Monday, December 26, 2005

Scraping the bottom of the bowls

Temple gets a bowl bid

It appears that we are now well into the college football bowl season, when teams that put together a successful regular season (loosely defined) are rewarded with a trip to a beautiful city (again, loosely defined) to play a game in the national spotlight (ditto). Down and Distance doesn't spend a lot of time on college football, of course, but since it's that bowlful time of year, let's take a peek.

We start with math. There are 28 bowl games. Each has two participating teams. Thus, 56 teams make it to a bowl. There are about 120 Division I-A teams. So, every year, close to half of all major college football teams make it to a bowl game. You put that many teams in the postseason, and you're guaranteed to end up with some awful games. Some games, however, are more consistently awfuller than others.

Any clown can tell you what he thinks about the Rose Bowl, which this year doubles as the national championship game. Same with the other BCS bowls -- Sugar, Orange, Fiesta -- or even the bowls that I refer to as second-tier games, such as the Gator, Peach, Capital One or Cotton. These well-known, well-watched games match two strong teams, are played in attractive, warm-weather cities, and offer compelling storylines. I'm not terribly interested in games like that. What really gets the blood pumping are the games at the other end of the spectrum, the awfuller games spit out by our mathematics. Games I like to call the bottom-feeder bowls.

Bottom-feeder bowls are the lowest of the low. Scummy games played in half-empty stadiums, these bowls exist solely to separate fools from their money. No one goes to these games unless their team is playing, which is why they feature either a local team or a 6-5 team from a major school that "travels well." For players, these games aren't so much a reward for a good season ("Win this one and we go to the Fort Worth Bowl!") as they are punishment for a disappointing one ("We have to win this one, or we're going to the MPC Computers Bowl!").

What are the criteria for a bottom-feeder bowl?
  • Quality of matchup is obviously a top consideration. The GMAC Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, has many, many strikes against it, but it also has an affiliation with the Mid-American Conference, the most underrated, underappreciated league in the country. That tie-in ultimately redeems the game. Other bowls aren't so lucky. They're left to scour the standings and scoop up the absolute dregs: the 7-4 and 6-5 teams that barely eked out a winning record playing a slate of chumps and I-AA deadbeats. Put simply, a bottom-feeder bowl doesn't get bowl-worthy teams; it gets bowl-eligible teams.
  • Venue is also important. Good bowls are usually played in good places. Bad bowls are often played in hellholes. And some cities have both a good bowl and a bad one. Orlando has the decent Capital One Bowl and the degenerate Champs Sports Bowl. Before Katrina, New Orleans had both the powerhouse Sugar Bowl and the pathetic New Orleans Bowl. If a bowl is a red-headed stepchild in its own city, it's a good candidate for bottom-feeder status.
  • Sponsorship is critical nowadays. In the 1990s, much fun was made of the Poulan/Weed Eater Independence Bowl. The name was indeed ridiculous, but Weed Eater made perfect sense as a sponsor. It was a nationally known brand that dovetailed perfectly with the target audience for college football. Today, though purists beat their chests about it, nearly every bowl has a title sponsor. (The Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, for example, is the perfect marriage of sponsor and bowl.) In fact, sponsorship is such a part of the games that any bowl that doesn't have a title sponsor is probably a mess.
  • History should be taken into account. The Independence, Liberty and Sun bowls may give us plenty of duds, but they've been around for 30, 50 and 70 years. These games have tradition, and that counts for something.
  • TV coverage counts, too! The BCS games are on ABC, of course, and will move to Fox next year. Each broadcast network takes one other game: ABC shows the Capital One Bowl; CBS has been handling the Sun Bowl since 1968; Fox has had the Cotton Bowl since 1999; and NBC does the Gator Bowl. The remainder of the bowls are on ESPN, except for three that have been consigned to the ghetto of ESPN2. The lower a game sits on the TV ladder, the greater the chance it's a bottom-feeder.
  • Payouts are a good barometer. The BCS games pay each school $14 million to $17 million. Second-tier games pay $1.5 million and up. Most bottom-feeders get away with the NCAA's bare minimum: $750,000.
With these factors in mind, we can flush the meaningful bowls and assemble our list of the Ten Worst Bowl Games. Be aware, however, that we are speaking about each bowl as an institution, not just in the context of this year's game. In italics are the site of the bowl, the network showing the game, and the payout to each participating team:

10. Insight Bowl
Phoenix / ESPN / $750,000
This game bills itself as "College Football Like You've Never Seen It Before," and I guess I can't argue with the slogan. I've never seen a bowl game between two middling teams (this year, 6-5 Arizona State and 7-4 Rutgers) played in a baseball stadium (the Arizona Diamondbacks' Chase Field) in the same metro area (Phoenix) that hosts a much larger, eminently more interesting bowl (Fiesta). But that's just me. This game started in Tucson as the Copper Bowl in 1989; Domino's Pizza and Weiser Lock each served as the title sponsor before the Fiesta Bowl bought the game (yes, bought it) in 1997 and later moved it to Phoenix. The name was changed to the Bowl in 1997. Five years later, the ".com" disappeared, for obvious reasons, and the game became just the Insight Bowl. Quick quiz: What does do? I don't know what it does, but I know what it doesn't do: sponsor a necessary bowl game.

9. Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl presented by Bridgestone
Nashville / ESPN / $780,000
The world was not crying out for another bowl game in 1998, but Nashville had built a huge, expensive stadium for an NFL team and was looking for something else to do with it. So was born the Music City Bowl, with not one but two sponsors on its letterhead. This year's game matched up the crummiest bowl-eligible teams from the Big Ten (seventh-place Minnesota) and the ACC (eighth-place Virginia). The only reason the Music City Bowl doesn't rank lower is that Nashville is a great city and a tourist destination, but no one should have to sit through a game like this.

8. Emerald Bowl
San Francisco / ESPN / $750,000
Now in its third season, this game can always be counted on to feature two barely bowl-eligible teams. This year's winners are Utah (6-5) and Georgia Tech (7-4). The Emerald Bowl is not named after the exquisite green gem but rather for a brand of snack nuts. For this game, a football field has to be shoehorned into a baseball stadium, SBC Park, which forces the two teams to share the same sideline.

7. MPC Computers Bowl
Boise / ESPN / $750,000
Just because there are worse places than Boise, Idaho, to be playing football outside in the dead of winter doesn't mean it makes any sense to play football outside in Boise, Idaho, in the dead of winter. The best thing this game had going for it when it began in 1997 (besides the blue turf) was the name: the Humanitarian Bowl. It was a particularly apt name; it took a special kind of human being -- selfless, giving -- to want to play in this dud. Today, however, it's known as the MPC Computers Bowl, or you could just call it "Boise State's seventh home game," because for the fourth time in nine years, Boise State is one of the teams playing.

6. Champs Sports Bowl
Orlando / ESPN / $862,500
It's played in the same stadium and run by the same organization as the Capital One Bowl, but the resemblance ends there. Whereas Capital One has emerged as an attractive second-tier bowl that draws up to 70,000 people, Champs is an ugly afterthought drawing far less than half as many. In only 15 years, this game has gone through seven names and two cities and has been played anytime from Dec. 20 to Jan. 2. Beginning in Miami, it spent its first three years as the Blockbuster Bowl, then five years as the Carquest Bowl, two as the Micronpc Bowl, and one (1999, during the dot-com boom) as the Bowl. It then moved to Orlando and became the Visit Florida Tangerine Bowl for one year and the Mazda Tangerine Bowl for two. It became the Champs Sports Bowl last year. "Cialis Bowl" can't be far behind.

5. Meineke Car Care Bowl
Charlotte / ESPN2 / $750,000
Another bowl that exists because a city had a stadium with a lot of open dates on its calendar. Basically, the only difference between this game and the Music City Bowl is that the average American views Nashville as a getaway destination, while Charlotte is where one goes on business. This game is in only its fourth year and has already shed its initial sponsor, so what was the Continental Tire Bowl is now the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Talk about a lateral move. The game has drawn large crowds, thanks to the involvement of regional teams. But a few more games like this year's dreadful offering -- 6-5 South Florida vs. 6-5 North Carolina State -- should put a stop to that.

4. New Orleans Bowl
New Orleans (Lafayette, La.) / ESPN / $750,000
This game was created in 2001 because the Sun Belt Conference had been unable to persuade any other bowls to take its champion. I wonder why: This year's Sun Belt representative, Arkansas State, finished 6-5, the worst record a team can have and still be bowl-eligible. And that's the league champion, mind you. The Sun Belt, if you didn't know, is made up entirely of teams (Louisiana-Lafayette, North Texas, Middle Tennessee, etc.) that football factories use to pad out their non-conference schedule with easy wins. Completely overshadowed by the Sugar Bowl, the game has no sponsors (interested?) and even less local interest. Because of Hurricane Katrina, it had to be played this year in Lafayette.

3. Fort Worth Bowl
Fort Worth / ESPN / $750,000
Just three years old, and one can only wonder if it'll make it to five. It's surprising that no one has yet dubbed it "the Fort Worthless Bowl" ... except to do so, that someone would have had to notice it being played. Meaningless in the extreme.

2. Houston Bowl
Houston / ESPN2 / $1.2 million
A fat payout allows this 4-year-old bowl to show a higher breed of dog: TCU (10-1 but not nearly that good) vs. Iowa State (7-4 and having choked away a Big 12 Championship Game berth for the second straight year). Nevertheless, an utter waste of time. The best thing you can say about it is that it's no longer known by its original name: the Bowl.

1. San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl
San Diego / ESPN2 / $750,000
The very latest in nonessential football. We can debate whether it makes economic sense for a company to spend money sponsoring a bowl game, but doing so definitely generates national exposure. That's why MasterCard, Outback Steakhouse, even the now-defunct, sponsor games. But you tell me what getting its name on ESPN2 is doing for the San Diego County Credit Union, which serves residents of only two California counties. The matchup for the inaugural game was even less impressive than the rinky-dink name: Navy (7-4) vs. Colorado State (6-5). I love Navy, OK? And I think it's great when a service academy gets to go bowling. But the Middies' seven wins this year came against Temple (0-11), Kent State (1-10), Rice (1-10), Duke (1-10), Tulane (2-9), and Army and Air Force (4-7 each). That's just about the cheapest seven-win season you can imagine. Nevertheless, the Poinsettia Bowl courted Navy hard, and after the Middies won the game, they were invited back to play any year they're eligible. Why? San Diego is a Navy town, and having the academy involved is the only way organizers can generate any local interest for a bowl deep, deep in the shadow of the Holiday Bowl, a San Diego institution for 27 years. The invitation means Navy would get an extra home game any year that it can string together six wins. If it keeps playing such a thin schedule, that shouldn't be a problem.

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