Saturday’s seven bowl games kick off a college football postseason that will deliver 43 matchups over the next three weeks. With that many contests, it’s difficult to ascertain the significance of each one. And the turnover of the sponsors, leading to many ridiculous bowl names, seems to trivialize the postseason even further.
Next year, bowl games will face even stronger competition from the College Football Playoff, which under its expanded 12-team format will play first-round games on the campuses of the higher seeds on Dec. 20 and 21 — prime dates for the traditional early stages of bowl season. Broadcasts will likely have to be strategically placed around those playoff games rather than go head-to-head, according to Nick Carparelli, executive director of Bowl Season, the organization formerly known as the Football Bowl Association.
As bowl games look to find their place in college football’s new landscape, will the expanded playoff lead to less interest in the remaining matchups? “It’s more of a PR challenge than anything,” Carparelli told Front Office Sports. “I think people need to understand the role that bowl games play. Not every bowl game needs to factor into the national championship equation to be meaningful.”
But those bowls — some of which, like the Gator, Sun, and Citrus Bowls, are more than 70 years old — are dealing with all kinds of challenges. It doesn’t help that many star players sit out non-playoff games, while realignment is blurring the lines of traditional matchups. But perhaps most notable is the often wild naming-rights sponsorship deals that are struggling to find consistency.
What’s In a Name?
This year, 10 non-CFP bowls have new names — eight due to an exchange of sponsors, and two that added a sponsor to their titles. Well-known brands like LendingTree and Duluth Trading have opted to exit the space, while familiar names like DirecTV and Pop-Tarts have decided to try their hands at sponsorships.
But the branding isn’t always smooth. The third-year bowl game at SoFi Stadium is transitioning from the Jimmy Kimmel L.A. Bowl to the Starco Brands L.A. Bowl Hosted By Gronk. Talk about a mouthful — and yes, “Gronk” refers to Rob Gronkowski.
Non-CFP bowl sponsorships can be as cheap as $500,000, and they top out around $6 million or $7 million, according to industry experts. Compare that with the New Year’s Six games, which have rotated as playoff semifinals and can command more than $20 million. Four of those bowl games have maintained the same sponsor since the inception of the CFP in 2014, or even longer. The Fiesta Bowl has had several partners during that period, as has the Rose Bowl, which sells a presenting sponsorship.
While there haven’t been huge increases in recent years for non-CFP deals, the value is remaining steady, Carparelli says. And although some new bowl “traditions” may be unorthodox, he believes they’re helping bowl games advertise to new fans. “You see mayonnaise and Cheez-Its and Frosted Flakes being dumped on the head of the winning coach and other things like that that bring exposure for the title sponsor,” Carparelli said. “That delivers them great value.”
Still, bowl games will pay out somewhere around $375 million to conferences in exchange for their team’s participation in the 40 non-CFP matchups alone, a figure similar to last year’s payout. CFP bowl games pay conferences $6 million for each participant, a number that will only grow in the future.
But the business of naming and funding bowl games isn’t the only challenge.
Players Play … Right?
Top players opting out of bowl games to prepare for the NFL Draft is nothing new. This year, quarterbacks Caleb Williams (at USC), Drake Maye (North Carolina), and Sam Hartman (Notre Dame) are among the most notable prospects skipping their teams’ postseason matchups, largely to avoid the risk of injury.
But an even bigger factor is the transfer portal, which is increasingly impacting roster makeup for bowl games. Nearly every matchup will be missing multiple players from each team as players with remaining college eligibility move from one school to the next under evolving NCAA rules.
“That is a difficult deal for me,” said Hugh Freeze, head coach at Auburn, which will face Maryland in the TransPerfect Music City Bowl on Dec. 30. The Tigers already have nine transfer opt-outs. “There are some kids that probably will move on from here, so our people need to know that,” Freeze added. “That’s the new world we live in.”
Even the CFP games aren’t immune to the new trend. Texas will be without backup quarterback Maalik Murphy, who started two games this season, for its semifinal matchup against Washington. “I’m doing this purely for me and my future,” said Murphy, who is expected to be one of the hottest prospects in the portal.
In the shifting landscape, this season’s non-CFP games are expected to attract about 1.3 million fans, average attendance for bowl season, with a further 200,000 from the CFP. Last year, non-CFP bowl games brought in more than 120 million television viewers for an overall average of just over 3 million per game. Both CFP semifinal games drew more than 20 million, while the national championship garnered 17 million.
And next year, a bigger playoff will further test the ability of other bowls to garner fan interest.
A New Landscape
In 2024, the bowl system is set to begin a years-long reshuffling process. Those with affiliation to the Pac-12 need to immediately find a new conference partner. By 2026, even more bowl contracts will be up, and the entire system could be due for a major shakeup. “We’re seeing geography get blurred from one conference to the next,” Carparelli said.
In the long term, don’t expect bowl season to expand beyond its current number of 43 games. Any changes regarding games’ affiliation with conferences will likely be made later this spring.
But for the next several weeks, fans can enjoy the chaos on the field and ensuing celebrations for this year’s new champions as they’re crowned by an assortment of America’s favorite condiments and snack foods — and, of course, Gronk.