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Big 12 and 'baby bowls'

THE PURPOSE of this column is two-fold.

First, it's meant to help familiarize West Virginia University football fans to the Big 12's current bowl lineup. Second, it is to pose a question concerning bowls in light of the upcoming four-team college football playoff.

In regard to the first objective, understand that the 10-team Big 12 has stakes in seven bowls. Within the Bowl Championship Series, it is tied to the Fiesta Bowl. You might recall that last season, Oklahoma State defeated Andrew Luck and Stanford in overtime by 41-38 in Tempe, Ariz.

The Big 12 runner-up plays in the Cotton Bowl against a Southeastern Conference team. (That's quite an upgrade for WVU's program. The Big East runner-up played in the Champs Sports Bowl - if, that is, Notre Dame didn't swipe the slot.)

The other five Big 12 bowls, in selection order, are the Alamo in San Antonio (versus a Pac-12 team); Insight in Tempe (Big Ten); Holiday in San Diego (Pac-12); Meineke Car Care of Texas in Houston (Big Ten); and the New Era Pinstripe in New York's Bronx (Big East). The lineup will be in place for the next two seasons.

(WVU fans might be amused that no matter what the conference, they can't get away from a Meineke bowl. The bowl in Charlotte, though, has transformed into the Belk Bowl.)

We've wondered in print before how WVU fans will travel now that their Mountaineers won't be sent to familiar haunts like Charlotte or Jacksonville.

But let's jump from that to a much broader question: Exactly how will fans overall travel to "baby bowls" when the national semifinals and final are put in place?

The thought from here is the lesser, least respected bowls will be even more devalued in the years to come.

Know that the bowl system is protected by college administrators and networks for a simple reason. And it isn't so fans and athletes can visit distant cities. It isn't for the "experience." It's for money, plain and simple. The 35 bowl games last season attracted 1,765,224 to the stands (50,435 per contest), slightly less than the record mark set the year before of 1,813,215. Across all networks, television bowl games drew 127 million viewers.

It's a money grab - most of which goes to ESPN, dominant in airing the games.

But OK, so what of those frivolous bowl games many of us complain about? The ones you see on TV with no one in the stands? Might they finally go away?

The answer is no. But they will be devalued.

When the playoff fever sets in, the view from here is fewer fans will be interested in following their team to Albuquerque for the Gildan New Mexico Bowl or the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise.

Few go to those kind of bowls now. While the average attendance per bowl game was over 50,000 last season, that number is buoyed by the 91,245 that attended the Rose Bowl, the 80,956 for the Cotton and the 78,237 for the national championship, among others. There were 67,563 in the stands for WVU's Orange Bowl rout.

For Marshall's Beef O'Brady's Bowl, on the other hand, a sad 20,072 showed in St. Petersburg, Fla. The Poinsettia Bowl drew 24,607. In Washington, D.C., the Military Bowl drew 25,042 and in Albuquerque it was 25,762.

With the playoffs, such bowls will go from fourth-class status to, at least, fifth-class. Now, we have the national championship bowl, the BCS bowls, those such as the Cotton and Capital One and then the remaining potato bowls. Add the semifinals to the mix, as well as the announced SEC-Big 12 version of the Rose Bowl, and the potato bowls will be even less interesting.

The potato bowls, however, won't go away. And the reason is enough of us watch to make them profitable to - surprise! - ESPN.

See, the World Wide Leader is smart. It doesn't sell advertising allotments specifically to potato bowls. Time is sold in packages. Clients are placed across its entire postseason schedule.

And then there's this: ESPN owns seven bowls. I'm not stating the network owns the rights to seven bowls, it owns seven bowls.

A conflict of reporting interest? Absolutely. But by owning seven, the network assures itself sufficient inventory to sell and broadcast.

Of the seven bowls owned by ESPN, only one game drew more than 30,300 fans to the stands last season: that Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, which drew 68,395 to Houston.

The others - the Gildan New Mexico Bowl, Beef O'Brady's Bowl, MAACO Bowl Las Vegas, Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl and BBVA Compass Bowl - are among the games we complain about, but still check out on TV.

So, yes, the "baby bowl" games will be devalued. Yet ESPN owns 20 percent of the 35 bowls.

And as long as the network is making potato skins, those games will survive.

Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, mitchvingle@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.

 


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