On March 8, 2010, the BCS Twitter page (http://twitter.com/insidethebcs) proclaimed “Another banner year of TV ratings and attendance highlight America’s passion for college football”.( 1) However, if one read the article they linked to (available here), there was conspicuously little coverage of the Orange Bowl among the list of “Bowl Ratings Highlights” and “2008-09 Notable Bowl Facts and Milestones”. The only mention it received was in the “Bowl’s boasting double digit growth in viewership included:” section where it was noted that its television viewership increased by 17%. In fact, the strength of ticket sales were mentioned for the other 3 original BCS bowls (Fiesta, Sugar, Rose), but not for the Orange Bowl. Given the recent trouble the Fiesta Bowl has experienced, I decided to look into the Orange Bowl and the view was not pretty.
While the television viewership of the Orange Bowl was up 17%, as mentioned earlier, ticket sales were not. The Orange Bowl had an announced attendance of 66,131 (2), which besides not being a sellout for the first time in 9 years, missed the sellout mark by a significant margin (Note: it’s good that bowl games don’t have NFL style blackout rules—more on this in a minute). Sun Life Stadium has a capacity of 75,000 for football games (3); thus, the stadium was only 88.1% full for one of college football’s 5 major BCS games. Now we don’t want to denigrate the lovely fans of Iowa or Georgia Tech, but does anyone truly believe that those two teams would have played in front of stadium that was less than 90% full if the winner got to play another game to advance towards a national championship in addition to just a trophy full of oranges? Or that if either team hosted the game on campus only 88% of the stands would be full? For the record, the last NFL playoff game to not sellout, and consequently be blacked out in the local television viewing market, was January 13, 2002 when Miami hosted Baltimore (4). Of course the poor economy played a part in this decline in ticket sales, but let’s take a look at some other potential reasons, specifically the Orange Bowl’s current marketing strategy and leadership.
The Orange Bowl’s marketing plan to attract local fans to purchase tickets in 2009 was fairly simple: feature attractive young females in face paint showing their bare midriffs along with the enticing promise of being able to purchase tickets to the BCS Championship game---in 2013. Yes, come out to the Orange Bowl so that you can meet hot girls showing off their painted stomachs. And we’ll also throw in the right to purchase tickets to a game that doesn’t happen for another 3 years. It’s no wonder that in the offseason the Orange Bowl committee decided to create a “..multi-tiered strategy to increase declining ticket sales..” (article here). This included hiring a Vice President of Ticket Sales and Operations in addition to hiring more ticket office employees and creating a program where corporate clients will be required to refer the names of other businesses to the Orange Bowl. According to Eric Poms, the Orange Bowl Committee CEO, “A new membership requirement is to have each new member provide us with two contacts in the business community. Then we will prepare ticket packages and visit each employer.” (article here) Does that sound similar to how timeshare presentations work to anyone else? Let’s give the Orange Bowl credit for something though; the new VP of Ticket Sales, Dawson Hughes, has experience working with the Kansas City Royals, a Major League Baseball franchise with a history of poor attendance.
The performance of any organization usually starts at the top and one need look no further than the leadership of the Orange Bowl. Flashback to December 2007. You might be wondering how Ohio State just got selected for the BCS Championship Game despite losing its next to last game of the regular season to Illinois (remember, every week is a playoff in the regular season), but that’s another discussion for another day. The real controversy among the BCS selections was the fact that Kansas got chosen ahead of Missouri for an at-large bid and a spot in the 2008 Orange Bowl. This selection was interesting due to several reasons: Missouri and Kansas had identical regular season records (not including the Big 12 Championship Game), Kansas’ record was due in part to a relatively weak schedule that did not include Texas or Oklahoma or Texas Tech (in fact they had not played a single ranked team until they played Missouri), and most importantly, Missouri beat Kansas during the
Now let’s return to the present with current President and Chair of the Orange Bowl Committee, Phillis Oeters. Oeters wrote a letter to the editor that appeared in the Miami Herald on January 3, 2010 (link here) deploring the idea of a playoff in college football. The letter featured many of the common anti-playoff myths: “Simply put, a playoff would end the bowls as we know them…”, fans would not be able to travel to multiple neutral-site playoff games, “But with 34 bowl games, 34 teams end the year successfully.”, and “In a playoff, teams will only spend one night in town, as opposed to a week..” Ignoring the fact that there have been numerous playoff proposals which keep some of the bowls and even incorporate the BCS games as a part of the playoff, one must start to wonder if the letter wasn’t secretly written by BCS chief Bill Hancock as he used every single one of those misleading claims in his infamous interview on the Dan Patrick Show in November 2009. However, the most unusual parts of the letter came towards the end. Oeters said that during bowl games “Universities meet with donors and raise money to support their academic programs. A playoff would destroy that.” Ignoring the veiled implication that playoff proponents are not concerned with supporting academics on college campuses, the idea that university donors would not attend playoff games is simply laughable. Immediately after that, Oeters stated “So if the bowl system works, is part of American culture and creates economic opportunity for communities and colleges around the country, why would we want to get rid of it?” The problem with Oeters hypothesis is that while bowls are clearly part of American culture and create economic opportunity—although not for many schools that participate in them due to mandated ticket sales and other requirements—the bowl system clearly does not work. But that could also depend on what one’s definition of “work” is. Does the bowl system provide players with an opportunity for a glorified exhibition game where they receive bags of expensive merchandise for free? Does the bowl system allow some teams weeklong vacations in tropical climates? The answer to both questions is clearly yes. However, the most important question in my view is this: Does the bowl system help determine college football’s FBS “national champion” based primarily on actual on-field performance (not conference affiliation or preseason ranking or computer models) from a pool of multiple teams with similar records or regular season achievements? The answer is a resounding no, which is why the both Orange Bowl and the BCS are part of the problem rather than part of the solution.