Wednesday December 29th, 2010

As you may have heard, a historic blizzard crippled New York City earlier this week. I didn't leave my Brooklyn apartment for two days. Once I did, I arrived at our midtown offices to find 50th Street shut down while snowplows tried to dig out evidence that it still existed. All the while, I kept reminding myself of the light at the end of the tunnel: Within a few days, I'd be in sunny Southern California for the Rose Bowl.

But I realize my personal warmth and comfort does not concern the average football fan, and with each passing year, I notice a growing faction that would happily do away with the Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Orange Bowl, etc., in favor of mid-December quarterfinal playoff games on cold, snowy campuses around the country. Like this guy:

Like most college football fans, I want a playoff. I am somewhat happy to see low attendance at bowl games so far. I fully believe the loudest voice fans have is ticket sales. Stop buying tickets, and bowls may go away. I thought the BCS would be the end to bowls; it has essentially made every game but the title game a postseason exhibition game. Maybe more people are realizing this. Do you see this trend continuing, and do you agree with my assessment of these games? -- Kevin Sharp, Atlanta

I've been reading a lot of doom-and-gloom bowl-attendance tweets and articles the past couple of weeks, enough that I was going to start reporting a story about this trend. Then I did a little research and found out, much to my surprise, that bowl attendance is in fact up this year. Six of the 11 games through Tuesday had higher attendance this year than last, with a cumulative increase of 4.1 percent. Looking ahead to the major bowls, increases and/or sellouts are expected at the Rose, Sugar, Capital One, Outback, Cotton, Gator, Chick-fil-A and Sun bowls. When all is said and done, my guess is cumulative attendance (or average per game, if you take away the extra bowl) will exceed that of the past two years. With the economy still suffering, that's no small feat.

But that doesn't mean the bowl business is fine and dandy. Far from it. Over the past year, there's been greater awareness placed on one of the industry's dirty little secrets, ticket guarantees, and the financial implications for participating schools. Schools are required to sell significant and sometimes unrealistic ticket allotments and get stuck with the bill for any unsold inventory. The issue first raised my eyebrows thanks to an excellent San Diego Union-Tribune exposé this time last year that found schools accumulated $15.53 million in unsold ticket costs during the 2008-09 bowl season. Then the book Death to the BCS came out this year. Whether or not you agree with its proposal for a 16-team playoff, there's no denying it contains all sorts of disturbing facts about the bowl biz, most notably the ticket guarantees. Former Michigan athletic director Bill Martin, in a telling quote, admitted the school saved money by not qualifying for bowls the past two years.

It's in large part because of these exposés that we've seen so many stories recently about Connecticut's current predicament. The school has sold fewer than 5,000 of its 17,500-ticket allotment to Saturday's Fiesta Bowl, which will cost it more than $2 million. The school's cut of the Big East's $21 million BCS payout will offset much of it, but when combined with the hundreds of thousands it costs to fly and lodge a football team for a week, the school will still finish well in the red. Stanford has done slightly better for its cross-country Orange Bowl trip, selling 9,000 tickets, but opponent Virginia Tech has sold fewer than 7,000. Mind you, there will likely be two to three times as many Hokies fans in attendance come Jan. 3, but most of them were savvy enough to buy substantially cheaper tickets on StubHub ($11.99 as of Tuesday) or other Internet sites. The school and its conference, however, will still be on the hook for the unsold allotment.

The Fiesta and Orange bowls are the two notable exceptions to my earlier list of major bowls expecting packed houses. This goes back to what I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the BCS bowls being pigeonholed into unfavorable matchups due to the rigid selection process. Unranked 8-4 UConn shouldn't be in a BCS bowl, much less one 2,600 miles from campus, and while the Orange Bowl is thrilled to have a top five team in its game, obviously one from the eastern half of the country would bring more fans. Mind you, neither game will suffer much financially, because they're still guaranteed all that ticket revenue from the schools whether or not the tickets wind up being used. And here's the stupidest part of all: The main reason the bowls depend on those steep guarantees on overpriced tickets (cheapest seat at the Fiesta Bowl: $105) is to be able to meet the high payouts the conferences demand -- payouts that are then used in part to offset the cost of those unsold tickets. What a business model.

To answer Kevin's original question: No, unsold bowl tickets are not going to bring about a playoff. The schools and conferences remain fiercely loyal to the bowls, and don't seem to mind the occasional financial hits. Look at Florida International. That school probably only brought a few hundred fans to the Little Caesars Bowl and will likely lose a few hundred-thousand dollars, but judging by coach Mario Cristobal's mad dash around the field and emotional postgame interview following the winning field goal, I'm guessing the school considers the investment well worth it. And the system as a whole remains profitable: In 2008-09, total bowl revenues were $228 million compared with $80 million in team expenses, and payouts are higher across the board this year with the start of new contracts.

But with all the attention this issue is receiving, the sport's leaders can no longer stand idly by and let this illogical financial model continue unabated. It's inane to expect an already critical public -- the majority of which wants substantial changes to the sport's postseason -- to accept a reality where Connecticut incurs an unnecessary $2 million-plus expense on a game in which it's contractually obligated to participate. The schools and conferences won't give up bowl berths, and the bowls won't sacrifice revenue. But there's got to be a way for both parties to meet in the middle so we can enjoy bowl season without having to feel dirty about it.

Why does a college football player become ineligible for selling his own personal belonging (rings, trophies, medals)? If Terrelle Pryor gets a gift for Christmas from his mother and he doesn't like it, returns it for cash -- not eligible? -- Steve Dodderer, Johnstown, Ohio

Holy cow, Steve, I think you just stumbled on to a whole new pay-for-play scheme -- extra benefits in the form of Best Buy gift certificates. Mom buys the Xbox for Christmas, player returns it. If caught, player tells the NCAA he had no knowledge of how his mother obtained the gift certificates.

Like most NCAA rules, there is a legitimate basis behind the one that garnered the Ohio State players' suspensions. For one, the NCAA frowns on players receiving "preferential" treatment for their status as athletes, and obviously the opportunity to cash in on trophies and title rings is not available to regular students. It also curtails a more serious possibility where boosters could essentially pay players by buying their swag for exorbitant amounts. But there's no denying the inherent contradiction, since the players can do whatever they want with these items the second their eligibility expires.

Perhaps the schools should keep this stuff in a safe-deposit box until graduation.

First, I find the whole Ohio State thing as laughable as any situation the NCAA faced this year. Second, I am appalled that Ohio State has the audacity to claim it will appeal the suspensions. Ohio State's only punishment is that it is losing some starters for next year, but it is Ohio State and will replace these guys with more blue chippers. My question is how come Ohio State is not getting punished when it stated that it didn't do a good job educating the kids on the rules? -- Rick Adler, Allen, Texas

As I wrote last week, the obscure policy the NCAA dug up to keep the players eligible for the bowl game (reportedly at the behest of AD Gene Smith and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany) was a bizarre and hypocritical move that seems contradictory to past decisions rendered by other arms of NCAA enforcement. How can the NCAA come down on some schools (USC, Michigan) for negligent compliance but then give these suspended players a reprieve for their biggest game of the year for essentially the same reason?

Again, we're dealing with two different arms of the organization. The Ohio State decision came from the NCAA's student-athlete reinstatement staff, which is charged with making quick, real-time decisions about a player's eligibility when it appears that a violation occurred. Ohio State was first contacted by the U.S. attorney's office about the suspicious memorabilia at the tattoo parlor on Dec. 7, reported its findings Dec. 18 and received a ruling Dec. 22. Now, If the NCAA's larger enforcement division has reason to believe this wasn't an "isolated incident" (as the school claimed), it can open an full-fledged investigation into whether the school itself is guilty of any infractions like the kind that landed USC and Michigan their sanctions. So far there's been no sign that's on the horizon.

With the NCAA basically saying to Auburn and Ohio State that your players can break the rules and still play as long as they claim ignorance of those rules, do you think that USC might be looking at a favorable result to its upcoming appeal of the sanctions levied against it, too? I don't have any love for Lane Kiffin or USC, but it almost seems like easing their sanctions would be the fair thing to do in light of these other "punishments" which, to be frank, seem completely ridiculous. Do you think USC's appeal chances have improved in light of these other decisions by the NCAA? -- Doug Whittle, Madison, Wis.

Based on the NCAA's stated protocol for an appeals hearing, USC's chances shouldn't have improved. According to the NCAA's Web site, USC's Jan. 22 appearance before the Infractions Appeals Committee "is NOT a new hearing that provides a second chance to argue the case" and "The Infractions Appeals Committee does not consider evidence that wasn't presented to the Committee on Infractions." In other words, anything that's taken place since the time of the original decision is not considered relevant. The school will presumably be arguing that the original Committee was too harsh based on the evidence of the case, or that it made a procedural error.

Stewart, this may fall slightly outside your purview, but should the NFL actually stage a lockout, what if any ramifications to college football will occur? Will they still draft in April? Will the NCAA extend the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NFL draft? I'd hate to see underclassmen miss an entire year of football due to NFL childishness. -- Brian, Houston

There will still be a draft in April. It is the last organized NFL event that will occur once the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in March. And the Jan. 15 deadline to declare comes from the NFL, not the NCAA, and it's not changing either. Note there will only be four days this year between the national title game and the deadline. If Cam Newton, Nick Fairley or LaMichael James tells us before the game he "hasn't thought about" his decision yet, I'm crying foul.

After that it gets a little bit hazy. While a lockout seems inevitable at this point, we don't know when it would begin or how long it would last. It doesn't automatically start in March. If come May it's still business as usual, teams would be free to not only sign their draft picks, but to spend as much as the market commands. (Last year's top pick, Sam Bradford, got $50 million in guaranteed money.) However, rookie contracts are one of the big sticking points in the current stalemate, and many believe the NFLPA may wind up agreeing to some sort of rookie wage scale. If that's a possibility, teams may let their draft picks go unsigned until the CBA is resolved.

I've seen several different schools of thought on this. Alabama coach Nick Saban, for one, has told his underclass prospects to think twice about leaving this year because they'll risk losing a year of development if no mini-camps, training camps or even the season take place. Agents, of course, are trying to lure even marginal prospects and are using the rookie wage scale as the motivator (i.e., go in now so you can get to your first free-agent contract sooner). In the end, I don't see it making a big difference either way. The issue is far too complex for most 20- and 21-year-olds to comprehend, and many of them probably don't really care. If they're ready to leave school, they'll leave. If they think they're not ready, or enjoy college too much to leave, they'll come back, same as in any year. But those who do go may get stuck in football limbo.

After seeing the success of the Rooney Rule in the NFL, how does college football get away with only 14 black coaches in college football -- none at a marquee program now that Randy Shannon got canned? It's pretty criminal considering the demographics of football. -- Chen, Pittsburgh

That may sound low, but believe it or not it was only two years ago that we were writing about FOUR black coaches among (then) 119 FBS schools. Two years ago, four schools with openings hired black coaches. Last year there were seven, albeit mostly at non-BCS schools. So far this year we've seen three at BCS-conference schools. (Vanderbilt hired James Franklin, Colorado hired Jon Embreee and Pittsburgh hired Michael Haywood). While there's no excusing the depths that number reached, there's been considerable progress in the past few years. However, the Rooney Rule is first and foremost about ensuring teams at least interview minority candidates, and occasionally we still see colleges that don't provide that opportunity. If there were a Rooney Rule in college, West Virginia would get a fine, seeing as its athletic director hand-picked the new coach (Dana Holgorsen) before the job was even open.

At the end of the process, however, every school must hire the best possible candidate regardless of race. Remember all the flack (including accusations of racism) that Auburn took for hiring Gene Chizik over Turner Gill? It sure seems AD Jay Jacobs got that one right. Meanwhile, Louisville's Charlie Strong, who waited what seemed like an eternity for his first head-coaching gig, is doing exactly what most of us believed he would in quickly leading the Cardinals back to respectability. In fact, a case can be made that the veteran Strong is in a far better position to succeed than Ron Prince, Karl Dorrell and many of the other infamous flameouts before him. Check out this fascinating empirical column from Football Outsiders which shows that on average, black coaches hired by BCS schools tend to be younger and less experienced than their counterparts. With more minority coordinators than ever before, hopefully we'll see a rise of both better-prepared coaches and, in turn, more interview and hiring opportunities.

Speaking of diversity, there was very little of it in my inbox this week (in fact, 80 percent of the e-mails were Ohio State/NCAA-related queries), presumably because of the holiday break. Amazingly, by this time next week teams will have played 30 of the 35 bowl games and I'll be in Arizona. We should have plenty to talk about then.

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