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Bowl Season: Who Are the Big Winners in College Football?

By T. Leigh Buehler-Rappold
Assistant Professor, Retail Management

With December quickly approaching, many Americans are preparing for family gatherings, shopping for the holidays and eating large quantities of baked goods. But for college football fans, December ushers in the bowl games.

In December, fans nationwide will be glued to their television sets as they watch colleges challenge each other for the title of “Champion.” Starting December 17, colleges across the country will meet in 40 bowl games with five All-Star games, ending in the grand National Championship on January 10.

The History of College Football Bowl Games

College football bowl games began in 1902 when Michigan defeated Stanford 79-0 at the Rose Bowl. Originally, the Tournament of Roses was designed to pit two colleges from opposite sides of the country against each other. The game became an annual event in 1916 and was renamed the Rose Bowl in 1923 to coincide with the completion of the Rose Bowl Stadium.

Soon, other cities saw the advantage to the local tourism industry a bowl game could bring. By 1940, four other major college bowls existed:

  • The Sugar Bowl
  • The Orange Bowl
  • The Sun Bowl
  • The Cotton Bowl

Before 1992, bowl games were restricted to certain conferences. The Rose Bowl hosted the Big 10 and Pac 10 champions. The Sugar Bowl saw the Big 8 and the SEC Champions battle for glory.

Today, the largest bowl games are often referred to as the New Year’s Eve Six or “NY6.” These six bowl games are the college football playoffs and include:

  • The Sugar Bowl
  • The Rose Bowl
  • The Cotton Bowl
  • The Orange Bowl
  • The Fiesta Bowl
  • The Peach Bowl

Bowl Game Winners – Colleges

College football bowl games offer two advantages for colleges. The first advantage is the payout from the bowl game, and the second is the national coverage and publicity that comes from being in a bowl game. According to the Business of College Sports, “a conference will receive $6 million for each team that is selected for the semifinal games” for the 2020-2021 bowl season.

For teams in non-playoff bowls, conferences receive $4 million per team. The funds are dispersed directly to each conference, but each conference has its own guidelines for distribution to its member institutions. The amounts allocated to conferences do not include the payouts that individual bowl games may have contracted with certain conferences.

For the 2019-2020 season, for instance, the Big 10 Conference received the largest payout of $79,513,176.82 followed closely by the Big 12 Conference with $78,306,336.64. The largest payout for a university went to Notre Dame University, as an independent football program, with $3,281,628.46. The smallest payout of $273,746.90 went to 10 smaller conferences, and other five independent football programs took home $311,926.51 each.

For teams who may not qualify for a big payout bowl game, Fox Business argues that the national exposure a college receives from a bowl game outweighs the payouts, and colleges do not actually care about those big checks.

For example, the Bahamas Bowl, which kicks off the bowl season, has a payout of only $225,000 (a small amount compared to others). Colleges will spend more money on travel expenses than they will reclaim in winnings.

The publicity of football games allows these colleges to recruit potential future players and students in a more cost-effective manner than standard recruitment methods. These colleges see payoffs further down the road, as opposed to immediately after the game.

Bowl Game Winners – Networks

Walt Disney Company, the parent company of ESPN, has more money tied into college football than any other organization. ESPN owns and operates 13 bowl games, and the live coverage they can offer is unequaled. In addition, ESPN also owns the ACC Network and the SEC Network, allowing for major broadcast deals with almost all of the top division college teams.

In 2019, ESPN sold $792.5 million in ads across 282 college football games, and 34% of this money is wrapped around just seven post-season games. College football bowl games also mean big money for the Disney Company. In addition, the National Championship Bowl brings in $84.6 million, the NY6 bowl games bring in $182 million and the 29 second-tier bowl games produce $77 million.

For the 2019-2020 college football season, ESPN represented 68.5% of all advertising dollars with $502.5 million. ABC Network brought in $258 million, ESPN2/ESPNU $32 million and Fox had $165 million. Similarly, CBS had $151 million, FS1 had $31 million and NBC had $17 million. 

During the bowl games, ad space is sold in 30-second units at $30,000 per unit for the non-NY6 bowl games. The price goes up to $560,000 for the two semifinals, and it can reach over $1 million per unit for the national title game.

Are Bowl Games Really for Colleges or for Network Giants?

Companies are paying more money for 30-second ads than some college football teams receive for participating in the college playoff games. While smaller colleges in smaller bowl games may receive a payout, are the football bowl games really for the colleges? Or are the bowl games for the television network giants like ESPN?

Sports journalist Zach Miller proposes that television viewers are already checking out of the bowl games, as recent years have seen a steady decline in viewership. Fans attending these bowl games already hit low numbers before COVID-19, and elite players are regularly declining to play in bowl games in order to protect themselves from any potential injuries prior to the NFL draft.

While college football bowl games may no longer be as important to fans as they once were, it is clear that many colleges benefit from qualifying for a bowl game, both financially and in future recruitment endeavors. Networks spend hundreds of hours entertaining the country with playoff predictions and witty commentary, all while making quite a bit of money for themselves.

Is there a clear winner of the bowl season? It all depends on which team you are cheering on!

Leigh Buehler-Rappold is an Assistant Professor of Retail Management. She is also a course consultant, social media specialist and curriculum design team leader. Her academic credentials include a B.A. in history and sociology from Texas A&M University, an MBA in business administration from the University of Phoenix and a master’s degree in American history from American Public University. Leigh is passionate about adult education and equal education rights of deaf/hard-hearing students.

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