It's time for creative solutions to incentivize playing in bowl games
I love bowl season. Always have. It’s basically 3 straight weeks of games featuring matchups we don’t normally get to see, dropped right in the middle of a bunch of time off school or work. What more could we ask for?
But it’s obvious that these games are declining in importance to the players, as more and more opt out of them each year. And instead of blaming the players or their generation, it’s time to craft some creative solutions to incentivize college football’s best players to not sit out. Because this problem isn’t going away.
It started 5 years ago with Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette skipping their bowl games. Now, we’re at a point where it’s genuinely surprising to see an NFL Draft-eligible player such as Penn State’s Jahan Dotson or Iowa’s Tyler Linderbaum play in a bowl game.
This isn’t a player problem, as some analysts would have you believe. They all should be able to make individual decisions, and we have to respect them. The job for bowl organizers, however, is to make those decisions tougher. Give these guys a reason to play.
That means money.
No, this isn’t another one of those blanket “pay the players” takes that I’m sure you’ve read plenty of times. This is a more nuanced look at what can be done in the age of Name-Image-Likeness to avoid breaking rules and expand upon what was started over the summer with sponsorship deals.
There are going to be logistical issues with any idea, but these conversations need to be happening, if they haven’t been already. Bowl organizers need to figure this out — and soon. Public perception of these games is that the players don’t care, so why should the fans? Bowl organizers should care what the fans think, because they’re the ones who watch on TV and pay to go to the games, so their paycheck depends on them. That means the bowl organizers need to put the best product on the field, which involves getting the best players to play.
Maybe the answer is having the sponsor of each game put up a cash prize to the winning team and a smaller cash prize to the losing team, and whoever is on the 2-deep or plays a significant role in the game gets a cut of the prize pool. Just spit-balling here, but let’s say the sponsor puts up $250,000 to the winning team and $100,000 to the losing team, or something like that, and then each team can divide that how they wish.
Or maybe the media vote on 5-10 standout players for the game, and they each get $25,000-$50,000 for their efforts.
Tap into the competitive side of these athletes. Maybe it won’t work for the top-5 picks who are headed toward huge guaranteed sums of money, but it would definitely get the attention of guys going later in the draft.
If there’s a marquee player, like Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III, sitting out, maybe a bowl sponsor could target a specific player and say, “We’ll give you a certain amount of money to play in this game.” What if Chick-fil-A, the sponsor of the Peach Bowl, could say to Walker that it would give him $50,000 to play. That’s a new car, that’s a lavish family vacation, that’s a new wardrobe full of designer clothes, that’s … a lot of things. That’s potentially life-changing money to play in a football game. It would be tough to turn down.
These sponsors already do goody-bags to give the players a reward, but a financial incentive would do a better job of making sure players wanted to be part of a bowl game. Maybe that should come in Bitcoin, or maybe it’s starting a retirement fund for players that will earn interest and grow, if there is concern about the optics of just handing players a wad of cash at the end of the game.
We all know these bowls, and their sponsors, can afford it. There’s a reason bowl organizers don’t want these games to go away with an expanded Playoff. They’re cash cows! There are so many bowl games now because they make a lot of money. As of 2017, bowl game executives were making near $1 million, according to USA Today. There’s obviously plenty of cash to go around.
There could be some hesitancy to shake up the system if bowl organizers think Playoff expansion is imminent. No one sits out Playoff games, so these New Year’s Six bowl games would be covered by that umbrella. But even if that 12-team expansion is coming in 2025, that’s 3 more years of watered-down rosters at bowl games where something can be done.
There are folks like me who will watch no matter what. And there are folks who gamble (legally, of course) who will watch no matter what. But organizers still care about selling tickets and in-stadium sponsorships, both of which are a significant source of revenue. The product on the field matters.
If you want guys like Walker, David Bell and George Karlaftis to play, it’s time to start giving them a reason to.