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Even in a world in which we've grown accustomed to odd sponsorships and clunky naming conventions, the news last week raised eyebrows. The bowl game in St. Petersburg, Fla., will be known, at least for a while, as the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl. Chew on that for a moment. And then realize the game is played indoors. On artificial turf.
The jokes write themselves.
Even within the bowl industry, they'll chuckle, at least a little. But if you want to make bowl executives bristle, mention instead the fallout from December when star running backs Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey declined to play in the Citrus Bowl and the Sun Bowl, respectively, in order to prepare for the NFL draft. Some applauded the moves, saying they were simply skipping meaningless bowls.
"For those two teams (Eastern Michigan and Old Dominion) that went to the Bahamas (Bowl) last year, that was hardly a meaningless game," says Wright Waters, the former commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference who is now the executive director of the Football Bowl Association. "It may be the only time some of those players go out of the country in their lives, much less spend four days at Atlantis. As long as our games are unique experiences, they're not meaningless. They're very meaningful."
That Waters feels the need to make that defense, though, is a reflection of the reality that college football's traditional postseason events are navigating uncertain times. And the College Football Playoff -- the new postseason tradition -- has much to do with it.
The Playoff was set up to mesh with the bowls, sustaining the sport's existing postseason relationships. Its semifinals rotate among six bowls (known as the New Year's Six: the Cotton, Fiesta, Orange, Peach, Rose and Sugar bowls). There's an argument those bowls have been enhanced, even in years they're not involved in the Playoff, because the selection committee chooses some of the matchups by seed.
But the rest of the bowls?
"They've made it where if you're not in that New Year's Six, it's almost made the other ones insignificant," North Carolina coach Larry Fedora says.
Some of it was the inevitable result of the increased focus, all season, on the Playoff. Even though only four teams make the bracket, college football is viewed by many through that prism.
Meanwhile, bowl attendance and TV ratings were down slightly last year. Attendance has increased 4.5% from 2015. For bowls other than the New Year's Six, TV ratings decreased by 22%. Bowl executives say sponsorships have become more difficult to secure. The Poinsettia Bowl shut down after last season. The Miami Beach Bowl has been moved to Frisco, Texas.
"We're still trying to figure out the new world and the impact of the College Football Playoff," Waters told USA TODAY last spring. "But the strength of the bowls has been their ability to adjust. I'm confident they'll adjust to this environment, too."
It's more than the Playoff, of course. In the last 20 years, the number of bowls has doubled, from 20 in 1997 to 40 in 2016 (and 39 this season).
When college football moved to a 12-game regular season, the standard for playing in the postseason became a 6-6 record; more bowls were created in large part so no team with a .500 record or better would sit home for the holidays. And then in each of the last two years, when there weren't enough qualified teams to fill the bowls, 5-7 teams got the call.
"I think we'd be better off with 25 bowls, or 30 bowls," Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany says. "It's not supposed to be an all-comers tournament. It's supposed to be a reward for a successful year."
But it's unlikely the number of bowls will decrease; although the Poinsettia Bowl is gone, there are other cities interested in starting bowls when an NCAA moratorium on new bowls ends after the 2019 season. It's also unlikely the number of wins necessary to play in them will increase.
"I think that train has left the station," says Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who also is chairman of the NCAA's Football Oversight Committee. "I think 6-6 is gonna remain the rule."
And then last year, Fournette, McCaffrey and Baylor running back Shock Linwood decided not to play. It's likely other players will make similar choices this year and beyond.
"Is it going to become exceedingly widespread? I don't think so, but it's hard to read the trend right now," Bowlsby says.
Perhaps worse, at least in the minds of proponents of bowls, is that phrase: meaningless bowls.
"That term ticks me off," says Bill Hancock, executive director of the College Football Playoff, "because those bowls are not meaningless for those players."
Regardless of the bowls' importance in the larger picture, Hancock probably is largely correct.
An in-house survey commissioned by the Football Bowl Association showed 84% of players in the last three years reported a positive experience. Waters says it shows that bowls remain, to a large degree, what they've always been -- postseason rewards -- and that if they're less important than they once were, they're not meaningless.
"I've never been more confident that the bowl games are going to be fine, because the bowls are always going to appeal to people that want the postseason experience," Waters says. "Every game is not for the national championship. Some games are just to have fun and compete."
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