To sponsor a successful big-time college postseason bowl game, these are necessities:
--A huge television contract.
--A locale that includes either sun, sand, surf or Bourbon Street.
--New Year's Day.
--A huge title sponsorship contract with an insurance company or something to do with fruit.
But a low-rent bowl game? Try these:
--A bare-bones contract with a regional TV syndicator; two tin cans and ton of string.
--A locale in close proximity to a state prison and perhaps a Civil War museum; rain.
--Not New Year's Day.
--A band of zealous locals willing to shell out tens of dollars to bring hundreds of football fans to their burg.
In the business of college bowl games, the financial stakes are higher than ever and the competition is fierce. If it sounds like a television game show, you are getting warm. For television is the operative word in today's bowl picture.
Television has served as the spaceship that has propelled postseason bowl games to the stratosphere of sports-bucks sweepstakes. Consider that NBC-TV is spending $17 million in rights fees for its three New Year's Day games this season, including $11 million for the Rose Bowl.
Television has attracted sponsors to the bowls in a big way. Corporations like college football and its autumn-leaves tradition, wholesome image (cough, cough) and, significantly, the well-heeled alumni who follow their teams to the ends of the earth, or at least to Shreveport, La.
To capitalize on this audience, corporate America is buying into college football. The U.S. Fidelity and Guaranty Insurance Co. shelled out $2 million so a football game can be called the USF&G Sugar Bowl. Talk about a sweet deal. Sunkist juiced up the Fiesta Bowl for $1 million. John Hancock signed on to the Sun Bowl for $400,000. Sea World swam into the Holiday Bowl picture for $250,000.
Deep pockets sponsors are great for the big bowls, but how in the heck do the little bowls do it? How do you do it if you don't have TV money and you've got just a local Chevy dealership and the Kiwanis kicking in a few thousand? The not-so-easy answer from around the country is, "It's tough, but we manage."
"We survive very carefully," said Tom Starr, executive director of the Freedom Bowl. "The bowl business has changed drastically in the last five years. Twelve to 15 years ago, the ratings were so high for all sports. You just didn't have as many choices. Now, that pie has been split. For us, you have to look for alternative sources of revenue. I guess title sponsorship is the way we are going."
The Freedom Bowl is one of the new bowls, having learned from the mistakes and failures of others. The bowl of longstanding respect, among the also-rans, is the Liberty Bowl. After 29 years in the bowl business, they've got it down cold.
"It's not easy," said A.F. (Bud) Dudley, executive director of the Liberty Bowl. How does his bowl survive? "It's a question of getting a better television contract than everybody else. Early in the game, we realized the networks weren't paying the money we wanted. We were one of the first to switch over to the syndicators."
The Liberty Bowl is shown on Raycom, where it was broadcast to 80% of the country last year and had a 6.8 rating, according to a network spokesman. What Dudley and other bowl directors can expect is less television money--as much as 40% less in rights fees in the future.
Mike Cohen, who formerly handled public relations for Mizlou, a syndicator, and is an expert in the business of independent television, said rights fees will fall drastically. "Everyone knows that the Rose Bowl (whose contract runs out in 1990) is going to go to one-third or less," he said. That will force the bowls to seek money elsewhere, advertising for one. "Advertising for syndicated games really can't support you," Cohen said. "It doesn't make sense to make a tiny profit for the prestige of having a bowl game. Prestige doesn't pay bills."
This is all very, very bad news for the small bowls. Like the animals on Orwell's farm, some bowls are more equal than others. The big five--the Rose, the Sugar, the Orange, the Cotton and the Fiesta--are not going to feel too much pain because of less television money. They'll get more from corporations. The small bowls, however, are scrambling to compete.
They are the Loser Bowls. Clues to these are in the way the prospective matchups are printed: For example, Independence Bowl--loser of Arkansas-Mississippi and loser of Texas Tech-Southern Mississippi.
Some of these small bowls are considered to be the game of last resort. It is offered to a team as a consolation for missing the bowl they really wanted.
Some teams don't want to go to bowls. Some bowls. West Virginia players were irate in 1983 when school administrators chose to go to the Hall of Fame Bowl over the Citrus (exam conflicts) and Peach (they played there in 1981). The team did not want to go.