Pandemic threatens lucrative US college football tradition


US universities are struggling to field teams for lucrative end-of-season American football matches as Covid-19 spreads across the country, putting at risk hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue for the schools that play in the holiday “bowl” games and the cities that host them.

Televised college football bowl games are a traditional feature of the US Christmas holiday season. Dozens are staged, often with corporate sponsors and preceded by elaborate parades. Some of the games are also part of a playoff system for selecting a national college football champion.

Although some teams are healthy enough to participate in bowls, the pandemic has forced the cancellation this week of such contests as the Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl in Tampa, Florida, and the TransPerfect Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tennessee — the elaborate names reflecting the rush in recent years for sponsorship.

That is scrambling the financial picture not only for the regional conferences that organise bowl matchups and distribute the revenue to universities, but for hosts of the events themselves.

The contract between the college football playoff system and its broadcaster, ESPN, is worth $7.3bn over 12 years, according to the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. Schools with large fan bases such as Notre Dame automatically earn $3.2m for qualifying for a playoff spot, while the baseline payout for other playoff-eligible schools is $300,000.

“Each of these conferences have their financial agreements with bowl games, and all of those have been scrapped this year, renegotiating for this year only,” said Nick Carparelli, executive director of the advocating body for the college football postseason, Bowl Season. 

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While he did not give an estimate for the total financial impact of the changes to the 2020 postseason schedule, he added that “there will not be as much profitability, with bowls dipping into their reserves” to help finance travel costs for teams healthy enough to participate in the one-off games.

Last year, the college football playoff generated $460m in payouts to participating conferences and their universities, according to the Knight Commission.

This year, 44 postseason matches had been scheduled, with the top four teams from the regular season invited to a playoff on New Year’s Day. The winners advance to a national championship game on January 11. 

In addition to being a television ratings bonanza, bowl games are large tourist draws, luring sports fans to largely temperate locales to celebrate the new year and their favourite team. 

The Music City Bowl, an annual fixture in Nashville since 1998, was cancelled on Sunday because of rising Covid-19 cases among one of the teams scheduled to participate, the University of Missouri. Since its inception, the game has provided a $350m boost to the local economy, organisers say.

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The 130-year-old Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, was relocated to Texas because of the spread of Covid-19 in southern California. Organisers estimate the game and its affiliated parade generated $200m for the local economy in 2018 alone.

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The winter coronavirus surge has also forced some prominent football programmes to withdraw from the holiday bowl tradition. Stanford University, which had difficulty playing its remaining football games in December after municipal authorities prohibited contact sports in the Palo Alto area, decided to end its season just before the Christmas break.

“As much as many of us in our hearts would love to potentially play the bowl game, I don’t see how we could do it,” said Stanford football director David Shaw. “It did not seem practical.”

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