The Economic Landscape of the College Football Bowl Season

Will Holland

Contributing Writer

Boys and girls, it’s almost bowling time. And I’m not talking about pins and lanes, I’m talking about the college football postseason.

With week 14 in the books, anticipation for bowl season and the College Football Playoff (CFP) is at its peak, and fans are readily awaiting their team’s destiny, which could either validate or spoil their entire year’s worth of bizarre rituals and broken remotes. However, the modern system of the college football postseason has been years in the making, and the bowl system has turned the game of football into something much more meaningful.

In 1890, the city of Pasadena, California held the inaugural Tournament of Roses to celebrate the new year and give patrons a chance to compete in challenges of strength and speed. For the next 11 years, members of the Pasadena community celebrated the tournament annually, and it became a key component of the town’s livelihood. This was until one man would change the landscape of college football forever.

To increase revenue and bring attention to the small town of Pasadena, the Tournament of Roses President decided to hold the first ever Rose Bowl Game. Approximately 8,000 fans attended the first ever Rose Bowl, pitting Stanford and Michigan in a blowout that eventually led  to a Stanford forfeit. As the years went on, “The Granddaddy of Them All” gained national attention, and other towns decided that to bring exposure to their own town, they ought to do the same. College bowl games rose to the pinnacle of sports entertainment, and with this, opportunities arose for companies to market their brand on a large platform.

The 2019 college football national championship game is set to take place in Santa Clara, CA in Levi’s stadium. WIKIMEDIA

For years, bowl hosts and their executives made their money primarily off of ticket sales and radio exposure, but two words would turn a small profit into lump sums of cash for these bowl game hosts: title sponsorships. In 1996, the Peach Bowl, an annual bowl game held in Atlanta, Georgia, would officially change its name to the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. In order to gain the rights to a title mentioning, Chick-fil-A currently spends millions of dollars a year, which can most likely be compared to a relatively measly amount spent back in ‘96.

Today, there are 41 different bowl games, and only a few of these games are without title sponsorships. Beyond these title sponsorships, ticket prices and commercial airtime are also major contributors to the capitalist machine that is the bowl system. In 2015, all major bowl games were sold out, and in 2011, “Kantar Media data shows that college football’s bowl season accounted for $318.9 million in ad sales.” (

On the other side of the revenue stream are individual teams and conferences, who make the majority of their revenue through commercial and media sponsorship. ESPN pays the CFP approximately $470,000,000 a year for the media rights to the three final games (the two semi-final games and the National Championship), along with four other games. Most of this money is distributed to the 10 FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) conferences and schools. Other major networks such as FOX and CBS host games as well, however, bowls outside of the playoff are able to retain this profit, putting the money towards game operations and keeping the bowl game in the green when it comes to net profit.

These major television networks also play an interesting role in the economic dynamic of the  bowl game system. While ESPN and other networks gain lots of revenue through advertisements and viewership, the networks sometimes can’t compensate for the ratings they promise potential ad buyers. In 2015, ESPN fell short on their ratings, and will owe different ad buyers upwards of $20,000,000 in ad makegoods, which are credits granted to companies for commercial re-runs on the supplying network. ESPN and other major networks project ratings that will interest potential ad buyers, and only on rare occasions do these large revenue rakers fail to meet these goals.

Through a financial lens, we see that the bowl season is far more complex than most think it to be. It is hard to believe that what started in the quaint little town of Pasadena, California has risen to such a cash cow and cultural phenomenon. But at the end of the day, I suppose it’s just a game.

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