Sports Paradise: College Football Fans Await 35 Bowl Games

Bowl season in college football has begun and sports fans can enjoy 35 Bowls to be played through Jan tenth. But all eyes will be on the national championship game between University of Oregon and Auburn University. Sports Editor for the Nation Magazine, Dave Zirin, tells Michel Martin what to expect.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Next, we know many people will be sitting themselves down in front of the TV this holiday weekend watching college bowl game after bowl game. The national championship game is much anticipated. Auburn University and the University of Oregon are both undefeated, but there are others - maybe too many others.

To help us keep track of the best of the rest, we're joined by the Sports Editor of The Nation magazine, Dave Zirin. Dave, thanks so much for joining us once again.

Mr. DAVE ZIRIN (Sports Editor, The Nation magazine): Oh, great to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, do I have this right, that there are 35 bowl games?

Mr. ZIRIN: Yes. There are 35 bowl games. That means 70 teams. That means over 60 percent of all major college football teams will be playing in a bowl game. So people certainly have their choices. Some might say too many choices.

MARTIN: When did this start? Now, I think everybody remembers the Orange Bowl, the Rose Bowl, the Sugar Bowl. But how did it come to be, and I don't want to be mean about it, the Military Bowl, the Tostitos Bowl, whatever.

Mr. ZIRIN: Well, the Beefaroni Bowl.

MARTIN: Beefaroni Bowl.

Mr. ZIRIN: My personal favorite, the GoDaddy.com bowl. I mean, what it's become - that's a real bowl game by the way. What it has become has been the sort of thing where you create these bowl structures for the purposes of boosters, for the purposes of alums. And right now we're at a weird point where college football coaches, their job security is being judged, not only on the basis of their record, but on their ability to sell the bowl game to alumni to get them to travel to certain places to buy the tickets themselves.

Some might argue, and some have argued, that it's cost Ralph Friedgen his job at the University of Maryland. The very year where he wins ACC coach of the year, he doesn't get his contract renewed because he wasn't able to sell the University of Maryland as a viable school that would pack a bowl game.

MARTIN: Now, so do these bowl games pay for themselves, or are they revenue raisers for the colleges and universities that sponsor them or that visit them?

Mr. ZIRIN: You know what it's like Michel? It's like going to Vegas, and you're putting your chips in the middle of the table. And if it works, then the college football team gets paid, the athletic department gets paid, everybody gets paid.

But if the college football team, because of the incredible amount of revenue that is required for it to produce to be profitable, if the college football team doesn't make money, and the bowl games are a key way in which they make money, it's like a huge sucking sound on the entire athletic department. And sometimes that does even spill over into the broader academic institutions.

I mean, the Knight Commission, which is a group of NCAA college presidents, they put out a report where they said you know what, college football as it currently exists is unsustainable because a small minority of teams make money, but the huge majority it puts us in just terrific, terrific debt.

MARTIN: Now, I want to hear from you about the best of the rest, as we said, the games that you would recommend that people pay attention to since they don't have time to watch all 35 and still keep peace at home, I'll just put it that way.

But just before you do, there are two types of bowl games, the Bowl Championship Series, or BCS, and non-BCS bowl games. If you could just briefly tell us the difference.

Mr. ZIRIN: Sure. The BCS games are ones that are an agglomerate of what's called the Bowl Championship System, BCS. And they comprise the better-known bowls. You mentioned a couple of them before, the Orange Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl, the Rose Bowl. And there's a rotating system where one of those bowl games becomes the site of a kind of de facto, some would argue highly fraudulent and arbitrary, national championship game between the two best teams.

And now, the teams who play in those BCS games, which have the most plum prime-time spot, the biggest sponsors, the biggest chance to create revenue, not just for the individual school but for the conferences. Those games are the ones that are the most looked at and the most paid attention to.

But the problem this year is that it's also largely produced by a computer algorithm that decides who the best teams are and how they match up, and in this year in particular, you have some of the most popular teams on the outside looking in for the BCS, which makes the people think - the experts are saying this is going to be the lowest-rated BCS round in the history of college football.

MARTIN: Well, I know you're going to do your part by watching as many games...

Mr. ZIRIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Because you're a good guy like that.

Mr. ZIRIN: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: Give us a couple games to watch out for.

Mr. ZIRIN: Oh, my goodness. Well, I think it all comes down to the championship game which is very - I hope people pay attention to. Because what it is, it's Auburn against Oregon. Oregon is the 17th most popular team in the country in terms of fans. Auburn is 38th, which makes me think not a lot of people are going to actually watch the game. But they comprise the two most astounding offenses, you could make the case in the history of college football.

Auburn has a quarterback named Cam Newton who's certainly been involved in his own array of controversy who had what you could arguably say was the greatest season in the history of college football. The top-rated passer, and the number one rusher in the tough southeastern conference.

And Oregon plays a different kind of football than I think any of the casual fans have ever seen before. It's a constant hurry up offense. They lead the nation in scoring. They have one of the best running backs in LaMichael James.

All the other games are largely just for show. This is a game that actually at least produces a semblance of a championship trophy. So I would say people should pay attention to that.

MARTIN: And pick one more.

Mr. ZIRIN: Okay.

MARTIN: Particularly one with a really funny name.

Mr. ZIRIN: You really want me to that?

MARTIN: Yeah.

Mr. ZIRIN: You want the GoDaddy.com or something like that? Well, I really like the game that involves Stanford, because Stanford is considered the best one-loss team in the land, and they have a quarterback people should pay attention him, named Andrew Luck, who is probably going to be the number one draft pick in all of the land. He's a remarkable player to watch.

MARTIN: And that's the Orange Bowl, correct?

Mr. ZIRIN: Yeah. And people should watch him very closely because he's going to have a huge impact on the NFL in years to come.

MARTIN: And really, here's the big question for you, Dave. Wings or popcorn?

Mr. ZIRIN: Got to go with the wings. Apologize to any of the vegan vegetarians out there, but oh, my goodness, love me some wings.

MARTIN: Okay. Dave Zirin is the Sports Editor The Nation magazine. He's also a frequent contributor to our Barbershop roundtable. He joined us here in our studios in Washington, D.C.

Thanks so much, Dave. Happy new year.

Mr. ZIRIN: You too, Michel

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