Alexander: Yes, all these college football bowl games have a purpose

The relationship between the College Football Playoff and the rest of the bowl system is lopsided enough now, and just wait until the CFP expands and makes it even more so. The non-playoff portion of the postseason can run the gamut from “meh” to “Why in the world are they playing that game?”

Nick Carparelli – whose job as executive director of Bowl Season, the entity that oversees the sport’s postseason aside from the CFP, is to counter that mindset – looks at it differently. Ideally, the two entities complement each other.

“We need both,” he said in a recent phone interview. “You know, there’s 131 FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) institutions. We can’t have a postseason system where only 12 teams have an opportunity to play at the conclusion of the regular season.”

There are, remember, 40 bowl games aside from the CFP, which means 40 chances for teams to lift a trophy at the end and consider their seasons successful in one way or another.

And people do watch. Of the nine earliest games on the current bowl schedule, four topped 2 million viewers – including the Jimmy Kimmel L.A. Bowl – and another just missed. Those aren’t massive numbers, but they help justify ESPN’s investment in the postseason. The network will produce and broadcast 40 of the 43 postseason games, including the CFP on ESPN, ESPN2 or ABC, and its ESPN Events division owns and operates 17 of the games.

(How much of that viewership is driven by wagering? Good question, but it’s likely a significant factor.)

Those numbers will increase for the New Year’s Six bowls and then increase again exponentially for the Jan. 9 title game in Inglewood. But, Carparelli said, the off-Broadway bowls earlier in the window can be promotional vehicles that help drive interest in the later games.

“We can’t have a postseason where the regular season and the conference championship games end and there’s no college football for two or three weeks,” Carparelli said. “The networks need to protect their investment by having mechanisms to promote those games, and there’s really no better way to do it than during other bowl games that, (as) we’ve seen in just the first week, earn viewership of two million people at a minimum. And as bowl season goes on, you’re going to see the viewership reach three, four, five and six million viewers, dwarfing any other alternative programming this time of year.

“The bowl system has always been a market-driven system. No one’s forcing communities to host bowl games. No one’s forcing conferences and teams to participate in them. But everybody wants to. And everybody watches them. There’s always a fear at the end of the season if a team is 6-6. Are there going to be too many bowl-eligible teams and are they going to be left out? No one wants to be in that position. Bowl season is very, very healthy from a popularity standpoint.”

Bottom line: If you’re not interested, don’t watch. But don’t begrudge the people who do.

The lesser bowl games serve a purpose in a landscape that is hardly one-size-fits-all. The Power Fives have different priorities and needs than the Group of Five schools. For those not at the top of the food chain, those early bowls are their championship games.

And there’s this, too:

“If you make a bowl game, you get to practice a minimum of two extra weeks,” Carparelli said. “And during those practices, some of the younger guys tend to get a little bit more reps. If you go to a bowl game, and especially if you win it, the whole offseason program has a different feel to it. You know, everybody has a little extra hop to their step. They’re a little bit more excited about getting to spring practice and getting to the following season.”

One example is South Carolina, which won its last two games in 2021 to get to 6-6, then beat North Carolina in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. (Trust me, I’m trying not to be snarky when it comes to bowl names, but it’s difficult.) This year, the Gamecocks are 8-4, including upsets of Tennessee and Clemson in their final two regular-season games, and get a shot at Notre Dame in Friday’s Gator Bowl.

“If all we had was a playoff, that program would be sitting home right now,” Carparelli said. “And I don’t know how anybody would think that that would be an appropriate system. … When it comes to the rest of the bowl games, everybody just needs to take a deep breath and realize that it’s OK for a bowl game to not factor into the national championship equation to still be meaningful, right?”

Of course, there are elements of the bowls’ future that are out of the executives’ control. Players are getting NIL payments for helping promote at least one game’s title sponsor, for example. And players continue to opt out to protect their NFL futures – they can cite Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral, who injured his ankle in last year’s Sugar Bowl and fell to the third round of the NFL draft  – or enter the transfer portal in advance of bowl games.

“But the other 95 percent of players are opting in and are very excited to play in bowl games,” Carparelli said. “So bowl games provide them an opportunity. We’re starting to see underclassmen really make a name for themselves for the first time in bowl games.”

For them, at least, the postseason is absolutely meaningful.

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