Bowling for Chumps

How insiders use the college bowl system to loot American universities.

But while bowls violate every principle of philanthropy, state and city politicians are happy to look away. The games' nonprofit status may allow them to skirt taxes, but they do deliver built-in tourist traffic.

To ensure no one asks too many questions, the bowls fete these same politicians with receptions, comped tickets, and sideline passes. The Fiesta Bowl even paid for luxury legislator junkets to cities like Chicago and Boston.

The bowls do their best to cloak this strange approach to philanthropy. Both the Orange and Sugar bowls claim they do wonders for their cities' charities; for reasons unexplained, they just don't include those donations on their books. Meanwhile, bowls like the Cotton simply ignore a reporter's requests for comment.

Congrats, Coach Sark, you just won the Apple Cup! Now your employers get to subsidize tourism in San Antonio.
Jesse Beals SMI/Newscom
Congrats, Coach Sark, you just won the Apple Cup! Now your employers get to subsidize tourism in San Antonio.

Even the small number of bowls set up as for-profit enterprises claim to be charitable in spirit. At Houston's Meineke Car Care Bowl, one of seven games owned by ESPN, spokesman Zac Emmons is happy to note that $400,000 has been donated to the DePelchin Children's Center over the past five years. But he isn't authorized to reveal what percentage of the game's revenue went to charity—or how much executive director Heather Houston is paid.

ESPN network publicist Rachel Margolis won't talk numbers either: "We usually don't disclose any information related to revenue or wages for any of our bowls," she says.

Equally trapped in an altruistic mirage is the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco, sponsored by food giant Kraft. The bowl insinuates that it's part of Kraft's marketing campaign to give away 25 million meals a year. Spokesman Doug Kelly claims the bowl "donated the equivalent of 120,000 meals" in 2010. That's likely an overstatement. The game's own website says it gives away just one meal per ticket sold, and the Kraft is known for hosting pastures of empty seats. So it's not surprising that Kelly gets defensive when asked what percentage of the revenue goes to the hungry. "That's proprietary," he responds.

He's politely informed that, as a charity, the bowl is obligated to make such figures public. After all, Sports Business Journal reports that the game's CEO, Gary Cavalli, makes $377,475 a year, likely making him the hungriest of all. But Kelly is in no mood to provide details of the game's supposed largesse. He suddenly claims that he's been speaking off the record and that he can't be quoted.

The BCS's Hancock wisely downplays the beneficence angle, well aware that it's riddled with blather. Instead, he emphasizes the tourism advantages to host cities. He's right, of course. By forcing schools to write mammoth ticket checks—and contractually coercing teams to stay longer than they need to—bowls do wonders for warm-weather economies.

"There's no question bowl games benefit charities in their community," Hancock says. "From my perspective, the economic development to the community is significant. It's a blend. I think the people who talk about the bowls as nonprofits exclude the economic-development end."

Left unmentioned is why Washington state residents will be thrilled to see their tax money burned in San Antonio when the Huskies face Baylor in this year's Alamo Bowl. Or why University of Missouri students would have wanted to subsidize Tempe when the Tigers played the Insight last year. That's the problem with the insiders: The system rewards them so lavishly, they simply can't fathom that others might resent paying the freight.

College presidents could easily put a stop to the shell game. If they had the will. Which they don't.

They tend to be a lot like coaches, a job-jumping species forever on the hunt for more prestigious posts. This march to greater altitudes requires staying in the good graces of trustees and big donors, who enjoy free bowl vacations as much as everyone else. Besides, many presidents wield less institutional power than their own coaches, as Penn State's pedophilia scandal revealed. So they behave like congressmen, allowing their schools to be pillaged to preserve their political capital. Better to kick these decisions to athletic directors and conference commissioners.

And that's where the pitfalls begin.

"The bowl directors are a lot smarter than the athletic directors, because anyone who would agree to this deal is getting whomped," says Yahoo columnist Wetzel.

It's not that ADs are necessarily stupid. Let's just say they're incurious and not especially self-aware.

Most have spent years, if not decades, being chummy with bowl execs. When they're invited to events like the Fiesta Frolic, a weekend of splendor and golf in Phoenix—price tag: $387,421—they don't believe their allegiance is being purchased. It's just a swell time among old friends.

The same goes for the Orange Bowl's Summer Splash events. Last year's featured an "all-inclusive, three-night, four-day complimentary getaway" for 40 insiders and their guests, according to the invitation. They sailed the Caribbean, docked at a private island, and spent their days parasailing and "sipping delicious Coco Locos on a hammock." Don't forget the free pedicures.

"It's really an opportunity for us to bring key stakeholders together, whether conference people or folks from the schools, to come down to South Florida and to get a taste of what we have to offer," says Orange Bowl vice president Larry Wahl.

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