College football’s bowl season began on Dec. 16, at 11:30 a.m. Eastern, with two .500 teams squaring off in a 15,000-seat stadium in the Bahamas.
UAB’s 24-20 victory against Miami (Ohio) drew an average of 822,000 viewers to ESPN. It ended up being the least-watched of 39 bowl games on ESPN’s networks and one of only two with fewer than 1 million viewers.
For perspective, heading into a Christmas Day, NBA games on ESPN, ABC and TNT drew an average of 1.5 million viewers, according to Sports MediaWatch.
There are a lot of bowl games. It is hard to argue there are too many.
“We talk to the commissioners, the athletic directors, head football coaches on a regular basis, and there is no indication whatsoever that they want to decrease the number of opportunities for teams to play in bowl games,” said Nick Carparelli, the executive director of Bowl Season.
As college football heads toward the debut of an expanded, 12-team playoff in 2024, those involved with bowls anticipate changes from scheduling to qualification to maybe even some type of compensation to players for participating.
While the College Football Playoff has undoubtedly diminished the importance of bowl games, they are not going away. And a bigger playoff might be a chance for bowl season to reinvent itself.
“I actually think that the expanded playoff could create some needed, helpful separation,” ESPN vice president of programming Nick Dawson said. “And I think you can draw a more clear line between, these 11 games are the playoffs and this other pool of games is bowl season.”
Bowl season is no longer just a time period; it’s an organization, rebranded from the old Football Bowl Association.
Carparelli, a former associate commissioner of the Big East and Under Armour executive, advocates for bowls and tries organize them in ways they haven’t been before.
“Every bowl game is different and what the definition of success for one bowl game might be very different from another,” he said.
A bigger CFP that starts in mid-December will mean rearranging the bowl schedule around the playoff, which will likely require 11 TV windows with no competition from other college football games.
Everyone involved with the CFP has expressed a desire to bring the media rights to the expanded format to an open market after the current 12-year deal with ESPN expires in 2025. It would be surprising if a new CFP deal didn’t involve multiple networks.
Conventional wisdom suggests if another network has rights to the CFP, it would be motivated to acquire the rights to other bowls to help promote the big event.
“I do expect competition,” Dawson said.
All bowls outside the CFP have their own media rights deals, though ESPN owns and operates 17 postseason games. At the top of the bowl food chain are the so-called New Year’s Six games, currently part of the College Football Playoff semifinal rotation.
What those games strive for is to remain part of the new playoff model, which will include first-round games played on campus. Carparelli has already reached out to conference commissioners who manage the CFP, urging them to consider even more bowl participation.
The reality, though, is the same level of bowl involvement could be difficult to maintain. There have already been calls for more on-campus games in the 12-team format and CFP officials have said they are open to that.
The second tier of bowl games is mostly those played between Christmas and New Year’s Day. They produced some thrillers this season: Arkansas 55, Kansas 53 in the Liberty Bowl; Oregon 28, North Carolina 27 in the Holiday Bowl; Pittsburgh 37, UCLA 35 in the Sun Bowl.
Notre Dame’s 45-38 victory against South Carolina in the Gator Bowl and Florida State’s 35-32 win over Oklahoma in the Cheez-it Bowl each drew more than 5 million viewers for ESPN.
For the bowls in this tier and the non-playoff New Year’s Six games, among the biggest problems is opt-outs by top players who are prioritizing being healthy for the NFL draft.
A solution could be NIL.
Now that college athletes can be compensated for use of their names, images and likenesses, bowl sponsors could arrange to pay participating players for promoting their businesses. The Cheez-it Bowl signed four players to an NIL deal that involved staying in a Cheez-it-themed hotel room.
“The bowl system is treading lightly in that area because we really want to take the lead from the conference commissioners on how they want us to handle it,” Carparelli said.
Opt-outs are almost certainly here to stay, but maybe Alabama stars Bryce Young and Will Anderson Jr. playing in the Sugar Bowl will encourage more potential first-round draft picks to stick it out through the bowl season.
“The way you create value for yourself is to play football,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
The third tier of bowl games mostly includes the pre-Christmas games. The majority of those games match teams from outside the Power Five conferences and include many owned by ESPN.
Those games could be impacted most if the NCAA standard for bowl eligibility is raised from six to seven victories, which Carparelli said is a possibility. He expects each conference to re-assess how much bowl access it needs.
“As great as the playoff is, bowl season is more important to a greater number of institutions and a greater number of student-athletes on an annual basis,” Carparelli said. “And anyone who questions the relevance of bowl games, I think just needs to take a deep breath and accept the fact that bowl games don’t have to factor into the national championship equation for them to be meaningful to a lot of people.”