Gene Frenette: Tough Sell -- Gator Bowl needs planets to align perfectly for CFP access
For the remainder of this decade, providing he stays in the job that long, Greg McGarity is essentially being asked to push a 1,000-pound boulder uphill.
McGarity, the former athletic director at Georgia and previously an 18-year associate AD at Florida, is in his first year as the Gator Bowl Sports CEO and president.
His primary responsibility is trying to sell the annual TaxSlayer Gator Bowl, with this year’s December 31 matchup (11 a.m.) between No. 23-ranked Texas A&M and No. 20 Wake Forest at TIAA Bank Field being the lead appetizer for the College Football Playoff later that day.
While it sounds like a cool job, and it certainly has some perks, the truth is McGarity’s quest to restore the prestige of the Gator Bowl faces some tough obstacles, just as it did for predecessor Rick Catlett.
His ultimate goal is for the Gator Bowl to be part of an expanded CFP, but conference commissioners and presidents have yet to sign off on any increase above the current four-team format. A meeting in Dallas three weeks ago reached no consensus on either an 8-team or the originally proposed 12-team playoff format.
Until CFP expansion becomes a reality, some bowl executives whose game is not connected to the CFP or part of the New Year’s Day 6 lineup often struggle to have over half of their stadium seats occupied. Eight of the 33 second-tier and third-tier bowls were below 50 percent capacity in 2019, the last pre-COVID bowl season, according to an Associated Press survey.
The Gator Bowl hasn’t sunk that low yet, but getting fans to buy tickets and fill seats is a greater challenge than ever.
“If we can move the needle over 40,000, that’d be great for us,” McGarity said. “I think it’s important to demonstrate community support in all areas, whether it’s a charity effort or support of the game. That’s one thing we’re trying to focus on. We’re making progress there, but we have a long way to go.”
So far, McGarity says the Gator has sold or distributed just over 30,000 tickets, which includes corporate purchases for tickets that will be given to underprivileged youth. Getting to the 40K mark in the remaining 10 days is critical in McGarity’s mind for one reason: he wants Jacksonville to establish a consistent record of support to build a case for hosting a potential future CFP game.
“The goal is to elevate our status,” said McGarity. “A lot of that will be determined by what the playoff structure looks like. We want to be in a position as a potential site either for the national championship game or however elevating our bowl status is defined.”
Getting right matchup
Most second-tier and third-tier bowls have seen their revenues diminish in varying degree since the 4-team CFP debuted for the 2014 season. The playoff made all non-New Year’s 6 bowls seem less prestigious, creating more of a separation between the haves and have-nots.
With attendance decreasing for many bowls, they must depend on conferences and television partner ESPN delivering the right matchup to make it easier to sell tickets.
It doesn’t always happen. Since bowls have little input anymore on which teams they get, attendance is often a function of luck of the draw. It’s pretty much been hit-or-miss for the Gator Bowl.
Their highest attended game since the CFP came along was Tennessee’s 23-22 win over Indiana in 2019, which drew a whopping 61,789. The three games prior to that one averaged out to an attendance of 40,872, numbers the Gator Bowl hadn’t seen since the 1950s when the event was in its infancy.
Unquestionably, this year’s game is a tough sell. When Texas A&M played North Carolina State three years ago, which was Jimbo Fisher’s first year as head coach, that game only attracted a crowd of 38,206, the lowest since 1956. Now the Aggies are playing Wake Forest, which has sold its allotment of 3,000 tickets, but lacks the football brand of most other ACC programs.
“At our bowl level, there ought to be more of regional mix there,” said McGarity. “We would prefer to have teams that can drive here within six to eight hours.”
The Gator Bowl was at the mercy of being assigned somebody from a three-team pool in the ACC (Clemson, North Carolina State and Wake Forest) and a three-team pool in the SEC (Arkansas, Kentucky and Texas A&M). The Cheez-It Bowl had first priority with its ACC pick and took Clemson off the table. The Citrus Bowl took Kentucky with the first SEC choice.
Since Arkansas had never played in Tampa, the SEC sent the Razorbacks there and that put Texas A&M in Jacksonville. With NC State having played in the Gator Bowl two of the past three years, the ACC granted the Wolfpack’s wish to go to San Diego for the Holiday Bowl against UCLA.
While the Gator does have the benefit of getting two ranked teams, it also has a marketing challenge because this season feels like a letdown for the Aggies, who have also paused their Gator Bowl practices due to COVID-19 issues. A&M knocked off No. 1-ranked Alabama on October 8, but lost two of its last three games to Ole Miss and LSU.
Gasparilla strikes gold
All the bowl games can do is hope they get a matchup that helps drive attendance and television ratings.
It appears the big winner among the lower-tier games this year could be the Gasparilla Bowl in Tampa, which hit the mother lode when it landed Florida (6-6) to go against UCF (8-4) Thursday night at Raymond James Stadium. Once that game was announced, the event sold out in a week (capacity 65,828).
So here’s one of the least recognized bowl games, which has only existed since 2008 when it was known as the St. Petersburg Bowl, possibly having one of the top-5 crowds among the 42 bowls. The game’s previous high attendance was 28,987 for UCF’s win over Marshall in 2019. The Gasparilla Bowl had not drawn more than 16,363 spectators the previous four years.
But with so much chatter in recent years about Florida not playing UCF once the Knights became a Group of 5 power, and then the Gators signing on for a three-game set that starts in 2024, the stars aligned perfectly for the Gasparilla Bowl with its SEC-AAC conference tie-in.
“After years of mediocrity, they knocked it out of the park this year,” McGarity said. “They got a dream matchup.”
No doubt, the Gator Bowl might have sold a minimum 10,000 more tickets with Florida in its game, but the Gators’ record didn’t allow them access to get to Jacksonville.
Beyond working feverishly to get more people in the seats at TIAA Bank Field for this year’s game, McGarity is also thinking long-term. While it’s a long shot at this point, he desperately wants to make his mark by helping make Jacksonville a CFP destination.
He has an important ally in Jaguars’ owner Shad Khan, whose franchise will soon be making a push with the city for a renovated TIAA Bank Field. That would add to the Jaguars’ game-day experience, along with plans for the Shipyards development and other amenities for Khan’s proposed sports entertainment district.
Khan said last week that with the expectation of CFP expansion, “we got to have a stadium that qualifies for that.”
McGarity loves hearing that because every venue for the CFP national title game and semifinals is a destination site. Jacksonville is nowhere close to that right now.
“If we don’t have improvements in the stadium or the entertainment, then we don’t have a shot [at any CFP game],” said McGarity.
Between trying to promote the Gator Bowl with the local community and pushing to land a seat at the CFP table, it’s an uphill battle for McGarity.
If only college football in Jacksonville was as easy a sell as the Florida-Georgia game.
firstname.lastname@example.org: (904) 359-4540