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Sometime during the last 30 years, all the postseason bowl games in college football figured out an easy way to make millions of dollars. All they had to do was change their names.

The Orange Bowl is now the Capital One Orange Bowl, not to be confused with the old Capital One Bowl, which recently became the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl.

The Holiday Bowl is now the National Funding Holiday Bowl, the game's eighth different identity since it became the SeaWorld Holiday Bowl in 1986.

In 1990, the Independence Bowl became the Poulan Weed Eater Independence Bowl, clearing the way for this year's Camping World Independence Bowl on Dec.26.

It's all for the sake of revenue and advertising. And it transformed the industry, for better or worse.

But the name game might finally have hit a wall. Six of this year's 41 bowl games have failed to obtain similar title or presenting sponsorships, raising more questions about the market appeal of an 80-team postseason that already includes several games with sparse crowds and 20 bowl teams this year with 6-6 records or worse.

"There are 41 games this year, so there's more competition for it," said Mark Neville, executive director of the Holiday Bowl and the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego. "We've got to work a little bit harder and be a little bit more creative to secure them."

Twenty years ago, there were 18 bowl games. Five years ago, there were 35, and all had a title or presenting sponsorship to help pay their bills. Starting Dec.17, there will be 41 postseason games through Jan. 9, including the biggest game-changer in the business: the College Football Playoff.

After making its debut in January2015, the four-team Playoff sweetened the postseason pot with more money than ever but also arguably made the lower-tier bowl games seem less attractive to sponsors.

The no-name game

The Hawaii, St.Petersburg, Birmingham and Boca Raton bowls don't have title sponsors this year after previous title sponsors didn't renew. Another game, the Miami Beach Bowl, has not had a title sponsor since starting in 2014. The national championship game also has not announced a presenting sponsor after two years with AT&T -- though the game's asking price is much more and a deal might come soon.

Lower-tier games generally fetch less than $500,000 from these companies in exchange for changing the game's name to help build awareness for the companies' brands. The more prestigious bowls can command $20million or more as part of a larger package, according to Navigate Research, a Chicago firm that measures sports marketing investments.

"It's becoming more difficult to sell, and you can speculate on why," said Wright Waters, executive director of the Football Bowl Association, which promotes and protects bowl games. "But people are out there really hustling, and they have to hustle because the payouts to the schools and conferences are going up. Everything costs more."

Waters emphasizes an important point about the bowl system as a whole: Schools and leagues have greatly profited from it.

Last year, they collectively received about $600million in payouts from the bowls, including a whopping $425million from the five top bowl games, including the Playoff, according to NCAA documents obtained by USA TODAY Sports. After $105million in combined expenses for the 41 games, that means schools and leagues profited by nearly $495million.

It's a different story for the bowl games, which are responsible for coming up with all that money. To provide all that payout money -- and pay for operations and staff -- bowl games largely rely on television revenue, ticket sales and title sponsorships. If title sponsorships dry up, it can stress a bowl's bottom line.

Last year, the Birmingham Bowl received an extra $200,000 from the city of Birmingham to help make up for its lack of title sponsor -- in addition to the $300,000 it normally received.

This year, it again has no title sponsor, and the city cited the game's economic benefits in giving it another $525,000.

The game's most recent title sponsor, banking company BBVA Compass, declined to comment.

The Birmingham Bowl started in 2006 and on Dec.29 features South Florida (10-2) vs. South Carolina (6-6). Yet even older, higher-profile classics such as the Holiday Bowl in San Diego have tasted a tougher market.

Holiday Bowl shopping

After having a title sponsor every year since 1986, the Holiday Bowl couldn't land a title sponsor last year until about two weeks before kickoff, when it reached a one-year deal with National Funding, a local financial services company. National Funding renewed for another year in late October, a far cry from the days when the Pacific Life insurance company went eight consecutive years as the game's title sponsor.

Likewise, the Las Vegas Bowl had a title sponsor every year since 2003 until this year. It has a presenting sponsor, GEICO, that came aboard recently, and the bowl will be looking for a new title sponsor next year.

"It has regressed," Navigate Research President AJ Maestas said of the marketplace. "There are many short-term deals that are sold at the last second. There are a lot of games, and there are a lot of reasons for it. One of the reasons is the College Football Playoff taking more prominence."

USA TODAY Sports reached out to several former title sponsors of bowl games but didn't receive responses about their reasons for not renewing. Each game and title sponsorship package is different, though all have a common appeal to sponsors: attaching their names to an event with a national TV audience, which can average more than a million viewers even for the lower-tier games.

This has become an essential part of the bowl business model since the late 1980s. Before then, bowl games generally had generic names -- Rose, Orange, Cotton -- that promoted regional agriculture, industries and tourism but not specific companies. This changed as the television reach of the bowls increased and the bowls realized there was a lot of money to be made by taking on the names of specific businesses.

Now it can make or break a bowl. After losing a potential title sponsorship several years ago, the International Bowl in Toronto had to go out of business, said Don Loding, the game's former executive director.

The Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego couldn't have launched in 2005 without the title sponsorship of the San Diego County Credit Union, Neville said.

"You don't want to go indefinitely without a title sponsor," said Clint Overby, vice president of ESPN Events, which owns and operates 12 major bowl games, including four without title or presenting sponsors this year. "But certainly it's not fatal if you don't have one."

Much depends on how well the bowls' other revenue streams perform. Combined title sponsorship revenue increased from $9.8million in 2002-03, when there were 28 bowl games, to $20.4 million in 2008-09, when there were 34, according to the latest available NCAA documents obtained by USA TODAY Sports.

Two years ago, USA TODAY Sports counted three bowl games without title or presenting sponsors among 39 games. Last year, the count was four. Now six.

"I look at the strength of college football overall: the macro factors, the economy, the enormous change to ecosystem (with the Playoff)," said Rob Temple, ESPN's senior vice president for sports marketing. "It just takes a while to stabilize some of those things and get the marketplace to reset."

The way it's set right now is still good for business, or not, depending on the viewpoint.

Spreading the wealth

There are a few ways to look at the health of the bowl system. Collectively, for the leagues and schools, it's wildly profitable.

For ESPN, it's a moneymaking bonanza, providing a wealth of lucrative live content to watch and sell during the holiday season. That alone makes it the most powerful driving force behind the expansion of the bowl system. ESPN networks and ABC, both owned by the Walt Disney Co., will televise all but four of this season's 41 bowl games.

"The bowl system is incredibly healthy," said Overby of ESPN Events.

ESPN Events created bowl games from scratch to help expand the system, knowing that millions will watch on TV even if the crowds in the stands are sparse. It almost doesn't matter that average bowl game attendance has declined for eight years in a row, from 54,172 in 2007-08 to 43,817 last year, according to NCAA records.

But there's a different calculus for the small-school leagues that fill the slots of the lower-tier bowl games. NCAA financial documents show that those participants are greatly subsidized by only a few of the biggest bowl games, including the Playoff, even though those smaller schools don't participate in them.

For example, the Mid-American Conference sent seven teams to bowl games last season, all to lower-tier games, including the Boca Raton and Poinsettia bowls. The league received $20 million in combined bowl payouts, compared with $4.97 million in expenses. But of that $20 million payout, $17.6 million came from its share of the Playoff games and the Fiesta and Peach Bowls, according to NCAA records.

If that big bowl money weren't shared with them, the MAC and the four other lower-tier leagues in major-college football would have lost money on bowl games, according to NCAA documents.

"The system was always designed where there would be enough money coming in from the (big bowl games) to take care of this group of schools," Waters said.

But without title sponsors for those lower-tier bowls, it's not clear if the system can stay quite this big. The NCAA has a moratorium on expanding the bowl system until at least 2019.

"If it was a pure dollars-and-cents business, it would be a bad business idea to say, 'I'm going to launch a bunch of mid- and low-tier bowl games,'" said Maestas of Navigate Research. "They need every dollar they can get."

It's the name of the game, and not just figuratively. On Dec. 23, Troy (9-3) will face Ohio (8-5) in the Dollar General Bowl in Mobile, Ala.

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December 13, 2016


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