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What's different about college football bowl games this year


Tomorrow, college football fans will see the University of Alabama and the University of Georgia square off in the national championship game. And while there's always big buzz around big games like this, this year, a lot of the headlines have been about something else. They've been about who is not planning to play. There doesn't seem to be a definitive list, but at least 29 star players have announced that they will forego post-season bowl games to prepare for the upcoming NFL draft. And while this isn't exactly new, something seems different this year, especially because this takes place against the backdrop of big changes in college football, including newly acquired rights for players to make money off the field.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called longtime college football writer Spencer Hall. He is now the co-host of the "Shutdown Fullcast," and he is with us now from Atlanta. Spencer Hall, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

SPENCER HALL: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: First, some people may not be aware, but players electing to not play in these post-season games is relatively new. So could you just talk a little bit about why bowl games have been considered important? And what's the shift been in recent years?

HALL: The importance of bowl games used to be municipal. Bowl games were a great source of income and, I will say, buzz for places like Miami, which started the Orange Bowl, which was named because that's what everybody thought, you know, was the only thing that grew in Florida. So they were a nice way for communities and cities to really promote themselves and to get into boosterism while also staging a football game that everybody would show up for. And for teams, they were a great reward, you know? And there were only - in the late '60s, early '70s, we're talking like eight bowl games, maybe 10 bowl games for all of the teams in college football. So really, not a whole lot of people got to participate in them.

Flash-forward to the present, where we now have over 40 bowl games, depending on cancellations or what's going to happen. And they still are a big reward for players, but there are more of them. They are simply not as valuable as they might have been if there were 10 of them now.

MARTIN: So last week, Kirk Herbstreit, a co-host on ESPN's "College GameDay" - he's a former college player, and he's a big voice in the sport, I think it's fair to say - you know, criticized players who sit out bowl games, saying that they don't love the game as much as players in past generations. I know this isn't the first time we've seen a commentator or former player or a coach kind of - I don't know how else to put this - try to shame players into playing games. I'm just interested in your take on this.

HALL: Yeah. I heartily disagree, strenuously. How many adverbs you want to put on that? I disagree because this is now very much a business. And it's a business where I think a lot of people will dismiss players doing this by saying, well, maybe - this player isn't good enough to opt out. This player isn't good enough to skip a bowl game. This player doesn't love football. These are all playing-feelings-ball, right? That's not a real sport. We're just talking about feelings and about, I think, somebody being mad that this is no longer the way it was.

When you start putting money in the system, that changes people's calculus. That's precisely what they're doing. That's why you have players like Missouri running back Tyler Badie or Arkansas' Treylon Burks or likely first-round pick Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux - that's the reason they skipped their bowl games because a potential injury in a meaningless exhibition, they're going to skip. And they have the power to do that now. And if somebody says, does that diminish the bowl games, the argument is, yeah, it does. It diminishes the value of the bowl games. But they don't reciprocate by giving part of that value to the people participating in them.

MARTIN: Well, to that end, though, the Supreme Court said that - last summer - that college players can now make money outside of the sport, selling their name, image and likeness. And we've seen players like the University of Alabama's quarterback, Heisman-winning quarterback Bryce Young signed a deal with Cash App. His in-state rival, Auburn University's quarterback Bo Nix, is now endorsing a local sweet tea brand. So of all these changes, I mean, what do you think is the most significant in altering the sport and in what way?

HALL: I love these deals because they're increasingly regional. And I love the regionality of the sport. So I love to - I get to explain it to them. They're like, it's just tea with sugar in it. And I'm like, yep. Yep, that's all it is. And it's great. And Bo Nix endorses it. And they pay him to do it. And that's kind of the way the free market should run. With NIL...

MARTIN: Name, image and likeness, for people who don't follow sport that closely.

HALL: Yes. NIL, I think, on the whole, has helped players with a sense of empowerment. I think players feel like - that, yeah, maybe the wolf isn't at the door quite so often or so close when it comes to how am I going to pay for things? How am I going to survive? The previous setup, a lot of places, you know, the support over the summer was intermittent at best from programs and from scholarships. So players would have to, you know, go home. Players actually complained about, you know, sometimes being hungry because they didn't quite get as much food at home as they got at the program.

Now, I think with just the injection of a small fraction of the sport's worth into cash for players, you've seen their understanding of their own power change dramatically. And that's not just, you know, the - like politically, that was true. You know, in the summer of Black Lives Matter, football players, you know, tied labor to that and did some pretty, you know, visible, powerful demonstrations of that, you know, both online and in real life. I think that economically, when you just talk about the ability to make your own decisions, it is both impressive that NIL has done this. And it's kind of sad because the amount of money that it takes to give a player that feeling of independence, you know, it may not seem like much, but it is enough. And that to me, when play - when coaches are getting paid, you know, $9 million a year, that, to me, is the saddest part because they're getting so little of it, even with improvement.

MARTIN: And before we let you go - and this is a difficult question to answer, but do you think that the fans are missing? Is there something that should be said about that?

HALL: I want to say in theory, yes. But that's not the story ratings are telling about how bowl games are doing in this scenario. That, to me, would be the big indicator of whether fans were losing something, right? Are we still watching? Live sports is still the biggest draw. College football's numbers by and large so far in the 2021-2022 bowl season, they're as good or better than ever in terms of people tuning in. We'll see if that happens if we get - you know, through an Alabama, Georgia rematch because, spoiler for anyone who does not know, we have seen this movie multiple times in the past three to four years, OK? So I think that, yeah, in theory, you - fans would be losing something by not getting to see their favorite players. If they want to see them, though - this is how paying for things works - they can go buy an NFL ticket. That's where they're going to be next in many of these cases.

MARTIN: That was sportswriter Spencer Hall. He's a longtime watcher of college football. And he's co-host of the "Shutdown Fullcast." Spencer Hall, thanks so much for talking to us.

HALL: All right. Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.