The Economics Of the US College Football Bowl Season

College Football ‘bowls’ will not survive without Corporate Sponsorship.

College Football ‘bowls’ will not survive without Corporate Sponsorship.

The college football bowl season gets going on Saturday when Nevada takes on Louisiana-Lafayette in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl. Two mid-majors with a combined nine losses taking on one another in a nationally televised football game.

It’s one of five bowl games set to take place on Saturday, the unofficial kick-off to bowl season. Overall, 39 bowl games will be played between Saturday and New Year’s Day. And considering it takes just a .500 record (in most cases) to play in a postseason game, the quality of the product we see isn’t going to be too great.

College Football is big Business

Over the course of the past few decades, the total of amount of bowl games have increased significantly. 30 years after less than two dozen bowl games took place on an annual basis, we are nearing four dozen…a total that could be reached by 2016. And nearly all of these games have a corporate name attached to them.

Why were these changes made to what has become an American institution? And how much does corporate America have to do with the expansion of the college football bowl season?

According to IEG, sponsors paid $99 million for 35 bowl games during the 2012-2013 bowl season.

The majority of those dollars—about $71 million—will go to ESPN , which packages bowl naming rights with season-long ad packages for the BCS bowls, plus sells title to the seven bowl games owned by its ESPN Regional Television unit.

You guessed it, this is big business for the Sports Leader. It also affords corporations the ability to get their names attached to what has become an annual tradition around the sports world. As Americans sit back to view the last games of the college football season, we are thrown names like…

The Raycom Media Camellia Bowl, Duck Commander Independence Bowl and Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. That last one is probably one of the best. It promotes both a mortgage company and a vacation destination (Nashville, Tennessee). I can see the commercials right now.

But when did it change? And how did corporate America involve itself in a period of the sports world that used to be defined by names like the Holiday Bowl, Gator Bowl and Peach Bowl.

Like everything in the United States, we find a way to make a buck at every possible turn. It’s what made us the capitalist leaders in the world. And it’s also what has come to define bowl season today, at least from a financial aspect.

Back in 1984, there were a total of 18 bowl games at season’s end. Of those 18 games, only one (Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl) had the name of a corporation embedded within the name of the bowl. Of those 18 bowl games, only nine are still around under the same name. And five of those are the top-tier bowls that will decide the national champion for the foreseeable future.

Today, all but three bowl games have a corporate sponsor embedded within their names. Of the other three, they are all named after a location, whether it is the Birmingham Bowl or the Hawaii Bowl.

IEG also listed the title/presenting fee for every single bowl game during the 2012-2013 season. And the findings were downright ridiculous. The cheapest were valued at $350,000 and represented the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, among two others. The most expensive were the Sugar and Fiesta Bowls at $17.5 million, both of whom included season-long ad buy-ins on ESPN.

The idea of corporate sponsors buying naming rights to bowls isn’t necessarily new. Games started selling off their naming rights back in 1978. And to be honest, the only reason we really pay attention to it today is the fact that television stations like ESPN insist on utilizing the corporate sponsor nearly every time they promote a specific bowl. That’s also written into the contracts between the station and sponsor. But I digress.

While some may draw the conclusion that the branding of college football is a bad thing, it’s important to note that these corporate deals are among the only aspects of revenue keeping postseason college football alive today.

The Foster Farms Bowl, which is set to take place at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara later this month, lost $100,000 because it played without a corporate sponsor last year.

The bowl’s executive director, Gary Cavalli, called it “critical ” and indicated that bowls wouldn’t be able to “ survive without a sponsor.”

This is also one of the primary reasons bowls change sponsors on a consistent basis. It’s all about them being able to maintain some sort of financial stability in the face of a climate that doesn’t necessarily call for tremendous profits.

Once of the other interesting dynamics at play here is the creation of the first ever College Football Playoff, which pits four teams against one another in a national semifinal on New Year’s day before the winners of those games play the following week in the national championship.

ESPN is paying more for the rights to broadcast these games, so it makes sense to see an increase in the price of naming rights.

To the average college football fan, this doesn’t really matter. They are still going to sit back and watch two mediocre teams play a football game that’s named after a poultry company.

And that’s precisely the issue with the watered-down product we are going to see this month. It’s more about the expansion of the college football bowl season than it is about the involvement of corporate sponsors…an involvement that dates back to the Jimmy Carter Administration. And an involvement that in many ways isn’t necessarily reflective of big business making huge profits.

So instead of complaining about the naming rights for the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day, enjoy Missouri and Minnesota play what should be a darn good football game while feasting on some American made chicken wings.

That’s what it should be about.


Vincent Frank Contributor at editor-in-chief at Sportsnaut and head editor at