Gator Bowl Losing Prestige
By Garrett Strunk
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The Gator Bowl has seen a steady decline in television ratings and attendance over the last decade.
Remember when the Gator Bowl was a nice consolation prize for not making it into one of the four BCS bowls? Not long ago, the now 66-year old Gator Bowl had huge sponsors like Mazda, Toyota and Outback. It also used to regularly feature two nationally ranked teams, and it was not unusual to occasionally see a top 10 team particpating.
All of the things that used to make the Gator Bowl appealing now seem like a distant memory. Sponsorship? TaxSlayer.com. Nothing says “irrelevant bowl” like a "dot-com" bowl sponsor. Top 25 matchups? None since the 2005 season. In fact, last season's Gator Bowl contest featured two teams that were barely bowl eligible. Even the huge fan bases of Ohio State and the school just up the road in Gainesville could not prevent the Gator Bowl from having the second-lowest attendance and television ratings in recent memory.
2011 season: Ohio State vs Florida, TV ratings = 1.85, attendance = 61,312
2010 season: #21 Mississippi State vs Michigan, TV ratings = 1.71, attendance = 68,325
2009 season: #18 West Virginia vs Florida State, TV ratings = 3.95, attendance = 84,129
2008 season: Nebraska vs Clemson, TV ratings = 4.10, attendance = 67,282
2007 season: #21 Virginia vs Texas Tech, TV ratings = 2.60, attendance = 60,243
2006 season: #13 West Virginia vs Georgia Tech: TV ratings = 3.87, attendance = 67,714
2005 season: #12 Virginia Tech vs #15 Louisville: TV ratings = 3.93, attendance = 63,780
2004 season: #17 Florida State vs West Virginia: TV ratings = 4.0, attendance = 70,112
2003 season: #20 Maryland vs #23 West Virginia: TV ratings = 4.2, attendance = 78,892
2002 season: #11 Notre Dame vs #17 NC State: TV ratings = 6.2, attendance = 73,491
2001 season: #15 Virginia Tech vs #24 Florida State: TV ratings = 6.9, attendance = 72,202
So then, what caused the Gator bowl to go into decline? Some of it was self-inflicted and some of it was caused by a perfect storm of business related circumstances.
The ACC and Gator Bowl seemed to have had a good relationship over the years when they came to an agreement in 1996 to send the ACC and Big East runner-up to the Gator Bowl through 2006. You can see from the limited sample above how many top 25 games were played during that span of time. As a result, the attendance was high and the ratings were good.
Then, the ACC watered down the Big East by taking three of their top football programs - Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech. A few years later, the ACC agreed to terms with the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, giving it the first pick after the Orange Bowl, while the Gator Bowl got the second pick. To counter the watering down of the Big East, the Gator Bowl also aligned themselves with the Big 12, where, in a four-year period, they would choose two teams from the Big East and two teams from the Big 12 to play the representative from the ACC. After all of the higher-priority bowls made their choices, there was usually nothing left to choose from other than mediocre teams, which explains why attendance and ratings began to suffer.
The relationship between the Gator Bowl committee and the ACC started to strain, part of it caused by the fact that the ACC Championship Game, which was played in Jacksonville from 2005-07, did not make as much money for the Gator Bowl as they anticipated. In an attempt to recoup some of these losses, the Gator Bowl took a shot back at the ACC, using the final two years (2008-09) of their contractual agreement to select schools from the ACC that would bring them the most cash, rather than the most deserving teams. The short-term money grab seemed to work to a degree when the matchup between WVU vs FSU in Bobby Bowden's finale broke attendance records and had solid television ratings. In hindsight, however, those last two games diminished the product on the field, caused a rift with the ACC and gave the Gator Bowl committee a false sense that they had struck gold.
After the bridge was burnt with the ACC, the Gator Bowl went in a new direction, aligning themselves with the Big Ten and SEC in hopes that the inclusion of the nation's two premiere conferences would revive the game. However, the declining attendance and low television ratings from the past two Gator Bowls seem to indicate that the new alliance has been a colossal failure up to this point. We'll wait and see if this trend continues in the coming seasons. If it does, then expect another Gator Bowl shake up to occur, as this once proud bowl tries to salvage what little prestige it has remaining.