Bowl season could hit new low

Bowl season could hit new low

Published Sep. 22, 2010 1:00 a.m. ET

As the NFL owners prepare to lock out the players next year, they must view college football covetously.

All the draconian rollbacks the NFL zillionaires would love to impose on the players are already status quo in college.

Add games without compensation? Tell me, what do the college players get for those ultra-lucrative conference title games? Extra tutoring?

Cut salaries? How’s zero dollars a year sound?


Break the union? No need. Doesn’t exist.

When the NCAA confirmed this week that it was preparing for the contingency of making a 5-7 team “bowl eligible” to fill out its 35-bowl game dance card, it was merely acknowledging an inevitable — and only mildly embarrassing — milepost on Greed Street.

Sure, a bowl game between a 5-7 team and a 7-5 team won’t be a big cash cow in the same way an eight-year-old in a sneaker factory can’t be expected to match her mom’s productivity. But when you’re not paying the labor, it would just be bad business not to open as many factories as possible.

So what if the product isn’t very good? The sponsors are already on board, and the TV deals are already in place. All the NCAA needs to do is provide the entertainment from their nationwide roster of indentured servants. (And if any of said entertainers accept a helping hand for themselves or their families they will, of course, be severely punished.)

And football is not like the NBA or Major League Baseball, where there are routes to a professional career that circumvent collegiate athletics. If you want any shot at playing pro football, you are obligated to spend three years toiling in the NCAA diamond mine.

The NFL owners, who love having this free minor league system, would like to expand their regular season to 18 games. The players, broken as they are by the end of the 16-game season, oppose the move. It is sure to be one of many contested points in the coming bloodbath.

Not so in college. If the NCAA wants more bowl games, they just have to line up sponsorship and a TV outlet. The schools will happily provide the uncompensated 18-to-21-year-old gladiators for a price.

And here’s the rub: Even if one of the teams is 5-7, people will watch. (Because let’s face it, bad football is still better than most stuff on television.)

Viewership was up a healthy eight percent for last year’s 34 bowl games. With business booming, the NCAA added a 35th bowl game. More is more. More factories, more product, more choices for the consumer.

Hey, it’s good to see one sector of the U.S. economy expanding.

But, as outlined here by Brent Schrotenboer in the San Diego Union-Tribune, the addition of another bowl game has pushed college football to a mathematical breaking point.

Last year, there were 34 bowl games and 71 teams with at least a 6-6 record, leaving the NCAA with a margin of three extra “bowl eligible” teams. This year, with USC ineligible but pinning losses on its Football Bowl Subdivision opponents, there’s a good chance there simply will not be 70 teams with six wins.

Last year, FBS teams went 89-5 against the Football Championship Subdivision. This year, they are 63-6 with 21 games left against the minnows.

If there were only 71 teams bowl eligible last year for 68 bowl slots, increased losses to FCS teams and the absence of USC will make it very tough to fill 70 slots this year. Not that the NCAA necessarily cares.

It will take a minor public-relations hit and go back to counting the money. Heck, the game involving the first 5-7 bowl team will probably draw a big number just based on the withering criticism focused on the biggest winner of all the losers.

There’s still a chance that 70 FBS teams could win six games, but it will take some parity in the big conferences and racking up wins in those 21 remaining FCS games. Conversely, lots of 10, 11 and 12-win teams, which is what is supposed to make bowl season interesting, only increases the possibility of a loser being invited to the bowl dance.

The NCAA’s contingency plan for falling short of 70 six-win teams has not been made public, but it’s hardly a secret. The 35 bowl games are guaranteed. If there are only 69 teams with six wins, a 70th team with a 5-7 record is playing in a bowl. Period.

While making a 5-7 team bowl eligible may seem absurd, there is one silver lining: It gives Notre Dame something to do over the holidays.