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Will Gator Bowl fall victim to lack of interest and attendance?

Florida Football Insiders

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Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no doubt that the College Football Playoff has made the end of bowl season dramatic and gives a finality that they haven’t had, previously. However, the explosion in the last 15 or so years of “participation trophy” type bowl games (you know the ones where at least one or both teams don’t have a winning record) has begun to have a ripple effect.

Many of them are suffering at the turnstiles and almost all of the lesser ones would have already been out of business, if not for ESPN.

Oh, did we mention “The World Wide Leader in Sports?” Yes, ESPN owns many of the bowls outright, and has the television rights to almost all of them, including the CFP. They are largely responsible for the dearth of extra bowl games that virtually no one attends, and a lot of the teams play almost out of obligation to their conference, etc.

And so, while they’ve created “built in” December TV programming, the games are floundering.

And unfortunately, in North Florida, and maybe soon in Central and West Central Florida, their traditional bowl games may succumb to what’s happening.

In Jacksonville, the Gator Bowl, which has been played for 70+ years is in trouble.

As the Florida Times-Union wrote about Saturday, the game has been trending down in the 2010’s, but the last two year’s the game has had just over 40,000 in announced attendance. That means over 30,000 seats are unsold. There were just over 41,000 there on December 30th for Mississippi State’s win (above) over Louisville last year.

The one plus is, ESPN has been paying the schools $3.5 million each to attract top teams for the “Power Five” conferences. The downside, is that money doesn’t last forever on games that aren’t drawing and in the Gator Bowl’s case, get lost in the New Year’s weekend shuffle.

And the Gator Bowl’s conference agreements are about to up in two years, as well. So it’s no easy challenge, to re-negotiate and attract the top conferences and teams. As Jacksonville Sports Council Executive Director, Rick Catlett told the paper,

“What we’re trying to do is figure out a financial model that’s beneficial for the teams and us,” said Catlett. “We’re talking about revenue sharing, so in years we don’t meet our budget, they protect our downside.

“We have to change the model to be more of a partnership. Before, we guaranteed [conferences] a bunch of money and they told us what teams we were getting. It worked for 70 years, but the model changed when the CFP came in.”

Now, the Citrus Bowl in Orlando and the Outback Bowl in Tampa, while having the same declining attendance in recent years, have more solid footing, for now. That’s with getting a higher priority of choice from the SEC, Big Ten, ACC, etc. They are also locked in every year on New Year’s day in the early afternoon.

For Example, the Gator Bowl is being played this year on New Year’s Eve, which is another attendance killer, especially with the locals, for a non playoff semi-final.

For 40 years, the game was a weeknight match-up in Jacksonville and maybe that will end up being something that’s considered to help in the new financial model. As the payout won’t be as much, there won’t be as much strain if the game doesn’t have a ton of fans.

With at least 10, conservatively, of the fleet of bowls in jeopardy of being gone at some point soon, it would be a shame that the tradition rich Gator Bowl becomes one of them.

Still, the warning signs are there.

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