The Outback Bowl Was a Dud…and I’m Glad

By Mike Jones on January 11, 2019 at 8:00 am
© Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Less than a week before the Outback Bowl kicked off, the Washington Post published a story about one of the most exploitative figures in the college football industry: the bowl executive. This piece was dedicated to one man in particular, Jim McVay, the Outback Bowl executive who makes over $1 million a year to pimp a non-New Year’s Six Bowl that usually pits 8-4 teams against each other. His salary dwarfs that of the Rose Bowl executive, who makes a measly $412,000, the Peach Bowl executive, who makes $710,500, and the Citrus Bowl executive, who makes a paltry $586,000. McVay is compensated at least $300,000 more than the executives of better bowl games and it isn’t entirely clear why.

Adding fuel to the metaphorical fire is that the Outback Bowl is one of the stingiest when it comes to charitable giving. Per the article:

Among the 10 wealthiest bowl games in terms of revenue, the Outback Bowl ranks eighth in charitable giving since 2000, according to financial records and interviews, with $500,000 donated, all in the last two years.

The Peach Bowl, meantime, has given more than $32 million to charities in that time frame. The Fiesta Bowl has given more than $12.5 million. And the Rose, Orange, Alamo and Citrus bowls have all spent millions in their communities, on college scholarships for lower-income students, affordable housing, and restoring city parks in poor neighborhoods, among other causes.

When asked about this disparity, Outback Bowl board member Steve Schember replied:

“We’re not the United Way. While we’re happy to give to local charities that’s not our purpose. Come down to Tampa New Year’s Eve . . . see the thousands of Miss St and Iowa fans at the parade who are staying at our hotels eating in our restaurants and drinking at our bars. If you come I’ll buy you a beer!”

And hey, Steve is right. The purpose of a college football bowl game is not for the advancement of the human race or betterment of lives. The purpose of the college football bowl game is to make money. Money for executives like McVay, who apparently thrives in his good ol’ boy position. Money for Tampa hotels and eateries, who depend on tourism to survive. Money for Kirk Ferentz, who receives $100,000 for getting his team to the Outback Bowl. Money for everyone…except for the kids who actually play the game.

Paying the players isn’t why we’re here, though. We’re here to talk about the Outback Bowl being a dud and why I’m kind of glad about that. How was it a dud? Well, first off, did you see the crowd? Probably not, as they didn’t show it a lot but here you go:

Paid attendance was 40,518, the lowest in Outback Bowl history. It was 5,000 lower than the previous year's matchup between Michigan and South Carolina and 11,000 less than the 2017 matchup featuring Iowa and Florida. Here’s Iowa’s bowl game attendance in the past 10 years by the numbers:

Season Bowl Opponent Attendance
2009 Orange Georgia Tech 66,131
2010 Insight Missouri 53,453
2011 Insight Oklahoma 54,247
2013 Outback LSU 51,296
2014 TaxSlayer Tennessee 56,310
2015 Rose Stanford 94,268
2016 Outback Florida 51,119
2017 Pinstripe Boston College 37,667
2018 Outback Mississippi State 40,518

Historically, the 2019 Outback Bowl is the third least-attended bowl game in Iowa history behind the Pinstripe Bowl and the 1984 Freedom Bowl, played on December 26th, 1984 in Anaheim, CA against Texas. As far as I can tell, that was one of the earliest bowl games played at a baseball stadium (Anaheim Stadium) since football teams stopped playing in baseball stadiums in, well, the 1960s?

Ratings-wise, things weren’t much better. The estimated 3.25 million viewers were below the Las Vegas, San Francisco, and Liberty Bowls. The Outback Bowl was the 10th most watched non-New Year’s Six Bowl and the least viewed New Year’s Day Bowl, by far. By comparison, 4 million people watched the Pinstripe Bowl last season and 6.1 million people watched the 2017 Outback Bowl. More people watched Fresno State play Arizona State than this year’s Outback Bowl. Obviously the start time (11 AM CT on a Tuesday, albeit a holiday) and the competition (two other bowl games involving more high-profile teams kicked off at noon) didn't help the ratings, but this still was not a match-up that looked enticed viewers. 

Back in early December, soon after the bowl was announced, Iowa had sold 3,000 of their 8,500 ticket allotment and CEO Jim McVay was gushing, saying “We know what we’re getting with Iowa. They’re a tough team that can compete with anybody and their fans love the Hawkeyes… They were the best team available to us.’’ Iowa Associate Athletic Director Charlie Taylor said “Excitement for the Outback Bowl is strong…We expect to have a great crowd of Hawkeyes in Florida on Jan. 1.”

But by the end of December, Iowa had only sold 5,500 of their tickets and the euphoria had clearly dissipated. McVay had excuses prepared, saying “Travel is changing, it just is…You have 41 bowl games. You have emphasis on the playoffs. There’s some weakening in the travelability (NOTE: this is absolutely not a word), but we keep going forward.”

Part of the issue here is that fans have wised up to the ticket situation with bowls; they're no longer willing to pay through the nose to get tickets from schools when they can get tickets that are often cheaper (and in better locations) through other brokers and third-party services. There was still a sizable Iowa contingent at the Outback Bowl -- it's just that many of those fans didn't buy tickets through the school. And part of the blame for the soft attendance should go to Mississippi State, who did not seem to bring a large contingent of fans to Tampa. Some observers there thought there were two to three times as many Iowa fans there as Mississippi State fans and in the picture above the emptiest side appears to be the Mississippi State side. That said, there's no question that Iowa sent their smallest crowd of fans yet to an Outback Bowl and the overall enthusiasm for the bowl seemed diminished from the moment it was announced. 

In my opinion, that’s great. I’m ecstatic Iowa beat Mississippi State. I hope the players enjoyed Tampa, loved the bowl experience and reveled in their victory. Alternatively, Iowa wasn’t supposed to be in the Outback Bowl. There was a time where they were in a position to win the Big Ten West (multiple times, actually) and instead, they ceded the floor to Northwestern. The Wildcats obviously had a better claim to the Outback than Iowa. Wisconsin, despite an embarrassing loss to Minnesota, still finished 5-4 in conference, won the head-to-head battle against the Hawkeyes, and hadn’t been to Tampa since the 2014 season. They arguably had a better claim to the Outback as well.

Despite that, the Outback went to Iowa because “they always travel well.”

Not today, Satan. At least this year, that wasn't quite the case. 

If you were a neutral observer, you wouldn’t be surprised if there was disappointing turnout for a bowl that had featured the same team three out of the last six years. Or if that team hadn't met expectations during the season. These facts were not apparent to Gary Barta or Jim McVay, mediocre white men who are so fortunate to work in the world of college athletic executives, a business that rewards mediocre white men more than any other industry in the world. And so, the 2019 Outback Bowl happened and when it came to butts in seats and people watching the game on the tube, it was a dud.

I’m being presumptuous, but I’ll just say that I’m happy many Iowa fans seemed to decide against rewarding mediocrity. If the only thing this industry understands is money, I’d say the people responsible for putting Iowa and Mississippi State in the Outback were left wanting. Maybe a message will be sent to Barta and down the line to the state’s highest employee: don’t disappoint. Maybe a message will be sent to McVay that reads: wait why are you paid this much? Maybe the 2019 Outback Bowl is the canary in the coal mine for the decline of Big Bowl Business.

One can only hope.

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