How College Bowls Got Over-Commercialized

In David Foster Wallace's futuristic 1996 novel Infinite Jest, years are no longer referred to by numbers: You just have to remember that Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken comes after the Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar. This is only a little weirder and a little less funny than what has actually happened to college football. The Peach Bowl is now the Chick-fil-A Bowl, the Citrus Bowl is the Capital One Bowl, and the Motor City Bowl is the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. Other teams will be competing at the Outback Bowl, the Insight Bowl, the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas, the Meineke Car Care Bowl, the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, the Military Bowl, and the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl. You know sponsorships are a little too easy to come by when a chain restaurant known for its chili is willing to put its name that close to the word "bowl."

Unlike other major sports governing bodies, college football's—the National Collegiate Athletic Assn.—doesn't run its own postseason. Instead, it allows private companies to start their own bowl games, invite teams to play, and then—if they choose—bring on weird sponsors. It's such a free-market system that Dan Wetzel, co-author of the new book Death to the BCS—meaning the Bowl Championship Series, the organization that runs the bowl system—says, "I could start a bowl."

The current bowl system is unpopular with just about everybody. Only 26 percent of fans like it, according to a Quinnipiac University poll. Barack Obama and John McCain campaigned against it, and it pulls in a lot less money than a March Madness-type playoff system would. "It's the only business that outsources its most profitable product," says Wetzel. "Other than to see their own team, nobody says, 'I have to go to the Humanitarian Bowl!' " While no other business would spend decades investing in a program only to hand it over to a third party—in Boise, no less—dozens do every year despite a murky payoff. Says Wetzel: "There's nothing like holding up a trophy from the Bowl."

With 70 teams playing in bowl games this year, lots of stadiums will be pretty empty. While bowls can profit from requiring schools to buy blocks of full-price tickets to sell to fans, few institutions can unload their bounty—particularly when they're playing in a bowl in Idaho. Even at the non-ridiculous 2009 FedEx (FDX) Orange Bowl (now the Discovery Orange Bowl), Virginia Tech sold only 20 percent of the 17,500 tickets it bought for $120 apiece. It lost $1.77 million.

Still, virtually all colleges play along, often so they can tell recruits and donors they went to a bowl game—even the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl. And many coaches and athletic directors, who run the bowl system, get bonuses for getting their teams into a bowl—even the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl. "These bowls are a scam," says Brian Frederick, executive director of the Sports Fans Coalition, a lobbyist group. "They make money by selling names to sponsors. That's why you get these awful names. The uDrove Humanitarian Bowl? What the hell is that?" It's a bowl game in Idaho.

Frederick is one of several lobbyists in an industry you might think would need none. Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to President George W. Bush, works for the BCS. Playoff PAC, a political committee focused on the college football postseason, lobbies against it. Representative Joe Barton (R-Tex.) held antitrust hearings against the BCS last year, and Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.) are trying to end the BCS system. (Their home states have universities currently in conferences without automatic bids to bowl games.)

The biggest company backing the current system is ESPN (DIS), which airs 35 bowl games and owns seven of them, including the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl, the BBVA Compass Bowl, and, yes, the St. Petersburg (Fla.)-based Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl. "Our No. 1 goal is to find a multiyear relationship with a sponsor. We don't want to be in the rebranding business every other year," says Pete Derzis, senior vice-president and general manager of ESPN Regional Television.

Having a sponsor take over the entire name of the bowl, he says, started with the 2006 Chick-fil-A Bowl, which felt the press was chopping off the beginning of the officially named "Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl." It was a stroke of evil genius. ESPN says it has never had a sponsorship name rejected by the NCAA. "We have our own filter," says Tom Hagel, senior director at ESPN. "When you're in the bowl business, it's almost like you're buying a house in a neighborhood. You don't want a real bad house in the neighborhood."

It is, however, a neighborhood big enough to have included the CarQuest Bowl, the California Raisin Bowl, and, starting this year, the Bowl—which used to be the GMAC Bowl until the U.S. government decided the name wasn't worth taxpayers' money. Known for its racy commercials, the Internet domain registry company's proposed sponsorship "received some discussion," says Nick Carparelli, chair of the NCAA football issues committee. "But in the end the NCAA is not in the censorship business. Bowl games are independent businesses."

For many sponsors, business is good. When AB Electrolux Home Products pulled out of the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La., locally based Poulan WeedEater sponsored the game from 1990 until 1996, when the bowl moved to North Carolina. "Overall, it was a net benefit," says Evin Ellis, the company's marketing communications manager. "We consider WeedEater the Kleenex of weed whacking." Perhaps, but the sponsorship did have a lasting effect: "Weedwhacker Bowl" now refers to a college bowl that no one really cares about. And while such a fate could befall the Bowl, the company's chief executive officer, Bob Parsons, believes the sponsorship will drive traffic to its website. Says Parsons: "We don't do anything that doesn't make money."

The " Bowl" might not have the luster of the Masters, but the 1902-founded Rose Bowl in Pasadena, the 1935 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, and the 1935 Orange Bowl in Miami were pimping pretty hard for their local industries, too. "If you trace bowl games back to their beginning, the whole idea was to stimulate tourism by bringing together two college teams in different communities," says the NCAA's Carparelli. So the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl is a part of a century-old sports tradition. And like many traditions, over time it has gotten a lot bigger, and a lot tackier.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.