The College Bowls | Globe Editorial

Rich organizers, poor schools

January 17, 2011

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NOW THAT college bowl season is over, university presidents and the NCAA should take a clear-eyed look at the obvious flaws and injustices in college football’s system of post-season invitational games. Forget the age-old question of whether an official playoff system would be better. What’s clear is that the independently managed bowl games are enriching their organizers and losing money for some of their participants, and at least one major bowl may even be contributing to the corruption of the political system.

This season closed with a growing spotlight on the Fiesta Bowl, which, according to investigations by reporters and Arizona state officials, has arranged suspicious campaign contributions to politicians in that state. The bowl has courted political support in its efforts to outmuscle competing bowls and remain part of the top-tier Bowl Championship Series. Such contributions would be illegal, because the Fiesta operates, as many bowls do, as a nonprofit.

But then, running a bowl game has become a racket in itself. At least 16 bowls have executive directors making between $238,000 and $808,000. Not bad pay for staging a one-night event. Meanwhile, universities — most of them taxpayer-funded institutions — put their own money at risk with their bowl appearances. The University of Connecticut, for instance, went to its first-ever top-tier bowl game, earning a participation fee of $2.5 million. But it had to buy 17,500 tickets, valued at more than $3.4 million, and reportedly resold only 5,000 of them. Then there’s the cost of the travel, the maintenance of the team, and more.

College football conferences make out well when the bowl spoils are divided. But for schools, it can be a money-losing proposition. Newsweek this week reported that last year’s national champion, Alabama, lost $1.9 million for its spot in the national title game, despite a $2.4 million participation payment.

The eternal excuse is that the bowl publicity is worth the financial loss. That claim is harder and harder to justify. TV ratings and ticket sales are suffering as bowls proliferate — how about that BBVA Compass Bowl? — and provide a showcase for mediocre teams. But if bowl games are successful enough that they can pay their chief executives up to $808,000 per year, how about creating a system that sends more of that revenue back to the universities?