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The gimmick was lighthearted, intended to season a message with humor. In all caps and a very basic font, the bright red ballcaps shouted:
MAKE BOWLS GREAT AGAIN
Go ahead. Even in today's hypercharged climate, it's OK to chuckle. It was just Wright Waters' way of having a little fun while making a point. He had a dozen caps made to hand out to NCAA staffers and members of the Football Bowl Association's executive committee at the organization's annual meeting last month.
But the underlying premise -- well, that's something more serious.
"We're at a critical time with the bowls," says Waters, the FBA's executive director.
Attendance and TV ratings were down slightly in 2016, though both of those might simply be an extension of the declines seen for all of college football and similarly in other sports. Sponsorships are becoming harder to land and keep. Tickets are more difficult to sell. One bowl (Poinsettia) was shuttered in January, and another (Miami Beach Bowl) is moving from Florida to Texas.
But the biggest shock wave to run through the system might have come in December, when standout running backs Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey chose to sit out the Citrus Bowl and the Sun Bowl, respectively. Both players had been injured during the regular season. Both had the support of their coaches when they decided not to play, saying they were focusing on their professional futures. Thursday, both players were among the top eight picks in the NFL draft.
Their decisions, while controversial at the time, sparked a phrase that causes those in the bowl industry to fume: Their defenders said McCaffrey and Fournette (and Baylor running back Shock Linwood, too) were skipping "meaningless bowls."
"The term ticks me off," says Bill Hancock, executive director of the College Football Playoff, "because those bowls are not meaningless for those players."
That's likely correct for the vast majority of players and teams. According to the results of an in-house survey commissioned by the FBA, 84% of players who participated in bowls during the last three years reported a positive experience. And, anecdotally, it seems bowls remain an important part of the college football calendar for schools and their fans.
But it's also clear that college football's zeitgeist has changed. There has been a narrowing of focus on the very top of the sport. It did not begin with the advent of the Playoff -- like for so many other things, the credit or blame for the change begins with the Bowl Championship Series -- but the four-team tournament undoubtedly has made an impact on the bowl system. It's not perhaps measurable, except as a contributor to the other statistics. But the overarching narrative in college football has become a top-down endeavor. From the first kickoff on opening weekend, the prism is the Playoff.
Never mind that only four teams get there or that for the vast majority of programs the Playoff is a distant dream. It seems like it's everyone's focus all season -- which makes non-Playoff bowls in some cases seem like consolation prizes to some teams. To a public looking forward to determining a national champion, those other bowls are often seen as afterthoughts.
"We kind of created this trend," Alabama coach Nick Saban told ESPN in December. "I said as soon as we had a playoff, we were going to minimize the importance of all the other bowl games. I'm not saying whether it's good or bad, it kind of is what it is."
But the Playoff might not be all that's ailing the other bowls.
"I do think there has been attention shifted to those semifinals and the championship," Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey says. "That's in a way undeniable. I don't think that's been the primary detraction from other postseason games."
The primary detraction might simply be all the other postseason games. The number of bowls has doubled in 20 years, from 20 in 1997 to 40 last season. There were myriad reasons, including the desire to find slots for every bowl-eligible team -- meaning a .500 record when college football moved to a 12-game regular season -- and the opportunity for more live TV programming during the previously slack time period of December.
"At one time, it was a competitive thing," Waters says. "But now it's pretty much become a birthright. If you're 6-6, you go (to a bowl)."
An NCAA moratorium prevents new bowls from being added to the postseason lineup, but it's scheduled to end after the 2019 season -- and Waters says groups in several cities continue to express serious interest in joining the club. The NCAA's Football Competition Committee is working to determine whether and how to change the standards for bowl certification, which were loosened several years ago.
For 2017, the number of bowls will drop to 39 after Holiday Bowl officials decided a couple of months back to end the Poinsettia Bowl's 12-year run. Executive director Mark Neville said putting on two bowls in a week was a challenging task, and the decision was made to focus on the older, more prestigious Holiday Bowl. But sponsorship issues also played a role.
There's no easy fix -- in part because the bowl system is not made up of homogeneous events. The size and scope varies greatly from the top of the food chain, with the New Year's Six bowls that rotate as semifinal hosts in the College Football Playoff all the way to those pre-Christmas bowls matching teams from Group of Five conferences.
"Appalachian State playing in Montgomery (in the Camellia Bowl) has a whole different look and feel and objective than Alabama playing in the national championship," Waters says. "To try to compare those situations ... I don't know that it's legitimate."
Some of the challenges are the same as they've always been. Bowls need compelling matchups and, when possible, good geographic fits. They do best with hungry teams. Sometimes they get all of the above. Sometimes they get none. But other things are definitely different.
"We're still trying to figure out the new world and the impact of the College Football Playoff," Waters says. "The Sugar Bowl had a four-loss team (Auburn) for the first time since 1939. That's different. But the strength of the bowls has been their ability to adjust. I'm confident they'll adjust to this environment, too."
Will more players skip bowls? Probably. The NFL draft results for Fournette and McCaffrey will encourage others to do the same. But even if it becomes a trend, it likely will be limited to sure first-round picks. Bernie Olivas, the executive director of the Sun Bowl, said he was disappointed not to have McCaffrey playing in El Paso when Stanford met North Carolina but understood the decision.
"I know he has a career to look forward to, and he'd been hurt," Olivas says. "I just hope it doesn't become a trend -- and (if it does) where is it going to stop? Does it stop at bowl games or when a team is out of the championship race in conferences?"
Hancock noted that McCaffrey and Fournette might simply have made public an occasional practice that's not necessarily new.
"I don't think we know whether injuries to players that knocked them out of bowl games 20 years ago were 'wink-wink' injuries," he says. "We don't know that."
But if so, the players' decision to go public with the real reason for not playing simply illustrates the issue. Bowls are not seen as the same reward as they once were. But that might be OK.
"We're not deciding whether things are good or bad," Florida athletics director Scott Stricklin says. "We're talking about degrees of good. But things have changed. Not every situation is going to be like it was 30 years ago when there were 15 bowls and it was really unique to get to go to a bowl. I hate the phrase 'watered down,' but it has become much more commonplace -- but that may not be a bad thing."
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