Despite Glitz, Economy Hits College Football

The excess of the college football bowl season hasn't been visibly diminished by the recession, but with the economic downturn some companies may have second thoughts about sponsoring bowl games. Also, a straightforward playoff system may become more compelling.

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Here's one place you will not see visible proof of the recession - Miami, tonight, at the Super Bowl of college football. Oklahoma and Florida are playing for the national championship. Before the game, and during it, lots of corporate dollars will help to take good care of fans, athletes and even media people. Still, all is not well financially with the nearly three dozens bowls played over the last month. From Miami, NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN: In the days leading up to tonight's game, reporters staying at the media headquarters hotel ate filet mignon, stone crabs and key lime brulee - for free. If they had time, they could shake their collective booties on the beach at the media party which offered more stone crabs, freshly rolled cigars, open bar - no charge.

Mr. PAUL HOOLAHAN (Chairman, Football Bowl Association): There's a level of hospitality that's extended, and I think what you're experiencing here today is the top of the line.

GOLDMAN: Paul Hoolahan heads the Football Bowl Association. That's an organization that oversees all the college bowl games. I talked to him yesterday in the lobby of the Key Biscayne Ritz Carlton, where he was staying, after he got back from a lunchtime cruise and a few hours before he would attend a gala dinner party. Elsewhere, though, there were indicators of the hard economic world outside the corporate backed hospitality bubble.

Unidentified Man: This is almost like Oklahoma in there.

GOLDMAN: Last night in downtown Miami, groups of Sooner fans braved an Oklahoma style downpour to take in an outdoor event called the fanfest - food, music, lots of alcohol. It was notable not so much for those who were there...

(Soundbite of interview)

Mr. JACKIE D. WILLIS(ph): Willis, Jackie D. Willis.

GOLDMAN: Jackie D. Willis and Jackie, where are you from?

Mr. WILLIS: Snyder, Oklahoma.

GOLDMAN: But those who weren't.

(Soundbite of interview)

GOLDMAN: Do you happen to know anyone who wasn't able to make the trip just because, you know, times are a little tight?

Mr. WILLIS: Oh yeah, well, I know several people who've cut back. Oh, absolutely, you know, I have some friends who're supposed to go, but they didn't want to spend the money right now.

GOLDMAN: The biggest bowls, like this one in Miami, are selling their tickets, but because of the no shows, even the top games have chunks of empty seats. Attendance at the FedEx Orange Bowl, just a week ago here in Miami, was 16,000 less than the number of people who paid for tickets. TV cameras couldn't avoid showing sections of seats covered by tarps, not the kind of thing corporate sponsors and advertisers like to see, says Paul Hoolahan of the Football Bowl Association.

Mr. HOOLAHAN: You always want to have the perception that it's a hard ticket to get, and it's a sold-out venue. And that always, you know, promotes your marketing in the process.

GOLDMAN: And if no shows at the games weaken your marketing, corporations will think twice about paying up.

Mr. HOOLAHAN: The number of sponsorships that we've been able to obtain in the past are not going to be as free and available as they are, you know, now, as we go forward.

GOLDMAN: With bowls struggling in a down economy, with low TV ratings reported for even the highest profile bowls this season, is it time to bring up the "P" word, again? A playoff might generate more national interest in the college football post-season and more revenue, like college basketballs dramatically popular tournament. Paul Hoolahan and his Football Bowl Association were ready for this kind of rabble-rousing talk.

(Soundbite of interview)

GOLDMAN: Hold on here. Where did that go? I'm not going to say this is propaganda, but this was in the media room.

Mr. HOOLAHAN: Yes.

GOLDMAN: This lovely, glossy thing.

Mr. HOOLAHAN: And we're very proud of this lovely, glossy thing which is our marketing piece.

GOLDMAN: The brochure I waved in front of Hoolahan is entitled, "College Bowl Games Where Everybody Wins." It, indeed, appeared to be a preemptive strike to counter the inevitable talk of playoff that happens at every championship game. The current system of bowl games works, the brochure says, with schools and fans and bowl hosting communities all benefiting, and the college football powers that be are staying on message even with the economic hits, even with President-elect Obama and a bill in Congress calling for a playoff, and even with the Utah attorney general threatening to sue because the University of Utah, the only unbeaten major college team, was left out of tonight's game which will, for some, decide the national champion. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Miami.

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