Quick! Who's No.1 in college football? If you say Florida State University, you're right. But didn't Sports Illustrated claim the Seminoles' title is tainted by a rules-flouting scandal? And didn't Notre Dame give FSU a lesson in football, Irish-style last fall in a drubbing the Florida boys won't ever forget? In any case, the National Championship was bestowed in the end, as always, by a vote of sportswriters at U.S. newspapers large and small.
That's how things have been for years, and that's the way the bowl games have liked it--until now. Despite demand by fans and pundits for a winner-take-all playoff series, as in other collegiate sports, the bowl honchos have long dug in their heels. They fear playoffs would render their games meaningless--and ultimately obsolete. That fright played an unmistakable role in the migration of bowl games to New Year's Day over the past decade, the advent of now-ubiquitous big-time sponsorships, and the formation of the three-year-old College Bowl Coalition, which gives the yearend games a single voice.
Now, after a spate of serious outside offers to launch a postseason tournament--which could sound their death knell--the bowl games are forming a new alliance that's one step closer to a true playoff. Under the new system, devised by the commissioners of most of the major conferences, the number of games on New Year's will shrink, and conference champions will no longer be tied to a specific bowl--except in the case of the Rose Bowl, which will continue to be a showdown between the Big 10 and Pacific 10 conference champs. Nine bowls will present sealed bids in Dallas on July 29-30 for the right to host a national championship game featuring the teams that finish one-two in the polls at the season's end. Just three of the nine bowls will make the cut, and the collegiate super bowl will rotate among them after the 1995 season.
That one or more of the most venerable bowl games could be shut out of this consortium doesn't faze its organizers. Money talks, tradition walks. "The desire to maximize revenue is central to this," says Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner Gene Corrigan, who is heading up the effort. "We're looking for the best deals." And who can blame them? The money's there.
Desperate for programming after losing the National Football League to Fox Broadcasting Co., CBS Inc. raised the stakes last month by offering a combined $300 million over six years for the rights to the Federal Express Orange, IBM OS/2 Fiesta, and Outback Steakhouse Gator bowls, in hopes those three will end up the winning bidders. "That's nothing more than a TV network trying to buy college football," grouses Robert Dale Morgan, executive director of Atlanta's Peach Bowl, which is considered a long shot for one of the three slots. Armed with CBS's offer, in the initial round of bidding the Fiesta offered $27 million in prize money for a collegiate super bowl. With Capital Cities/ABC Inc. sure to fight to have the USF&G Sugar Bowl win a slot, final bids are expected to be in the $30 million to $35 million range by the time the commissioners tap the winners, sometime between now and Labor Day.
CLAMOR. The bowls have long cannibalized themselves by competing for splintered TV ratings on New Year's Day. The new plan would halt such competition by holding a No.3 vs. No.5 game on Dec. 31 and a No.4 vs. No.6 game on Jan. 1 as preliminaries to the national championship game. "If everyone has an exclusive window, we should be able to see a pretty dramatic increase in ratings," predicts Troy Mathieu, executive director of the USF&G Sugar Bowl. And, of course, the price of a corporate sponsorship would rise, too.
Alliance organizers concede they felt compelled to act after the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. named a committee to study the issue. Over the past two years, several groups--including a consortium headed by Hollywood dealmaker Michael Ovitz and another fronted by Walt Disney Co. and ABC--have tried to persuade the NCAA to launch a tourney for Division 1-A football. But university presidents, who ultimately make such decisions, rejected a playoff scenario for now, and bowl organizers breathed a sigh of relief.
Still, the demand for a decisive championship series won't go away. The clamor from fans will continue, and the big-bucks offers will roll in, growing in magnitude. "What we're doing now could be only a three-year solution," admits the ACC's Corrigan. Still, even this stopgap has got to be better than eight bowls in a pileup on New Year's Day.
BIDDING FOR A NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME What the top bowls initially offered to pay the contenders in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown (and what they paid bowl participants in 1994). Initial offer 1994 Millions Millions IBM OS/2 FIESTA BOWL $27 $6.0 FEDERAL EXPRESS ORANGE BOWL 26 8.6 OUTBACK STEAKHOUSE GATOR BOWL 25 3.0 USF&G SUGAR BOWL 20 8.2 MOBIL COTTON BOWL 18 8.2 DATA: COLLEGE BOWL ALLIANCE, BUSINESS WEEK SCOTT HALLERAN / ALLSPORT