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COMMENTARY: Bowl system broken but so long as ESPN is happy; Path for WSU is clear

WASHINGTON STATE’s victory in the Sun Bowl was huge, sending the Cougs into Signing Day and the offseason with loads of momentum. But that doesn’t mean the bowl system isn’t broken, or that the Pac-12’s best teams will play in the best bowls. But hey, so long as ESPN is happy that’s all that matters, right?

The later the bowl game, the more practices a team can get in – an extremely valuable commodity in preparing for next season.  ASU, a 6-6 team in the 2015 regular season, played in the last bowl game of the year and got in more practices than did both Washington State (8-4 regular season) and Utah (9-3).  So did a 6-6 UCLA team and a 7-5 Cal team. Does that make sense?  Is that equitable?

It used to be the bowl game selection committees placed a very high premium on a fan base’s ability to travel its fans and took a strong dislike to repeat customers. The Holiday Bowl taking USC for the second straight year and the Foster Farms bypassing WSU and Utah in favor of UCLA proves that model is now dead. What matters most now are the TV ratings.

Large sections of empty seats?  Millions of dollars less pumped into the local economy?  Tough.  ESPN will keep right on smiling. The Holiday Bowl knew that by taking USC they would draw less fans and they did - 7,460 fewer fans than last year. At the Foster Farms, 33,527 were in attendance. Levi's Stadium seats 66,000.

But the ratings were up for Foster Farms. The ratings were down for the Holiday but that's also telling. Last year, the Holiday Bowl featuring USC was the most watched Holiday Bowl in a decade. The powers-that-be assumed USC would again bring in the viewers this year. They were wrong, and the drop was substantial -- though they can still point to the fact the 2015 bowl game was up 21 percent from 2013.

WSU’s win over Miami in the Sun Bowl pulled in a 3.41 rating, according to Show Buzz Daily, the highest rating for the Sun Bowl game since 2009. Last year’s Sun Bowl managed a 2.59 rating.  The announced attendance for the 2015 Sun Bowl: 41,180.  Even if you believe that many fans were actually in the stands, it still represents a decline of more than 6,600 from last year’s Sun Bowl.

UW’s bowl win over Southern Mississippi in Dallas was seen in the Cotton Bowl by a paltry 20,229 fans.  That represents a stunning attendance drop of 11,068 from the year before. But ratings were up. The 1.78 rating represented a 12 percent increase in viewers from the previous year, when the HOD bowl was broadcast on ESPNU. 

The only thing the ESPN suits aren’t happy about are the semifinal playoff ratings and New Year’s Day Six.  Compared to the playoff semifinals a year ago, the ratings plunged 45 percent for one semifinal, 34 percent for the other. The New Year's Day Six were down 13 percent overall from last year.  ESPN lost the battle with the College Football Playoff committee, which insisted on showing the semis on New Year’s Eve. The spin is already flowing.

'The games were blowouts and you have to give the new, New Year’s Eve tradition time,' says the college football playoff’s executive director. Indeed, there have been no discussions "at all" about changing the semifinal dates.

"We had some bum luck with the lack of competitive games," Bill Hancock told USA Today. "Things would have been different with competitive games. How much different, nobody knows. We’re very confident that every year will be different and over time these games will be ingrained into a part of the New Year’s Eve tradition." 

Seriously? The casual fans, the ones who make all the difference when it comes to record-breaking sports TV ratings, they're going to make a lifestyle change and start watching semifinal college playoff games?

Will anything change in the Pac-12 for next year when it comes time for the bowl selections?  Will the conference demand their bowl partners in the Alamo, Sun and Holiday bowls select teams with the better conference records rather than exercise the option to take a team with one fewer Pac-12 win?

Doubtful.  It’s hard to see why a bowl game committee would, by choice, opt for less fans and less dollars spent in the local economy in the first place. TV ratings are the driver here.  And the Pac-12’s $3 billion, 12-year contract with ESPN and Fox runs through 2023-24. 

The Pac-12 might ask for schools like WSU and Utah to be selected where they deserve, or they might not. Regardless, nothing will trump the LA television market in the view of ESPN.

The Rose Bowl is not part of the college football playoff this next season.  And assuming the Pac-12 champ won’t be part of the New Year's Six (like Stanford wasn't this year) the Rose Bowl will take the Pac-12 conference champion.

And so for WSU, the one thing they can do is to take the decision out of everyone else's hands. The bowl game path in 2015-16 might not be fair, but it is clear. 

Go out and win the Pac-12. 

RELATED STORY: WSU vs. Miami in Sun Bowl a TV ratings boon


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