In 1990, college football had 19 FBS (then Division I-A) bowl games. In 2000, it had 25. In 2010, it had 35. In 2016, it had 41, if you count the Playoff National Championship. The field then fluctuated right around that number, with the Myrtle Beach Bowl joining in 2020.
Bowl games are a business, and business has never been more booming. Organizers and TV networks have decided they could make more money by having more games.
If you wanted to start a bowl game yourself, how would you do it?
1. You’ll need a title sponsor.
The going rate for most games is in the seven figures.
In evaluating bowl applications, the NCAA asks organizers for title and presenting sponsors, but games have gotten approved before lining them up. Still, they’re a stable source of revenue that doesn’t depend on attendance or TV ratings. Few bowl games ever go more than a year without one.
A common tack is to hunt national brands with local roots. Bowls that have done that include the Foster Farms in Northern California, the AutoZone Liberty in Memphis, the New Era Pinstripe in New York, the Valero Alamo in San Antonio, and Belk in Charlotte.
“That’s a critical component from a revenue standpoint, but it’s more than that,” said Ryan Oppelt, executive director of the bowl at Levi’s Stadium. “It’s having a synergy with a partner in the region that can help to kind of buy into what you’re doing, that invests not only their money but also their manpower, some of their assets in terms of helping to promote the game. It’s a unique buy, right? It’s one major event out of the year.”
Another is to market the theme of a game toward a specific field of business. That’s how the Fort Worth Bowl became the Bell Helicopter and later Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl (since renamed the First Responder Bowl).
“When we went to get Bell Helicopter, we had had a relationship with them already as the Fort Worth Bowl, but it wasn’t near the level of a title,” said the game’s executive director, Brant Ringler, in 2017. “And they were like, ‘Hey, we’ll support a football game, but what’s that hook or that niche that’s going to put it over the top?’ Once we changed our name to the Armed Forces Bowl, they said, ‘Wow, this is our customer.’”
One more avenue: Start a bowl game for charity, and find a business that’s interested in supporting that same cause.
“We did our homework, and we know that AutoNation is involved heavily in cancer research,” Cure Bowl executive director Alan Gooch said.
So we have the AutoNation Cure Bowl in Orlando.
2. You should probably have a trophy, logo, mascot, and stuff.
One popular bowl trophy route: Fill a literal bowl with stuff your game is named after.
Actually, just copy the Potato Bowl for this whole section.
This means you need a huge potato truck, even if you’re not sponsored by potatoes.
3. You’ll need a TV partner, probably ESPN, which might just buy you, which could make all of this pretty easy.
National exposure from TV is why a title sponsorship is valuable, so things go hand in hand.
About three dozen of a given year’s FBS bowl games are on Disney’s ESPN, ESPN2, or ABC.
Those aren’t just television assets. ESPN also owns 14 bowls through its event-planning arm, ESPN Events. Some of those are acquisitions of existing bowls, and others are games that the network just decided to start to make more money.
Your TV partner will have more say than you will in the date and kickoff time of your game.
4. You’ll need to line up teams.
Those usually come via deals with conferences. Most have tie-ins with specific leagues, though some change from year to year, particularly for non-Power 5 bids. The Frisco Bowl often has an at-large bid, as do three of the New Year’s Six games, when they aren’t Playoff bowls. BYU and Army often make their own side deals as independents.
You might land a deal with a conference that has a bowl draft, with a pecking order of games choosing their teams. Hope you’re high on the list! You might get a tie-in with a league like the SEC, which basically assigns teams to its middle-tier bowls. Hope you’re a good lobbyist!
If you’re lucky enough to get good teams, that’s great. More important is getting teams that draw well.
“You really gamble a lot on that, team selection. But it means everything,” says Ken Haines, the Raycom Sports founder who started what’s now the Belk Bowl in 2002.
The basic factors, according to Liberty Bowl exec director Steve Ehrhart: “We’d be trying to avoid repeats, trying to have a good matchup with the SEC team, who’s gonna bring the most fans, who’s gonna bring the best opportunity, who wants to be here.”
5. You’ll need money to give teams gifts and plenty more.
- A $10,000 certification fee goes to the NCAA annually.
- A smaller bowl game will need a few hundred thousand dollars to pass out to each participating team’s conference, though most payouts are well into seven figures.
- Also, the NCAA “encourages” bowl games to give gifts to 125 players per team, at a value “approaching” $550 each. That works out to $137,500 in total. Bowl gifts run the gamut between very cool ($400 Best Buy shopping trips for each player and gifts they might actually use) and not (Boca Raton Bowl hats).
- You’ll need to pay your staff, however big it is. You’ll need medical staff and security and all the things any other big football game needs. The NCAA mandates that every game official gets a $100 per diem for each of three days.
6. You’ll need some events that aren’t the game.
“In my position, I need to ask myself, ‘Do I want a football game, or do I want an event?’” Ringler says. “And I take the latter every time. I want someone to come to our game and enjoy the game but also enjoy the aspects and everything around the game.”
At the Armed Forces Bowl, that meant a bunch of star-spangled things outside the stadium and on the field during the game. There was a veterans village with nonprofit service groups. There were flyovers and parachuters and military inductions on the field at quarter breaks.
At the Levi’s game, players have gone to Alcatraz and taken cable car rides and spend Christmas morning serving food at a local food shelter. The Belk Bowl has a shopping spree at Belk stores. (This has gone awry before.)
There’s been a hot chicken eating contest at Nashville’s Music City Bowl:
A milkshake contest at the Peach:
And a rodeo at the Liberty:
“I think they’re critical, certainly, to the long-term success of any bowl game,” Frisco Bowl exec director Sean Johnson says. “You wanna become woven into the fabric of your community.”
7. Oh, and you’ll need a field.
A rent estimate from Haines: somewhere between $250,000 and $500,000 for the use of a field. Bowls happen at stadiums of many sizes, and you’ll pay more to use JerryWorld in Arlington than Legion Field in Birmingham.
Maybe you’ll get innovative and pick a baseball park. A few games are at FBS home fields. The Frisco Bowl is at a multipurpose venue whose primary tenant is FC Dallas of MLS, which shares management with ESPN.
You’ll face little regulation of game-day operations. Conferences usually have requirements for on-site medical equipment and staff, but bowl games basically run themselves.
The Football Bowl Association, an advisory group, has tried to give game operations more shape. “You really oughta hold the line on that,” Wright Waters, the FBA’s head, will tell a rogue bowl that tries to give out too many field passes and overcrowds the playing surface.
8. Got all that figured out? Don’t forget to fill out the paperwork.
This is what a bowl application looks like:
And this is a seven-page accountability questionnaire that seeks to nail down compliance with both the actual law and NCAA rules. It includes such questions as, “Does the bowl provide awards to student-athletes for participation in the bowl which exceeded $550 in value?” You should answer “no” in that section.
9. Oh, right. You’ll need a name for your game.
As the newest FBS bowl, you’re going to have a silly name. Some suggestions, though we’re aiming pretty high with these sponsors:
- The McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish Bowl
- The Chipotle Burrito Bowl
- The Disney Wide World of Sports Mickey Mouse Bowl
- The Edible Arrangements Sugary Strawberry Bowl
- The Pottery Bowl, presented by Pottery Barn
The possibilities are endless.