tuesday, December 30th, 2008 at 11:31 am

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