How College Football Bowls Boost the Economy

New research commissioned by the Football Bowl Association finds that even small-stakes college bowl games give local economies a significant boost. But the bowl system faces some challenges ahead.

This time of year is notable for three things: the holidays, the gift-giving, and (of course) college football.

Over the next three weeks, fans will get to tune in to many bowls of many sizes—large, medium, and small. Sure, there’s the Rose Bowl and the Cotton Bowl (along with, reassuringly, a relatively new playoff system). But Friday’s Dollar General Bowl, in Mobile, Alabama, shouldn’t be forgotten, nor should the Foster Farms Bowl on December 28.

Corralling all these games together is the Football Bowl Association (FBA), which recently commissioned a study on the economic impact of college bowls, conducted by researchers at George Washington University and San Diego State University. The researchers found [PDF] an industry that generates a billion and a half dollars annually—impressive, considering it covers just a few weeks out of the year.

Much of that came at the high end, where individual games during the 2015-2016 season produced as much as $93.7 million in economic impact, but even smaller games involving lower-tier teams drew as much as $12.6 million. In the 2015-2016 season, the average bowl game generated $40.3 million in economic impact in cities around the country.

“Among the different groupings, the findings were very consistent and show that there is a significant economic impact on host cities especially where the bigger games are played,” noted Carl Winston, program director of SDSU’s Payne School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, in a news release. “It also shows that the FBA is pretty savvy about picking the teams.”

According to FBA, last year’s bowls filled 77 percent of available seats, with big events such as the Rose Bowl drawing nearly 95,000 fans. And they tended to stick around beyond the game, giving a bump to the local community. “What we thought would happen did happen,” Winston added. “It confirmed our instincts.”

Challenges To Watch

Despite those findings, the college bowl industry could face some challenges in the years to come. Among them:

NFL-bound players opting out. Two star players, LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, recently announced that they will skip their bowl games—understandably, given that as some players, like former Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith, have been seriously injured playing in bowls. FBA Executive Director Wright Waters suggested to the Associated Press that such decisions were “in some cases kind of narrow-sighted, because they might have the opportunity to enhance their [stock].”

Not enough sponsorships. This year, six of the 41 bowl games have failed to earn any sponsorships. Many of the big-brand bowls have gone through numerous sponsors in their history—for example, Capital One recently changed its sponsor tie from the Citrus Bowl to the Orange Bowl. In comments to USA Today, Waters emphasized that bowl organizers are working harder for their sponsorships. “It’s becoming more difficult to sell, and you can speculate on why,” he said. “But people are out there really hustling, and they have to hustle because the payouts to the schools and conferences are going up. Everything costs more.”

(Michael Li/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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