TAMPA, Fla. — While the Michigan football team (5-4 Big Ten, 8-4 overall) has spent this week preparing for the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day, its rival Michigan State (7-2, 10-3) played in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, a game that drew low attendance and poor television ratings.
The college football bowl season always draws intrigue and to learn more about what goes on behind the scenes, The Michigan Daily spoke with the Outback Bowl president and CEO Jim McVay. The discussion touched on the bowl selection process, the College Football Playoff’s impact and other changes in the business. Pieces of the interview are included below:
The Michigan Daily: What’s the most difficult part about running a bowl game?
Jim McVay: It’s to make sure you have the four key components in place: television contracts, title sponsorships, team A and team B. The infrastructure with bowl games is your conference relationships, your television contracts and your title sponsorships. You’re lucky if you’re in the right location, like we are, and that’s why we’re one of the top bowl games in the country. The weather’s good, the stadium’s terrific, lots of nightlife and options for entertainment in the area. Lot of fun things going on, so people look at this as a vacation and a bowl trip.
TMD: Are there challenges that exist now that didn’t back when you started?
JM: Every year it gets more difficult because there are so many bowl games. There were 16 bowl games when we got in the business. It was a huge deal. Now, everybody gets to go to bowl games all the time. It’s not as special as it used to be, with some teams that have a .500 record, and in even some cases, 5-7 teams go on to bowl games, and that’s not great.
But the reason there are so many bowl games is because the conferences want more opportunities for their schools, the broadcasters want more football televised and people love college football, but it makes it tougher.
TMD: What do you see changing about the bowl system in the future?
JM: I think it’s going to continue to become more and more challenging with all of these bowl games to fill up these stadiums. It’s harder when there are so many teams, and it’s not as big of a deal if they go every year.
You know what you call it when fans pick up and travel to a neutral site to play another team in a desirable location? It’s called a “bowl game” and that’s what those neutral-site games are when they’re played in Dallas, Atlanta or Houston (during the regular season).
People only have so many discretionary, disposable dollars. You’ve asked all those fans to pick up and travel to Dallas (such as for Michigan’s season opener), so now at the end of the year, you have to go to a bowl game. How many times can you ask? You can only ask fans to do so much. There have been teams that sit home for three or four years. If they got to go a bowl game, the turnouts would be a lot different.
TMD: How has your business had to react with the introduction of the College Football Playoff?
JM: Well, we’re fine. It’s created more interest at that level to have the additional games — to have a semifinal and then a championship game. The good news is there’s a lot of good football teams that want to have a special trip and a reward at the end of the year, so our job is to make sure those other deserving programs have a nice trip. It’s not just for the players and the coaches. It’s for the fans, the families, the administration and the state that supports the school. There are a lot of reasons why there are so many bowl games. People love these trips.
TMD: This week, Jim Harbaugh said he would like to see the Playoff expanded to 16 teams. If that were the case, the Outback Bowl could be one of those added playoff games. What are your thoughts on that?
JM: That’s on (Harbaugh’s) wish list, and I think some other coaches may feel that way, but there’s a lot of people that don’t. You’ve got to be careful with expanding the playoff and asking the players to play two or three more games, then you start digging into the next semester. I just think we have to be cautious treating 18 to 22-year-old guys like professional football players. All of a sudden you’ve got to expand the number of games they’re playing, because you know they’re not going to reduce the number of regular season games.
We’re happy with where we are in this market as a New Year’s Day staple with the longest running title sponsor of any bowl game. Our game has created an economic impact in the market and is positively showcased in our community, which is terrific for everybody. This is working fine.
I disagree with coach Harbaugh, but you’re probably going to find most bowl people feel that way. You’ll see some coaches that want more games, and there’s a lot of coaches that do not under any circumstance want more games for their kids to have to play. Coach Harbaugh is certainly entitled to what he feels should happen, and we respect that.
TMD: Can you provide some insight into the selection process for the Outback Bowl?
JM: We watch all the games. Send people to Big Ten games. Send people to SEC games. We know what’s going on out there, and we know who gets to pick ahead of us. When it’s our opportunity, we present all the information and analytics to our board of directors. We say, ‘Okay, vote. Who wants Michigan? Who wants X, who wants Y?’
Once you get past the semifinal games and the New Year’s Six, you try to find the right matchup that works. You work it out with the conferences, and they agree to what they want and what the athletic directors want. It all eventually fits.
TMD: In your conversations with the Big Ten and SEC conferences, what factors are brought up during the selection process?
JM: Well there are all kinds of things. You like to have the traditional powers. You like to have the huge fan bases. Most importantly, you’ve got to have a successful team — a successful team that deserves an opportunity to go to a great New Year’s Day bowl game and play a big conference on the other side. Then you can start digging as deep as you want into all kinds of stuff, but you’ve got to make the best decision that you can, and try to find the best matchup that you can.
TMD: And more specifically for this year?
JM: When we presented the teams that were available, the board of directors had a selection committee that voted, the decision was made, and you move on. That’s it. We voted. ‘What do you guys want to do? Everybody raise your hands. Oh, this is what our group wants to do? Okay.’
We’re paying millions and millions of dollars for the right to make the selection. We always sort it out with the conference office. No matter who we take, someone’s going to be left behind, but next year they’re going to get the opportunity. It all goes around and around.
The transcript was edited for clarity.