If 2015's were a typical college football season, Kansas State University’s hopes of competing in a bowl game would come to pass or be dashed by the end of Saturday’s game against West Virginia University. It’s the last weekend of the regular season, and Kansas State is still one win away from being bowl eligible.
But this isn’t a typical season. Kansas State could lose Saturday’s game and still be eligible for a postseason bowl game, even with a losing record. So could a half-dozen other teams. There are currently only 75 bowl-eligible teams that can fill the 80 slots needed to complete the lineup for this year’s record-setting number of games, which has exploded in recent years.
The dearth of qualified teams led the National Collegiate Athletic Association this week to soften its requirements for playing in a bowl game. Usually, a team must have won six of a season’s 12 regular season games. Even if Kansas State, Georgia State University and the University of South Alabama were all to win games this weekend, that would put the number of eligible teams at 78.
On Monday, the NCAA announced that it approved “a one-time process” in which Division I football bowl subdivision teams with 5-7 records could be bowl eligible if their Academic Progress Rates -- the NCAA’s metric for measuring retention rates and eligibility of a team -- were among the five highest scores in the division.
Kansas State, with an APR of 977, is one of those teams. So are the Universities of Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri at Columbia and Nebraska at Lincoln, plus Rice and San Jose State Universities. The NCAA will not dictate which of the newly eligible teams will play in a bowl game, leaving that decision up to the individual institutions and conferences and bowl sponsors.
Several of the teams -- including Illinois, Nebraska and San Jose State -- said they will accept a bid if offered. Kansas State is expected to, as well, but has not yet made an official announcement. Missouri this week said it would decline such a bid, making it something of an anomaly among Division I teams. An intense demand on the part of colleges to participate in bowl games is, in part, to blame for the current shortage of eligible teams.
A large number of eligible teams this season have not lost any games or have only lost one game, meaning the wins have not been very evenly spread out. Of the top 25 teams, 17 of them have lost two or fewer games this season. That’s a problem when so many teams need at least six wins to play in a bowl and the number of bowl games is so high, said Mark Nagel, professor of sports and entertainment management at the University of South Carolina.
“With the recent expansion of bowl games, this has always been a possibility,” Nagel said. “It's not unprecedented, but it's rare to see it at this scale. Universities and their presidents like the idea of a bowl game. It gives them something to take alumni and donors to. There are televisions revenues and exposure for the university. But if we add another bowl, and we add another bowl, and we add another bowl, and you need two teams to play in each game, this is what can happen.”
In 1995, there were 18 postseason bowl games. A decade later, there were 28. This year, there are 40 bowl games. More are expected to be added to the list next year.
Participating in bowls has clear benefits for some parties. For teams, being in a bowl game allows for 15 extra practices, giving them a jump start on off-season training. For coaches, it can mean bonuses from their institution. For conferences, it can mean a large payout. Last year, the bowls paid out a total of $505.9 million, according to the Football Bowl Association. Accounting for costs, that’s about $200 million in profits for athletic conferences.
For individual institutions, however, the payouts might not exceed the costs of playing in a bowl game. A 2010 analysis by Bloomberg Business found that 13 of the teams participating in that year’s 33 bowl games spent more money to play in the games than they received in compensation. The losses for those teams totaled nearly $4 million.
Wright Waters, executive director of the Football Bowl Association, said that for many institutions and conferences, playing in a bowl game is not about profit. Waters, who was commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference for more than decade, said the “No. 1 feature” of being in a bowl game is the national exposure it can provide. Many bowl games draw larger television audiences than professional sports. ESPN and its related channels broadcast dozens of them, and the games are an important part of their December programming.
“The ratings are great; the athletes are getting extra practice time and getting a wonderful experience,” Waters said. “It’s a win-win situation. But we have to make sure we keep the integrity of the experience front and center.”
Some critics and fans now say they’re worried that the NCAA’s compromise to allow in teams with losing records erodes that integrity, however, and that the decision is part of a larger trend of lowering standards for bowl games. They point to games like last year’s Raycom Media Camellia Bowl, where No. 95 University of South Alabama competed against No. 97 Bowling Green State University. The current number of bowl games means that 80 out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams are now guaranteed a spot in a game.
Waters said he doesn’t yet believe there are too many bowl games, as in the past he has dealt with the opposite problem: teams with winning records that don’t get to play in the postseason. He said he remembers university presidents pressuring him as a conference commissioner to find bowls for teams with 6-6 records to play in.
“Mr. Commissioner, if you don’t secure a home for my team, I’m going to be your worst enemy,” Waters recalled presidents telling him.
That pressure on commissioners, he admitted, does concern him. While careful not to backpedal his support for the current number of bowl games, Waters said this year does provide an opportunity to discuss “the whole concept of bowls.” The NCAA will convene a task force in January to have a similar discussion.
“There was a time where we had 12 games,” Wright said. “Now we have 40. I do think we need to be careful to make sure we keep providing a wonderful opportunity to fans and student athletes as we add more bowls? Why are we in the bowl business and what purpose do they serve? Those are the questions we need to ask.”
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