Eighteen bowl games in 15 days. Even the most avid football fan’s eyes glazed over. Nevertheless, Nashville is doing its damnedest to add a 19th Division I-A game to the crowded college bowl schedule in 1998. If the National Collegiate Athletic Association says OK, the so-called Music City Bowl could bring teams from the Mid-American and Southeastern conferences to a December game at Vanderbilt Stadium. In 1999 the game would move across the river to the new stadium.
So what if Nashville’s December weather is frightful, with an average high that stays below 50? Butch Spyridon, executive vice president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, sunnily notes that fans turn out in places like Buffalo, Denver, and Chicago in far worse weather.
But Nashville’s rumbling, bumbling, and stumbling drive for a bowl game isn’t about the weather. Instead, it’s another attempt to prove that Nashville can be something more than a speck on the national sports map. It’s an attempt to schedule yet another event for the $280 million stadium that will be arising on the East Bank over the next two years.
And it’s an attempt to bring thousands of tourists to town, loaded with holiday green, at a time when the tourism business is at its ebb.
The idea for a college bowl game in Nashville didn’t exactly originate here. But then, neither did the idea of Nashville having an NFL team. It was the Oilers, you’ll recall, who approached us in 1995.
The talk about a bowl game began in a roundabout way too. The Mid-American Conference (MAC) last year approached the Sports Authority, the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau and the Nashville Sports Council, a partnership between the city and Chamber of Commerce, to see if there was interest in organizing a bowl game in the yet-to-be-built stadium.
The MAC’s five-year contract with the Las Vegas Bowl was in its last year, and conference president Jerry Ippoliti was looking for a bowl game that was closer to home and one that could promise a bigger payday. Southeastern Conference president Roy Kramer got into the act, hoping to get one more SEC team to a bowl so that he could sweeten his conference’s coffers.
If the NCAA’s Special Events Committee sanctions the game and if the conferences agree to participate, the MAC champion or highest-ranked team would play the SEC’s No. 6 or sixth highest-ranked team. Spokesmen for both conferences, however, remain noncommittal about playing in Nashville. They say simply that their respective conferences are exploring options.
The MAC is also entertaining a proposal to send a team to a bowl at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich., if the NCAA sanctions that game. And negotiations are still under way for the MAC to continue its participation in the Las Vegas Bowl, where the conference has been sending its regular-season champion for the past five years.
The Music City Bowl is envisioned as a regional event at a central site for both conferences. Nashville is no more than a day’s drive from any conference school.
And there are no illusions about the Nashville bowl game becoming a national showcase with a multimillion-dollar payout. Each team would earn the NCAA-required minimum, $750,000.
Last year, three bowl gamesMiami’s Carquest Bowl, Honolulu’s Aloha Bowl, and Tucson’s Copper Bowlpaid each team the NCAA minimum. The Liberty Bowl in Memphis and the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La., paid $800,000. The remaining 13 bowls paid $1 million or more to each participating university, topping out at more than $8.7 million paid to each of this year’s Sugar Bowl teams.
Negotiations with the conferences also involve a national television contract, probably with ESPN or Turner Broadcasting, and a commitment from each conference to sell 12,000 tickets.
The Nashville Sports Council estimates that 24,000 out-of-towners could translate into $2.5 million to $3 million in economic impact at a time of year when the tourist trade is slow.
But even if the conferences agree to guarantee 24,000 tickets, that doesn’t mean they’ll sell them all, nor does it mean that 24,000 or more visitors will arrive in time for Country Christmas at Opryland.
Cumulatively, this season’s 18 Division I-A bowl games had nearly 226,000 empty seats, enough no-shows to fill Vanderbilt Stadium about five-and-a-half times or to fillor not fillthe new stadium more than three times.
Yet overall, this year’s bowl games attracted nearly 800,000 people, an average of 44,000 a game. That would be a respectable showing for Nashville, filling about two-thirds of the new stadium’s seats.
The least-attended game this year, however, was the Dec. 19 Las Vegas Bowl with Big West Conference champion Nevada-Reno and MAC champ Ball State. The 10,118 bodies had plenty of room in the 40,000-seat Sam Boyd Stadium.
That’s 29,882 empty seats, three-quarters of the stadium. It’s not as if Las Vegas needs a bowl game to bring in visitors, but that is a lot of no-shows, nonetheless.
Organizers of the Music City Bowl contend that, in Nashville, the game would be the attraction. The Second Avenue entertainment district, the Delta at Opryland Hotel, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Grand Ole Opry, and other attractions would all play supporting roles. They also argue that Vegas is a long way from Ball State’s hometown, Muncie, Ind., or any of the conference’s other member universities in Ohio and Michigan.
The MAC is hardly a tradition-laden conference like the SEC, Big 10, Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 12, or Pac 10. Its teams play in small stadiums, and rarely do any of them crack the Top 25. Their fans just aren’t as enthusiastic as the ones we’re used to seeing in Knoxville, Gainesville, and Tuscaloosaor even over at Vanderbilt.
The MAC features such little-knowns as Akron, Ball State, Bowling Green, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan, Kent State, Miami of Ohio, Ohio University, and Toledo. Next season, the MAC splits into two divisions, adding Northern Illinois and Marshall, which moves up from Division 1-AA.
The SEC already sends its top five teams to bowls, this year earning the conference $15.3 million. National champion Florida led the way with an $8.7 million payday in the Sugar Bowl. Tennessee earned $3 million in the Citrus Bowl, Alabama got $1.5 million from the Outback Bowl, LSU got $1.3 million from the Peach Bowl, and Auburn got $800,000 from the Independence Bowl.
A sixth bowl game would mean that half the 12-member conference would go bowling. The SEC is a strong football conference most years, and it did win all five of its bowl games this season. South Carolina was the SEC’s sixth-place finisher this year with a 6-5 record, equal that of five other teams that did go to bowls this season: Stanford, Michigan State, Texas Tech, Virginia, and California.
“We certainly would have some interest in a bowl in Nashville,” says Mark Womack of the SEC. “It would be geographically advantageous for our member institutions.” Not to mention another three-quarters of $1 million for the conference coffers.
The MAC is trying to strengthen its image, dividing into two divisions, as the SEC, Big 12, and Western Athletic Conference have done, then staging a nationally televised championship game between the two division champions. It’s a ploy to boost conference recognition, leading to bigger paydays and better recruiting.
The paperwork must be in to the NCAA by Jan. 15. Accompanying it will be a $2 million letter of credit put together by First American Bank, NationsBank, SunTrust, First Union Bank, First Tennessee Bank, and Union Planters Bank. The NCAA’s Special Events Committee will take up the application at its April 21-25 meeting in Orlando, Fla.
Spyridon says no marketing studies have been undertaken to gauge local support, and so far no corporate sponsors have been lined up. But he’s confident that Nashville will support a college bowl.
“The conferences approached us because of our geographic location and the attractiveness of the city. Maybe because we live here, we’ve become a little jaded about how attractive our city is to outsiders. Nashville is a tourist destination and is very attractive to these conferences,” he says.
As to whether Nashville’s fall sports calendar is getting a little crowded with the Oilers beginning play here in 1999, the possibility of an NHL team in ’98-’99, and various minor leagues and collegiate sports, Sports Council executive director Jenny Hannon just chuckles.
“People used to complain there were hardly any sports here in Nashville,” she says. “Now they’re worried there’s going to be too many. Well, that will be a nice problem to have.”