Orange Bowl struggles reveal future for many bowls

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In 1984, Bernie Kosar led the Miami Hurricanes to knock off undefeated Nebraska 31-30 in a memorable Orange Bowl. The game did a 23.5 rating on NBC, higher than any BCS Championship Game in the BCS era.

In 1977, No. 2 Oklahoma lost to Arkansas in the Orange Bowl. The game did an even higher 27.7 rating as a result of No. 1 Texas losing earlier in the day and Oklahoma having the chance to be crowned national champion.

College football is very different in 2012 compared to 1977 and 1984. Perhaps no other entity has suffered as much as the Orange Bowl. Sure the revenue is still good (ESPN is paying $55 million a year for the rights to broadcast the Orange Bowl), but the viewership is down significantly.

In the BCS era, the Orange Bowl audience has pulled a Nielsen rating of 8.0 (8% of the audience) or lower for six straight years. Last year’s matchup between West Virginia and Clemson drew a record-low 5.3. There’s little surprise: recent years have showcased Iowa-Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech-Cincinnati, and Louisville-Wake Forest. Pee-yooo. It’s just as bad this year: Florida State will welcome Northern Illinois, a school that’s giving away tickets to students that are actually willing to go.

Sure the tie-in to the ACC hasn’t helped. The conference has produced a string of mediocre champions (and thus Orange Bowl participants) in recent years, but the bigger problem for the Orange Bowl has been the BCS itself which has moved the championship stakes and matchups away from the Orange Bowl:

These days, we’re supposed to get the dramatics from the BCS Championship game – the new Orange Bowl, if you will. Except it’s not the Orange Bowl. The game feels manufactured. Its placement several days beyond New Years Day, meant to maximize ratings by removing it from the clutter, only makes it that much more anti-climactic. And with the exception of Texas-USC in 2006 (21.7 rating), the game hasn’t matched the old Orange Bowl in ratings numbers. True, this is the age of fragmented television viewing. But also remember that the Orange Bowl used to go head-to-head with the Sugar Bowl – previously an afternoon game – on New Year’s night beginning in the early 1980s.

Maybe the upcoming playoff formula will change things for the better again. But right now, we’ve got a signature game that is not only less popular than the old signature game, it’s rendered the other bowls even more meaningless – ratings for last season’s major bowls were 10% below those of 2010.

I’ll save the author of the above article the anticipation: the playoff won’t change things for the better for the Orange Bowl. In fact, it will accelerate the trend away from the current bowls.

The BCS has moved the big stakes out of the Orange Bowl and into the BCS Championship Game. The 4-team playoff will move the big stakes even more out of the Orange Bowl and other BCS bowls and into the two semifinal games.

I’m going to let my readers in on a little secret. Regardless of the postseason structure that is used, there are only a handful of games that are going to score massive ratings nationally. The reason is because there are only a few top teams that when pitted against each other can get the masses to tune in. Whether these matchups are called the Orange Bowl in 1984, the BCS Championship in 2012 or the semifinal game in 2014, it doesn’t matter.

The reason these games draw is because these are the best two or three teams in the country. When it lines up that these teams are also traditional power houses, then it’s the perfect storm for ratings. This holds whether it is Miami and Nebraska in 1984 or Notre Dame and Alabama in 2012. The postseason structure isn’t what drives interest. The teams that are playing each other drive the interest! Big stakes (lose and you’re out) drive the interest.

The big stakes component of the equation is often overlooked. Remember the USC-Notre Dame game on Thanksgiving weekend this year? It had huge ratings because Notre Dame had to win to get into the BCS Championship. It was a de facto semifinal game. You could say the same thing about the SEC Championship Game between Georgia and Alabama. Remember the sky-high ratings from the 1977 Orange Bowl? They were off-the-charts because Texas lost earlier in the day which meant Oklahoma would be the national champion if they won. Top football brands + top ranked teams + high stakes = monster ratings. Regardless of the system.

the BCS serves two purposes

As I’ve documented before, the BCS serves two purposes. First, it attempts to give us No. 1 vs No. 2 in a BCS Championship Game. In this role, the BCS has performed very well. We’ve had great matchups for the Championship in recent years and it almost always gets it right. The second purpose is to give us other top bowl matchups in the BCS Bowls. The BCS is designed somewhat well for this, but it’s also designed to “spread the wealth” a bit by limiting the number of teams from each conference to two and allowing non-BCS teams to get into the BCS under the right conditions (see NIU in the Orange Bowl this year). Furthermore, the bowls have tie-ins with conferences that have to be upheld. The result is that we get average matchups in the BCS Bowls.

You could easily fix this by keeping the BCS rankings and scrapping the placements rules for the remaining bowl games. Just give us 1 vs 2, 3 vs 4, 5 vs 6, 7 vs 8, etc. Make slight modifications based on avoiding in-conference matchups. Here’s a look at what that might give us for this bowl season:

Bowl Current Matchup Proposed Matchup
BCS Champ No. 1 Notre Dame vs No. 2 Alabama No. 1 Notre Dame vs No. 2 Alabama
Sugar Bowl No. 21 Louisville vs No. 3 Florida No. 5 Kansas State vs No. 7 Georgia
Rose Bowl Wisconsin vs No. 6 Stanford No. 3 Florida vs No. 4 Oregon
Orange Bowl No. 15 NIU vs No. 12 Florida State No 6. Stanford vs No. 8 LSU
Fiesta Bowl No. 4 Oregon vs No. 5 Kansas State No. 9 Texas A&M vs No. 11 Oklahoma

There’s a reason that the Fiesta Bowl is likely the most interesting BCS matchup outside the title game. It’s because it features two top-five teams. All three of the other games feature either an unranked team or a team ranked 15 or below.

The 4-team playoff system will do this for two of the semifinal games which will rotate around the six “access” bowls. Interest will be high in these games. This season, it would essentially give us likely Notre Dame vs Oregon and Alabama vs Florida as the two semifinal games – or if conference vs conference games are avoided, Notre Dame vs Florida and Alabama vs Oregon. The ratings will be high for these games. And the ratings will be lower for the remaining games.

there’s a finite amount of demand for bowl games because there’s a finite amount of top tier teams

Again, there’s a finite amount of demand for bowl games because there’s a finite amount of top tier teams. As the best teams are clumped together in a playoff, the remaining bowl games will suffer just as the Orange Bowl has suffered due to the BCS.

I’m fairly agnostic on the BCS vs 4-team playoff argument. I’m merely stated the reality of the economics of the two different systems and the impact of each on the bowl system.

The conferences and the bowls understand this reality. It is why the Orange Bowl has moved to restructure its tie-ins. Now, the game will feature the ACC Champion vs either a Big Ten team, an SEC team or Notre Dame. Moreover, the Big 12 and SEC have created a new “Sugar Bowl” featured the top available team of each conference on years when the Sugar Bowl is not a semifinal venue. Creating quality matchups is the key to ratings and future television revenue.

The Orange Bowl will likely continue to have average matchups due to the ACC tie-in even with possible SEC, Big Ten opponents. The Fiesta Bowl is probably the most likely current BCS Bowl to be hurt as the bowl is on the outside looking in with regards to a top tier tie-ins with one of the major conferences. Historically tied to the Big 12, the Fiesta Bowl will be given lower tier teams from the Big 12 or other conferences in the future on years when the bowl is not in the semifinal rotation.

As bowls like the Fiesta or the Capital One have to settle for lower ranked teams to fill their slots, interest will go down. As fans are more fixated on hugely important playoff games, they will become less interested in meaningless bowl games. As the importance goes up on a select few games, the importance goes down on the many “other” games.

The Bowl system will likely continue for many years, but it will change over time. The economics of the bowls will force the change. As long as the playoff field remains at 4 teams, a functioning bowl system can co-exist with a playoff. If and when the field expands for a playoff down the road, the bowls will suffer and maybe even go under.

For more on this and the economics of the bowl system, consider reading Kevin’s look at the issues with bowl tickets and how the system is screwing participating schools.

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