Playoff Hurting Bowls

January 15, 2016 by Dave Congrove

The College Football Playoff is sucking all the oxygen out of the room and leaving traditional bowls in a bind.

Since the demise of the BCS just two short years ago, attendance has set course on a dramatic downward trajectory, and now TV ratings are joining the dive.

In the first year of the playoff, the three games directly involved set record TV ratings, but total attendance to all bowl games dropped nearly 10%. This year, the bowl games took a ratings hit and attendance continued to decline.

The news shouldn't come as a shock. For 30-plus days, all of the focus is on the 3-game playoff series. The TV networks are consumed with banging the drum incessantly and, other than broadcasting the actual game, virtually ignore the 38 other contests. They have been relegated to the status of second tier shrug-offs.

It didn't help this year that many of the games were not intriguing matchups, and three bowl games were forced to invite schools with 5-7 records when the escalating number of bowls outstripped the supply of qualifying teams.

Dwindling attendance can be blamed on a number of factors. Primarily the proliferation of games.

More games bring about a lower attendance average as you're naturally having to draw from a less attractive pool to fill the spots. In 2015, 57 of 128 FBS teams drew fewer than an average of 30,000 fans to their home games. A whopping 80 of 128 teams were invited to bowl games. How many schools can logically expect their fans to have interest in a road trip to a lower tier bowl game when they're having enough trouble drumming up interest to have them drive down the street, or walk across campus, to a home game?

29 teams had average attendance of under 20,000. Of those 29 teams, 10 were invited to bowl games - Tulsa, Bowling Green, Western Michigan, Akron, Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee, Central Michigan, San Jose State, Northern Illinois, and Georgia State. Many of those 10 teams also had the furthest to travel. Akron went to Boise, while MTSU and Western Michigan went to the Bahamas. Fans of 5-and-7 San Jose were asked to follow their team across the country to Orlando to face 6-and-6 Georgia State, which averaged only 10,347 fans at home games.

The mere existence of the playoff seems to be creating its own negative effect. Not only are lower tier games suffering, the empty seat epidemic has grown to traditional New Year's games. The Outback Bowl this year between Northwestern and Tennessee was 53,202 (81.5% of capacity), while the Citrus Bowl in Orlando attracted 63,113 fans (90% capacity) to watch the (practically) home town Florida Gators play Michigan.

OK, 81.5% and 90% are pretty decent, but it used to be 100% with regularity and resold tickets went for exorbitant prices. Over the last couple of years, more and more ticket re-sellers have reported reduced demand and lower prices. Some of those attendance numbers are based on sold tickets, and not actual bodies in seats, even though you could claim your seat at the Cotton Bowl - a semifinal playoff game between Alabama and Michigan State - for as little $26.

Here's the problem. The playoff isn't going away anytime soon so, inevitably, some bowls will likely fall by the wayside. That's fine. Almost everyone agrees we need to trim some fat off the bowl bone. But the playoff is going to have to expand to 6 or 8 teams and, when it does, there will be a huge cry for home stadium games in place of bowl games.

College football fans are rabid, but not infinitely rich. They're more likely to ponder staying and spending they're money on the sportsbooks which, according to William Hill, are expecting Clemson (6:1) and Alabama (7:1) to potentially go at it again in 2016. Oklahoma and Baylor are next at 10:1 and 12:1, respectively.

Alabama head coach Nick Saban has repeatedly voiced his concerns that a playoff format and the bowl system cannot co-exist. He doesn't want to dump the bowl system, but merely recognizes that the playoff "sort of overwhelms the importance of all the other bowl games." Saban is also a fan of reducing the burden of traveling to three consecutive neutral sites. To win the championship, Alabama went to Atlanta, Arlington and Glendale, Arizona to participate in the SEC Championship, a playoff game, and the National Championship. Clemson played in Charlotte for the ACC Championship, followed by treks to Miami and Glendale. Both teams played 15 games, stretching the physical health of the players and straining the wallets of avid fans.

Ironically, if the BCS had been in play this year, we wouldn't have been forced to watch Alabama flatten Michigan State 38-0, or Clemson clobber Oklahoma 37-17. Clemson and Alabama were the top two teams in the committee's final rankings before the playoff. We would have been able to avoid the unsavory appetizers and skip right to the delicious 45-40 meal served up by the Tide and Tigers. And maybe, just maybe, a little more media time would have been left over to devote to the celebrations of all those other teams that made it to a bowl game.