Silicon Valley loses bowl game over empty seats

The NCAA left open the possibility of restoring the game in 2006, but for now it has pulled the plug on an event that failed to capture the community or corporate support envisioned.

April 21st, 2005

San Jose, CA --- Citing low attendance at Spartan Stadium, the NCAA announced Wednesday that the Silicon Valley Football Classic would not get its stamp of approval for 2005.

The NCAA left open the possibility of restoring the game in 2006, but for now it has pulled the plug on an event that failed to capture the community or corporate support envisioned when it was conceived during the high-tech boom of the late 1990s.

``There's disappointment, because we felt the pieces were starting to come together,'' said Dan Fenton, president and CEO of the San Jose Convention and Visitors Bureau, and a member of the game's board of directors.

Dennis Poppe, the NCAA's managing director for football and baseball, said it was only the second time that his organization withdrew its backing of an existing bowl game. The Seattle Bowl was decertified in 2003.

The problems with the Silicon Valley game were compounded by the fact the NCAA's Postseason Football Licensing Subcommittee this week decided to cap the number of bowl games. There were 28 last year, and the committee approved a second game for San Diego at the same time it rejected the San Jose application.

``The subcommittee looked at historical data and did not feel comfortable exceeding 28 bowls,'' Poppe said following three days of meetings outside Phoenix.

Last year's Silicon Valley bowl, between Northern Illinois and Troy, drew 5,494 fans to Spartan Stadium, but bowl officials portrayed the problem as a ``perfect storm'' of setbacks, in part because the Pacific-10 and Western Athletic conferences did not meet their commitment to provide teams for the game.

But even with at least one West Coast team in its previous four matchups, the Silicon Valley bowl consistently garnered the poorest TV ratings of the college football postseason, and was among the lowest attended since it began in 2000.

The NCAA two years ago established attendance standards -- 70 percent of capacity or an average of 25,000 over a three-year period. Even if a 2005 Silicon Valley bowl were a sellout, it would not have met them.

The game was created to provide another bowl opportunity for Western Athletic Conference teams and had the strong backing of San Jose State, a member of the conference. It meant business for downtown hotels and restaurants the week between Christmas and New Year's, a slow time. That earned it support from the city and convention bureau.

Unfortunately, it never met the expectations of organizers who won NCAA approval in April 1999. With their confidence buoyed by the high-tech boom, they had visions of companies throwing their support behind a game with the Silicon Valley label. Corporations would buy tickets. Sponsorships and partnerships would follow. Backers even saw the high-tech industry financing a $25 million expansion of Spartan Stadium to 50,000 seats.

None of that materialized. The game's principal sponsors for the initial game -- Palm and Knight Ridder, parent company of the Mercury News -- withdrew after their two-year contracts expired. Others would come and go as the boom went bust.

Organizers never were able to find a company willing to buy long-term naming rights, considered a major sign of stability. And San Jose taxpayers ended up contributing $100,000 to the game annually.

Though its 1999 application talked of $1.2 million pay-outs to participating teams, that figure soon dropped to $750,000, the minimum set by the NCAA. That limited the game's ability to compete with more established bowls.

Multiple management changes were also seen as a problem.

The game has consistently operated in the red, though Fenton said it has never been more healthy financially than it is now. Documents filed with the California Attorney General's office after the first three games showed, in the net assets category, a deficit of a little more than $1 million. Fenton said that figure is currently less than $150,000.

The game had problems on the field, too.

At times, rain made it a Mud Bowl. And a power outage last year delayed the start of the game by 20 minutes.

Even so, Fresno State Coach Pat Hill -- whose team played against Air Force, Michigan State, Georgia Tech and UCLA in the first four Silicon Valley games -- said it was a shame the NCAA rejected San Jose's application.

``All I know is that bowl game was really a very good situation for our football program and our fans,'' Hill said, noting that about three times the number of fans made it to San Jose each year than the 5,000 who followed the team to Boise, Idaho, last December for the MPC Computer Bowl.

``I thought the people in San Jose put on a very good and very entertaining show, not only for our fans, but for the kids in the program.''

Karl Benson, the WAC commissioner, who said his conference has begun talks with the second San Diego bowl about providing a team, also expressed unhappiness with the decision. ``I believe it deserved another chance,'' he said.

Fenton said that while he and the SVFC executive committee would meet shortly to explore long-term options, they had not given up hope of staging a game in 2005. However, it was unclear how that could take place, as Poppe said the decision cannot be appealed.

Still, the NCAA did invite Silicon Valley officials to apply again for 2006; Poppe said the possible addition of a 12th game to the regular season that year could result in more bowl-eligible teams -- and perhaps more bowls.

``At this stage, we're not here to say there's no future,'' Fenton said. ``We're going forward. We're not prepared to throw in the towel.''

Contact David Pollak at dpollak@mercurynews.com


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