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Bowl Season: ESPN Wins, Fans Lose

Something hit me hard this week as I looked over the bowl game schedule.  ESPN now has nearly complete control over college football's bowl season. Looking over the schedule, only the Sun Bowl on New Years Eve (CBS) and the Cotton Bowl a week later (Fox) will not be televised as an ESPN production.  ESPN not only has the television rights to the BCS, but also owns and operates seven bowl games.

Remember 15 years ago on New Years Day?  Both ABC and NBC televised tripleheaders, while CBS added the Cotton Bowl, meaning that throughout the day, it was a football smorgasbord, with game after game. If one game sucked, just change the channel.

Next Saturday, ABC only televises one game, CBS shows none, and NBC is televising the NHL Winter Classic from Heinz Field.  Football bowl games have eventually been abdicated to cable television and the ESPN borg.  And it gets even worse from there, as we're treated to bad matchup after bad matchup.  Oklahoma plays UConn in the Fiesta Bowl. Yuck.  Missouri vs. Iowa?  A rematch with Nebraska and Washington?  Sure, the BCS title game is a good matchup, but most of the rest are forced matchups, the result of a system that broke down years ago and frankly isn't serving the interests of college football and it's fans.

The Football Bowl Association tries to defend the bowl "tradition" by pointing out the value of the teams who make hospital visits in bowl cities. True, that's a side benefit.  But that's only in a handful of warm weather bowl cities. Certainly, there's something to be said about acts of charity, but those acts of charity aren't directly the result of bowl games.  If teams were playing closer to home, perhaps in a playoff system or NIT format, these same opportunities would be available nationwide, not just in cities that host bowls.

Fans certainly are rejecting bowl games this season, with a few exceptions where the matchup or local situation makes the game more compelling and worth the premium cost of traveling during the holiday period. Nebraska didn't sell out there allotment; undesirable matchup means fewer fans. The economy is an issue, but the economy was worse in 2009, when Husker fans flocked to San Diego.

I think this is something that'll change eventually.  The risk of these matchups is going to the schools, who have to commit to buying these tickets. Nobody forced these teams to accept bowl bids, though you have to admit that it would be nearly impossible to reject a bowl bid if it were offered.  Even at these losses.

But the correct alternative will eventually emerge.  A playoff system based on home playoff sites up until the final game means better attendance, as larger stadiums and reduced travel for fans means more people can attend. And an NIT type system where teams who don't qualify for the playoffs get to play a game, but freed from the restrictions of the bowl system.

I understand why ESPN loves the bowls.  They control them, and they are a source of cheap holiday programming, as most bowls pay far less than teams receive for road games. But it's not a sustainable model; in the end, schools can't afford to subsidize the bowl system and pay ESPN for the privilege of getting a game televised in the middle of the holiday week.

There has to be a better way than what we've got.