Without Stars, Bowl Games Are Bust

As post-season bowl games lose esteem, interest, New Orleans needs college football kickoff game

Feb. 7, 2010, was the greatest day of my life.

No, it wasn’t my wedding day.

Nor was it a day when one of my children was born.

It was, however, the day the Saints won the Super Bowl.

Not to sound cocky, but I always kind of figured I’d get married. Likewise, I always thought I’d have kids. I’m lucky enough to be blessed with a wonderful wife and family. I never thought I’d see the Saints win a championship.

Similarly, Jan. 1, 2016, was one of my favorite days. After a near 40-year absence, when led by Archie Manning, Ole Miss returned to the Sugar Bowl.

When I was a student and young alumnus, I used to joke that our away games against Tulane would be the closest the Rebels would get to the Sugar Bowl in our lifetimes. I’d invite all of my friends to town to live it up in the Big Easy, even if the game was in September and not January. Well, the Rebels proved me wrong, and landed an invite and big win against Oklahoma State in New Orleans’ mid-winter classic after the 2015 season. There was amazing spirit in New Orleans that week as fans of the Red & Blue and Black and Orange packed the city to celebrate the success of two long-running, middle of the road Division I teams. More than 72,000 fans packed the dome on New Year’s Night to partake in what, essentially, was a novelty game for both programs.

A year later, on Jan. 2, 2017, Auburn and Oklahoma, two programs that have both enjoyed much more success and each won National Championships in recent years, drew just 54,077.

The Sugar Bowl has long been one of college football’s most prestigious games, and the decrease of nearly 18,000 fewer fans with historically better programs than the year before, should have been an eye opener. Since the introduction of the four-team college football playoff format replaced the traditional bowl format in 2014, college football’s post-season has changed as rapidly as it has dramatically.

Last week a move further away from the sport’s traditional mores was blatantly evident. This winter, running backs Leonard Fournette of LSU and Christian McCaffrey of Stanford both skipped their schools’ bowl games in order to avoid injury and protect their status as potential high round selections in subsequent the NFL Draft. Both players were stars of their teams and the biggest draws for casual fans to attend or watch the game. Without them – and the star power they provide – the bowl games lost fans’ attention and, ultimately, value.

The Jacksonville Jaguars selected Fournette with the fourth overall pick, while the Carolina Panthers picked McCaffrey eighth overall.

Conversely, Michigan tight end Jake Butt played in the Orange Bowl this year, and suffered a major knee injury. Butt graded as a second-round pick before the injury, but slid to the fifth.  While he had an insurance policy in place in case he got hurt that will pay an estimated $500,000, Butt lost a lot of potential income. NFL rookies have a set, stratified salary cap with higher picks earning more money. Tim Cowlishaw of the Dallas Morning News says Butt’s slide down the draft board may have cost him as much a $2 million in potential pay, considering Arkansas tight end Hunter Henry, drafted with the third pick in the second round will have a contract worth about $2.7 million more in guarantees than Butt.

There is no doubt that current college football players are paying close attention to the outcomes for players like Fournette, McCaffrey, and Butt, who may decide playing in a marginal bowl game – any not in play for the national championship – is not worth jeopardizing potential NFL and endorsement income over a single (and seemingly meaningless) game.

That’s not reassuring news for traditional bowl games. The programs the games want want to be in the National Championship hunt, anything else is second best.

Insignificant is not where the Sugar Bowl, or any other traditional bowl wants to be. They can’t compete with the interest in a championship tournament. To remain relevant in the future of college football, New Orleans needs to play host to a high-profile season opening game.

Strength of schedule is the second most important factor after wins and losses in determining playoff participants. Instead of scheduling cupcake, non-conference teams to pad their resumes, the best teams are opening their seasons playing against each other in neutral site locations. The games are gaining in popularity because they provide a big, national stage for teams to show off their talent and skill and get a jump in the national polls.

New Orleans has long outshined regional rivals as a college football destination, but Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston have all made strides to get a piece of the action. The Sugar Bowl is, traditionally, a more prominent bowl than any in those cities, however each of them has established big games at the beginning of the season.

It’s time for New Orleans to host a college football kickoff game. Undefeated teams with a national draw (Alabama, Notre Dame, Michigan, USC), even at 0-0, will have more enticement than many of the same nationally-relevant teams out of championship contention at the end of the season.

No one wants to see New Orleans lose prominence as a college football destination, but the racehorse is out of the gate and not going back in quietly or easily. Add another big game, keep the city in the forefront of college football, and bring an extra few dollars into the city at the end of the slow summer season.

The clock is ticking. Handle it better than Les Miles.



Sugar Bowl Attendance 2013-2017

Sugar Bowl attendance has fluctuated depending on the participating teams and whether or not the game is part of the College Football Playoff.


Year    Teams                                    Attendance

2017    Oklahoma v. Auburn                  54,077

2016    Ole Miss v. Oklahoma State      72,117

2015    Alabama v. Ohio State               74,682*

2014    Oklahoma v. Alabama               70,473

2013    Louisville v. Florida                   54,178


* College Football Playoff Semifinal


Categories: The Pennant Chase