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Freedom Bowl Director Looks to Begin and End Season With Football

Times Staff Writer

In 1984, when the U.S. Supreme Court voided the National Collegiate Athletic Assn.'s college football television monopoly--making the games plentiful and cheap--schools had to come to grips with a new era underlined in red ink.

It was George Orwell’s “1984" in reverse. Big Brother was no longer watching, and that was the problem.

Before deregulation, there were only so many college football games on the air, and like anything that is rare, they were valuable. But when the courts opened the gates, and every conference could cut its own deal, the value of the games fell through the floor. And the colleges and bowls that depended on TV money began to learn new phrases for a new age.

Can you say budget deficit?

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The Freedom Bowl could, and it was just getting started.

Dark clouds encircled Anaheim Stadium on the night of Dec. 26, 1984, and it rained long and hard on Freedom Bowl I. Only 24,093 braved the weather to watch Iowa defeat Texas, 55-17. To make matters worse, MetroSports/TCS, which syndicated the game’s television rights, went belly-up owing the Freedom Bowl $340,000.

“That first year was rough,” Tom Starr, Freedom Bowl executive director, said. “It tested our will.”

Four years later, the Freedom Bowl has yet to recover from the devastations of 1984. The bowl is still making payments on a $250,000 interest-free loan it secured from the city of Anaheim in June, 1986. Though it has tripled its local corporate sponsorships, the bowl’s $515,000 per team payout remains near the bottom of the 18-game postseason lineup, and it is no closer to lining up a title sponsor than it was a year ago.

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But Starr has an idea.

In an effort to increase the Freedom Bowl’s profile in an already crowded market that grows to 20 games in 1989, Starr would like to add a preseason, Kickoff Classic-style game. Not as a replacement to the Freedom Bowl postseason game, but as an addition. A billboard to get some national attention in a rather unexploited time slot.

“It’s a subject I’ve broached with our board of directors and some athletic directors, and they think it’s something we should consider very strongly,” Starr said. “Everyone seems to think it’s something we should consider.”

But even if the Freedom Bowl decided it wanted to start a preseason game, it probably would take two years to get NCAA approval and line up a sponsor and a TV deal.

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“It’s something we’re very interested in,” Starr said. “But it’s still in the talking stages. It’s not going to happen overnight, if at all.”

NCAA Executive Director Dick Schultz expressed skepticism when asked about the concept.

“I’m not sure how the membership would look at that,” he said. “The window created for the Kickoff Classic was unique. It wasn’t the aim of the membership to create another bowl season. And certainly, if we sanction a second, who’s to stop someone from wanting to start a third or a fourth?”

What’s so attractive about the preseason, anyway?

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The preseason offers the dual distinction of being tested (by the 5-year-old Kickoff Classic in East Rutherford, N.J.) and uncrowded. Another preseason bowl game could garner a big-time sponsor and a lucrative TV contract if it proved that it could attract two big-name teams every year.

“There would be so many good teams to chose from,” Starr said. “I think we would be very attractive to all the top teams. Look at all we offer: the big media center, all the sights, and some of the best high school football in the country. This is a great area to recruit.”

But recruiting two top-caliber teams to play in the Freedom Bowl has not been so easy. The rules are different in the postseason.

The pecking order among college bowls is determined by tradition and money, and without one you can’t get the other. Unless, of course, you find a corporate sponsor willing to share your losses.

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The Sunkist Fiesta Bowl showed the way two years ago when it grabbed Penn State and Miami from the Orange Bowl. Nine of the 18 postseason games now have title sponsors, and at least one other expects to sign a sponsor by bowl season.

“We are actively looking for a sponsor,” Starr said. “We are in discussions with several different companies, but none of the discussions are very serious right now. This year’s game is out, I’m almost certain of that. Getting a sponsor is important to us in a long-range sense, though I believe we are strong enough in other areas to be able to survive without one.”

Obtaining a sponsor is difficult for many reasons. It goes back to the paradox that trails the Freedom Bowl at every turn.

“Being in Southern California is a trade-off,” Starr said. “In some ways, it helps us, in some ways, it hurts us. Selling out a game in this area would be a major accomplishment. There’s always something else to do in L.A. But we have made steady progress.” Only when UCLA defeated Brigham Young, 31-10, in front of 51,422 in 1986 has the Freedom Bowl even come close to selling out Anaheim Stadium. Last year, 33,261 watched Arizona State edge Air Force, 33-28.

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“I won’t say I’m happy at where we’re at,” Starr said. “But we have survived and maintained a stability that some other, more established bowls haven’t. So that’s something. We need to get our payout up, because that’s an area that’s becoming increasingly more important to money-conscious ADs.”

Only the California, Independence, Bluebonnet and Aloha bowls pay less than the Freedom Bowl. And the California, because of its agreement with the Big West and Mid-American conferences, is not required to meet the NCAA minimum of $500,000 per team.

The other three have been in and out of financial trouble since the Supreme Court ruling, and because the Bluebonnet still has not met last year’s financial obligations, its position on this season’s schedule is tenuous.

But the slate becomes even more crowded next year when two new NCAA-sanctioned bowl games will be played. Before the Supreme Court ruled the NCAA’s football monopoly represented a restraint of trade, the college governing body arbitrarily limited the number of postseason games. After the TV ruling, the NCAA’s lawyers advised that such limits also would fall within that new definition of restraint of trade.

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“We’re not in the business of determining how many games the market can support,” Schultz said. “From a legal standpoint, we have to allow a game to go forward as long as it meets the standard criteria. It’s unfortunate, and I think the result is going to be a smaller group of games in the very near future.”

Can the Freedom Bowl be one of those?

“I’m confident we can survive and even prosper,” Starr said. “But it won’t be easy, and there’s bound to be attrition. You can’t go on adding games on every block without someone going under. Sooner or later, there’s bound to be another Cherry Bowl.”

The Cherry Bowl tried to defy the laws of the jungle, and it died in the process. Born along with the Freedom Bowl in 1984, the Detroit-based game obtained General Motors as a corporate sponsor for 1985 and promised a per-team payout of $1.2 million, which ranked fifth among all bowls. But then General Motors backed out and the Cherry Bowl couldn’t pay its bills.

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Today, it lives on only as a reminder of what can happen to dreamers in a bottom-line business.

“That’s something that’s never going to happen to us,” Starr said. “We’ve never promised anything that we couldn’t deliver. We know our place, and our limits.”


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