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Researchers Weigh Value of Less-Prestigious Bowl Games

Participating in lower-tier bowls does little to drive enrollment but adds slightly to the bottom line, new research suggests, countering the notion that postseason football, outside of the highest-rated games, is a money drain.

Bowl participation also does not lead to poorer classroom performance by players, a finding that contradicts previous studies, which found that athletes who put in extra practice hours during the postseason often did worse in their classes.

The study–“The Effects of Bowl Game Participation on Athletes and Institutions,” which is to be presented this week at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education–looked at the bottom quarter of the 32 or so bowls played every year since 2003.

More than half of the roughly 120 institutions in the Football Bowl Subdivision receive a bowl invitation every year (this year 70 teams will play), with the less-prestigious games often contested between teams with 6-6 or 7-5 records. The glut of games has led to questions about the financial and other costs for many of the participating teams.

Bradley R. Curs, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Missouri at Columbia, expected that bowl participation would boost enrollment and have a negative impact on players’ academic success. He also figured the lower-level games would prove to be a financial burden.

“There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence in the press suggesting that programs are losing money because they have to guarantee buying so many tickets,” he said. Often, programs can’t sell all of those tickets, in some cases reportedly losing millions of dollars.

Over all, that wasn’t what he and his fellow researchers–Casandra Harper and Charles Frey, also of the University of Missouri–discovered.

“We found no difference in net revenue for going [to bowl games] or not,” he said. “The sum benefits may outweigh the extra costs, so it’s basically a wash.”

According to their analysis, participating in a lower-level bowl increases an athletic department’s net revenue by $60,000 to $130,000 within a year of going to the game.

The researchers hedged their findings, in part because they could not calculate the precise costs of attending bowl games. (Conferences know how much athletic departments bring in and spend on bowls because they divvy up whatever payout there is among member institutions, but the leagues don’t make those figures public.)

Instead, the researchers analyzed total net revenue for athletic departments, looking at which programs attended bowls and which ones did not, using a regression-discontinuity analysis to evaluate the financial effects of bowls.

The researchers found that overall expenses were about 1.5-percent higher for athletic departments that went to bowls compared with those that didn’t. Revenue for bowl participants was 1.6 percent higher than for programs that did not qualify.

Dan Fulks, a professor of accounting at Transylvania University who works with the NCAA to analyze institutional finances, said he did not have any hard data on bowls. But he doubts if any except those in the Bowl Championship Series are bringing in money.

“It’s pretty well known that you lose money on bowl games unless it’s a BCS bowl,” he said. “Bowl games are losers.”

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