Potentially seismic reform looms, but bowl industry has little say
It turns out Rose Bowl officials were just as surprised as the rest of us.
"That was the first we ever heard of that model," said Kevin Ash, the Rose Bowl's chief administrative officer.
The BCS conference commissioners have spent the past several months discussing potentially seismic changes to the sport's postseason. Considering the possible ramifications of such changes on the four current BCS bowls and the rest of the bowl industry, one might assume bowl officials would have a formal say in the matter.
To this point, that hasn't been the case.
"We're not at the table," said Ash. "Our [conference] partners are at the table."
That will change a bit next week when commissioners, athletic directors, bowl officials and television executives convene at the Westin Diplomat in South Florida for the BCS' annual meetings. While bowl reps have received updates from their respective partner conferences these past few months (and have presumably reached out to others in the business to find out what they're hearing), this regular annual review will be the first time the four BCS heads have met with the entire group.
Even then, each director will get only 30 minutes in the room.
Coinciding with those meetings Tuesday through Thursday at the Westin Diplomat, the Football Bowl Association will hold its annual convention at the Harbor Beach Marriott. All 35 bowls will send representatives, and many of their conversations figure to center on the exchanges taking place 12 miles north.
"Of course everyone is concerned about what is happening," said FBA Chairman Tina Kunzer-Murphy, executive director of the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas. "Everything you read is what we're hearing too."
Nothing will be finalized until later this spring or early summer, after the commissioners hold more discussions and each conference's president weighs in. The BCS is still paying lip service to the possibility of tweaking the current model, but multiple commissioners have told SI.com that's highly unlikely. At the very least, the sport will move to the "Original Plus One" (a championship matchup determined after the bowls) or to some variety of a four-team playoff, which could be played entirely, partially or not at all within the bowl system.
The bowls, understandably, have their preferences.
"If there are semifinal games, if there's a championship game, I think it makes sense to have it in the existing bowl structure rather than try to duplicate it in other areas," said Fiesta Bowl CEO Robert Shelton. "I've been to State College, it's a beautiful place, but it doesn't have, for instance, the 1,500 volunteers that work for us every year. It would be very hard to host an event without that existing infrastructure."
Playing semifinal games at existing bowl sites would likely resuscitate games like the Orange Bowl, which has seen drastic drops in attendance and TV ratings in recent years. However, if the commissioners opt to play the semifinals at on-campus or new neutral sites (like, say, Indianapolis), the bowl business would likely feel the trickle down.
"That means two more teams have been taken outside the potential pool for our bowls," said Gary Cavalli, executive director of the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. "That affects everybody. The entire bowl system takes a minor hit."
The scenario that makes the BCS bowls particularly nervous is the possibility of not only precluding the bowls from hosting semifinals, but bidding out the championship game to any U.S. city. "The championship game would not be branded as a bowl game even if a bowl organization serves as host," reads the description in the aforementioned BCS document.
Should that happen, "It changes our financial model considerably," said Shelton. Since the BCS' 1998 inception, the Fiesta Bowl has counted on the revenue from its turn hosting the championship game every four years to help fund team payouts for both its regular game and the Insight Bowl, which is run by the same organization. (That game will have a new name this year after Insight let its contract expire.)
"Would we still host the Fiesta Bowl? Of course we would," said Shelton. "But the intake and the outflow would be different. ... [The Insight Bowl] would have to run with a much lower payout and a much different set of teams."
Few playoff advocates have sympathy for the bowls' plight, citing for one thing the Fiesta Bowl's recent corruption scandal under Shelton's predecessor, John Junker. The 2010 book
Bowl supporters contend that moving games to campus sites would deprive players of the weeklong bowl experience. Depending on ticket distribution, fans of the two visiting schools might not be able to support their teams in person. And with attention focused on the playoff, interest in the lesser bowls may decline.
"Whether they tweak it a bit is one thing, but to go to a playoff would be detrimental to our bowl," said Kunzer-Murphy. "I think what we have now, if we have a few changes, we can live with that, but I haven't seen anything [else] that stands out and says: This is a great suggestion."
The Rose Bowl may have the most at stake. The Granddaddy has been largely resistant to the dips in interest suffered by its counterparts, with attendance annually exceeding the bowl's official 92,542 capacity. But it's also far more dependent on traveling fans. It allots nearly 20,000 more tickets to the participating schools (roughly 55,000 total) than any other bowl, with many Big Ten fans traveling 2,000-plus miles to attend. While the Rose Bowl can be assured a continued Big Ten-Pac-12 matchup due to the parties' ironclad relationship, it could become a de facto consolation game should both leagues' champions reach the playoff.
Based on conversations with multiple BCS sources, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany proposed the aforementioned "Four Teams Plus" playoff model with the Rose Bowl exemption, which SEC commissioner Mike Slive recently called "not one of my favorites." Said another commissioner: "That's not one I would expect to get a lot of traction." Even Delany's motives are unclear, since the Big Ten was the first to go public with its interest in on-campus semifinals. And the Rose Bowl doesn't seem keen on hosting two random teams in a seeded semifinal.
"We have two very intelligent commissioners that are leading the way, and we do feel like we have a voice," said Ash. "It's important we protect our brand, and we really want to continue to be important in the postseason."
Thirty-four other bowl directors want much the same thing. But they have surprisingly little say in determining their own futures.