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College football bowl games: Why are there so many bowls?

Remember when this time of year was called the “holiday season?” It doesn’t seem that long ago. Between Thanksgiving and New Year, we would visit family and friends, eat too much and sing holiday songs.

Now it’s bowl season. Every day there’s a different college football bowl game. No longer do you wonder what to buy Aunt Edie for Christmas, now you only care about how much to wager on that Sun Belt team in that bowl game being played in Charlotte, or Albuquerque, or the Bahamas (it’s coming back next year!).

How did we get to this point? What happened that brought us so many games?

The explosion of college football bowl games

Joshua L. Jones / USA TODAY NETWORK

This growth of college football bowl games was gradual at first. In 1970, there were 11 college football bowl games. By 1980, we were up to 15 and by 1990, we had 19. And at that time, we thought that was a lot.

Then the number shot up faster than housing prices, going from 25 in 2000 to 35 in 2010 and 41 by 2015.

In 1970, it was hard to make a bowl game. These days, we’re scrambling to find enough teams to fill the slots.

There are 42 bowl games this year and while that is a lot, think about this, there are more than 100 that don’t exist anymore.

What is behind the massive growth of college football bowl games?

Erin Woodiel / Argus Leader / USA TODAY NETWORK

The obvious reason for this rapid growth is money. There is a lot more of that going around than in 1970.

Let’s start with the networks, or just one network, ESPN. College football bowl games are a cash cow for the Disney-owned network. About the only thing that people watch on live TV is sporting events, and football is the most popular sporting event to watch.

So the more football games, the better. ESPN got 22+ million viewers on the college football playoff semifinals last year. It got millions of viewers on most games (3.5 million watched the Gasparilla Bowl!).

Those are good numbers to sell to advertisers. So when you wonder why ESPN is showing Jacksonville State (most people don’t know that this school isn’t in Florida) vs. Louisiana, remember to follow the money.

Coaches are on board with college football bowl game growth

Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Every college football coach pads his resume with bowl game appearances. If you’re coaching at Small School U. and take your team to three straight bowl games, well, then, Power 5 AD whose team went 3-9 last year is flying in to see you.

Once you get to Power 5 school, you better keep going to those bowl games, mister. That’s because college football bowl games on TV are recruiting gold.

It’s also part of contract negotiations for the coach to brag about how many bowl games his teams have made. A win in a bowl means the coach can tell his boss (and recruits), “We won our last game.”

Oh, and let’s not forget that the boosters want to travel to exotic places to watch the team play live (the definition of exotic changes, of course, depending on what’s at stake with said bowl. Fenway Park is great for a Red Sox vs. Yankees game, but for a football game at the end of December?).

College football bowl game payouts

Then there are bowl payouts. Those range from a few hundred thousand to millions.

Some teams will lose money by playing in a bowl game. It will cost more than the $225,000 payout to take a plane full of people to the Bahamas to play a football game (that game comes back next year!). But, remember, that game is on TV!

Others make a good chunk of change. Alabama made $2 million more for making the College Football Playoff than playing in a New Year’s Six game.

Here are the payouts for the college football bowl games this year.

BowlMatchupPay out
Myrtle Beach BowlGeorgia Southern vs. OhioUnannounced
Cricket Celebration BowlFlorida A&M vs. Howard$2,000,000
R+L Carriers New Orleans BowlJacksonville State vs. Louisiana$825,000
Avocados from Mexico Cure BowlMiami (Ohio) vs. Appalachian State$573,125
New Mexico BowlNew Mexico State vs. Fresno State$1,050,000
L.A. Bowl Hosted by GronkBoise State vs. UCLAUnannounced
Radiance Technologies Independence BowlTexas Tech vs. Cal$2,200,000
Famous Toastery BowlWestern Kentucky vs. Old Dominion$225,000
Frisco BowlUTSA vs. Marshall$650,000
Boca Raton BowlSouth Florida vs. Syracuse$900,000
Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla BowlUCF vs. Georgia Tech$1,125,000
Camellia BowlArkansas State vs. Northern Illinois$300,000
76® Birmingham BowlTroy vs. Duke$1,374,545
Lockheed Martin Armed Forces BowlJames Madison vs. Air Force$1,350,000
Famous Idaho Potato BowlUtah State vs. Georgia State$800,000
68 Ventures BowlSouth Alabama vs. Eastern Michigan$1,500,000
Las Vegas BowlNorthwestern vs. Utah$2,900,000
Easypost Hawai’i BowlCoastal Carolina vs. San Jose State$1,200,000
Quick Lane BowlBowling Green vs. Minnesota$2,000,000
Servpro First Responder BowlTexas State vs. Rice$824,545
Guaranteed Rate BowlUNLV vs. Kansas$1,625,560
Military Bowl Presented by PeratonVirginia Tech vs. Tulane$2,066,990
Duke’s Mayo BowlNorth Carolina vs. West Virginia$4,780,461
The DIRECTV Holiday BowlLouisville vs. Southern Cal$6,532,700
Taxact Texas BowlOklahoma State vs. Texas A&M$6,400,000
Fenway BowlSMU vs. Boston CollegeUnannounced
Bad Boy Mowers Pinstripe BowlMiami vs. Rutgers$4,400,000
Pop-Tarts BowlKansas State vs. North Carolina State$6,071,760
Valero Alamo BowlOklahoma vs. Arizona$8,252,740
Taxslayer Gator BowlClemson vs. Kentucky$5,350,000
Tony the Tiger Sun BowlNotre Dame vs. Oregon State$4,550,000
Autozone Liberty BowlIowa State vs. Memphis$4,700,000
Goodyear Cotton Bowl ClassicMissouri vs. Ohio State$4,000,000
Chick-fil-a Peach BowlOle Miss vs. Penn State$4,000,000
Transperfect Music City BowlAuburn vs. Maryland$5,700,000
Capital One Orange BowlGeorgia vs. Florida State$4,000,000
Barstool Sports Arizona BowlToledo vs. Wyoming$350,000
Reliaquest BowlWisconsin vs. LSU$6,400,000
Fiesta BowlLiberty vs. Oregon$4,000,000
Citrus BowlTennessee vs. Iowa$8,224,578
Rose Bowl (Semifinal)Alabama vs. Michigan$6,000,000
Allstate Sugar Bowl (Semifinal)Texas vs. Washington$6,000,000
2024 College Football Playoff National Championship (NRG Stadium, Houston)Peach winner vs. Fiesta winnerNo Additional

As you can see, that’s a long list of games and there doesn’t seem to be any signs that we’ll lose any. In fact, we could get more.

Games have been proposed in places from Cincinnati to Hershey, Pennsylvania, Australia to Dubai.

That means more opportunities for more teams to play on TV. More chances to show off for recruits. More ways to make money.

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