On Dec. 4, the NCAA’s Famous Idaho Potato Bowl announced that teams from Ohio University and Utah State would be hauling up to Boise on Dec. 17 to play in Bronco Stadium. The invitation to a college bowl game—once considered a happy reward by most athletes—didn’t sit that well with one Ohio player, punter Paul Hershey.
According to The Athens Messenger, Hershey fumed on his personal Twitter account that night, “Idaho—who the [expletive] wants to play there in December??”
Although Hershey recanted his complaint almost immediately and head coach Frank Solich reaffirmed the team’s respect for the Potato Bowl (formerly the Humanitarian Bowl) during a press conference on Dec. 5, the incident reflects the growing national disenchantment with the weeks-long finale of the college football season.
It’s bad enough that the NCAA refuses to move toward a playoff system to crown a true national champion. On top of that injury to millions of fans, college football’s overseers add the insult of games such as the S.D. County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego, Calif., and the AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La., and markets them as glamorous events.
The overextended, over-sponsored bowl system also raises a big question: With so many postseason games scheduled in December and January, do the lesser-known bowls really help smaller markets economically and benefit the schools that participate?
The contract that the Idaho potato producers signed in August for the Boise bowl’s naming rights is large enough to suggest that they must see value somewhere. The Idaho Potato Commission will spend $2.49 million over the next six years for those rights, with a fee that rises annually from $375,000 in 2011 to $450,000 in 2016, according to the Capital Press, a weekly agricultural newspaper published out West. For that money, the group will also get five 30-second advertising spots during the national broadcast of the game on ESPN.
Broadcast ratings ebb and flow, however, based on the teams invited to play. In 2009, Boise’s bowl rode a high-scoring game between the University of Idaho and Bowling Green University to all-time high ratings. The next year, though, the bowl suffered its lowest ratings since 2007, drawing fewer than 3 million viewers, according to Sports Media Watch. This year’s Ohio University-Utah State game is not expected to set a ratings record.
Each school receives a payout of $750,000 for participating in the game, although they share the revenue with their conferences. (By comparison, the University of Alabama and Louisiana State University will be spreading more than $40 million across the Southeastern Conference for playing in the national championship game on Jan. 9.)
The bowl payout goes a long way toward covering the trip to the game, too. According to Ohio University band director Richard Suk, the on-the-ground costs to get 77 members of the school’s marching band to Boise is $47,000—and that doesn’t include the cost of airfare, or the costs of transporting the football team, cheerleaders, athletic staff, and dance squad.
In past years when Ohio University went to bowls, all 225 members of the band made the trip, but Suk estimates that taking everyone to the Potato Bowl would have cost more than $250,000. Even so, the total cost of transporting, housing, and feeding the Ohio University contingent will eat up a significant portion of the Potato payout.
“We bussed down to the New Orleans Bowl in 2010, and the year before that we went to Detroit for the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl,” he said. “But this one requires a flight because it’s too far to go via bus. The university did work very hard to find pricing that we could reasonably afford, but it was just cost-prohibitive to take all 225 band members.”
The students selected to make the trip are excited, Suk says, even if they are disappointed that the whole band can’t go. A search of airline-ticket aggregator Kayak.com suggests that a plane ticket from Columbus, the airport nearest to Ohio University, to Boise could cost upwards of $800, putting the trek out of reach for many college students.
“I don’t know how many people are going to travel from Ohio, because the flights are very expensive,” Suk said. “I’m not sure what kind of crowd we’re going to get, but I hear the community in Boise really supports the bowl. We’ll probably be a large part of the Ohio contingent when we get out there.”
Suk is right about local support for the game. Even with average low temperatures that hover around 24 degrees in December, the Humanitarian-cum-Potato Bowl has attracted more than 25,000 fans in recent years. And, for what it’s worth, those who turn out will have a story worth watching, finances aside: If the Ohio University Bobcats win on Saturday, it will be the team’s first-ever bowl victory.
This article appears in the Dec. 12, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.