Recent College Football Postseasons
Show Why (40+) Bowl Games Proliferate
(These Numbers May Surprise You)

By David Glenn
North Carolina Sports Network

One of the more perplexing complaints among many college sports fans in recent decades has been that there are “too many bowl games.” Somehow, though, it’s rarely discussed why there are so many bowl games, and you may be surprised by the answer.

There’s no doubt that college football’s postseason has grown dramatically, from nine bowl games in 1950 to 11 in 1975 to 25 in 2000 and now 40-plus in the recently completed 2023-24 season. That means more than 80 teams, out of the 133 playing at the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) level, are needed to populate all the bowl slots.

By rule, bowl eligibility requires six or more victories and at least a .500 winning percentage; lots of 6-6 teams receive and accept postseason invitations, and occasionally someone with a losing record gets a waiver and plays when there aren’t enough eligible teams to fill the slate. These facts tend to be foundational complaints for the “too-many-bowls” crowd.

At the highest level, of course, there’s no mystery.

More than a decade ago, a major sports broadcaster (ESPN) saw massive value in the possibility of creating the first FBS playoff in college football history, which dates to 1869. The current four-team bracket, which began after the 2014 regular season, brings in a reported $470 million per year from ESPN, and its enormous television audiences have justified that massive investment.

In one powerful example of that phenomenon, Ohio State’s win over Oregon in January 2015 was by far the most-watched game of the playoff era, with 34.6 million average viewers. In the entire 2015 calendar year, considering TV programs of all types, only the Super Bowl (115.2 million), the NFL’s AFC championship game (42.3 million) and the Oscars (38.6 million) brought in larger audiences in the United States.

For comparison, the most popular “regularly scheduled” programs in 2015 were Sunday Night Football (23.3 million average for the entire NFL regular season), The Big Bang Theory (21.1 million), NCIS (20.9 million), The Walking Dead (19.7 million) and Empire (17.7 million).

“The College Football Playoff is enormously popular,” CFP executive director Bill Hancock said last year. “We do surveys every year, because we want to know what the fans are thinking. The (playoff) committee has had a favorable rating close to 90 percent. The playoff itself has been well over 80 percent. People love the College Football Playoff.”

Here are the other eight playoff title game results, with their respective average (TV + streaming) audiences: Alabama over Clemson in 2015-16 (26.7 million), Clemson over Alabama in 2016-17 (26.0 million), Alabama over Georgia in 2017-18 (28.4 million), Clemson over Alabama in 2018-19 (25.3 million), LSU over Clemson in 2019-20 (26.9 million), Alabama over Ohio State in 2020-21 (18.7 million) amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Georgia over Alabama in 2021-22 (22.6 million), and Georgia’s 65-7, over-before-halftime annihilation of Texas Christian in 2022-23 (17.2 million).

While there is an obvious declining trend in those numbers, each of those championship games finished among America’s 75 most-watched television programs (sports or otherwise) in their respective calendar years.

So, what explains the many lower-profile bowl games?

First, philosophically speaking, it’s hard to understand most of the too-many-bowls angst. Nobody is forced to watch, after all, so there are no true victims here. Moreover, thousands of players get one more road trip with their teammates, friends and families, often to enticing and/or warm-weather locations, plus up to $500 worth of bowl-provided swag (each) and perhaps some lifelong memories as well.

How could all of that possibly be a bad thing?

Practically speaking, the answer to the “why” question regarding the smaller bowls is similar to the explanation for the bigger bowls, just on a much smaller scale: major sports broadcasters (mostly ESPN) see value in these games, and the (much smaller but still significant) television audiences they’re getting during the winter holiday season are justifying their (much lower) investments.

As the results (see below) from the last three seasons indicate, even when you exclude the CFP games, a handful of these postseason matchups average more than 9 million viewers, a significant number average more than 5 million viewers, a large majority average more than 2 million viewers, and all but one or two average more than 1 million viewers per game.

Average TV/Streaming Audiences
(2021-22, 2022-23, 2023-24 Bowls)

2023-24 Rose Bowl/semis (Alabama-Michigan), ESPN: 27.8M
2021-22 CFP title game (Georgia-Alabama), ESPN: 22.6M
2022-23 Peach Bowl/semis(Georgia-Ohio State), ESPN: 22.4M
2022-23 Fiesta Bowl/semis (TCU-Michigan), ESPN: 21.4M
2023-24 Sugar Bowl/semis (Texas-Washington), ESPN: 17.8M
2022-23 CFP title game (Georgia-TCU), ESPN: 17.2M
2021-22 Orange Bowl/semis (Georgia-Michigan), ESPN: 17.2M
2021-22 Cotton Bowl/semis (Alabama-Cincinnati), ESPN: 16.6M
Rose Bowl (Ohio St-Utah/PSU-Utah), ESPN: 16.6M/10.2M
Orange Bowl (UT-Clemson/Georgia-FSU), ESPN: 8.7M/10.4M
Sugar Bowl (Baylor-Ole Miss/Alabama-KSU), ESPN: 9.8M/9.1M
Peach Bowl (Michigan St-Pitt/Ole Miss-PSU), ESPN: 7.6M/7.8M
Cotton Bowl (Tulane-USC/Missouri-Ohio State), ESPN: 4.2M/9.7M
Fiesta Bowl (Oklahoma St-ND/Oregon-Liberty), ESPN: 7.9M/4.7M
Citrus Bowl (UK-Iowa/LSU-Purdue/UT-Iowa), ABC: 6.5M/3.3M/6.8M
Pop-Tarts Bowl (Clemson-Iowa St/FSU-OU/KSU-NCSU), ESPN: 4.9M/5.4M/4.3M
Alamo Bowl (Oregon-OU/Washington-Texas/Arizona-OU), ESPN: 4.7M/4.8M/3.9M
Gator Bowl (WF-Rutgers/ND-South Carolina/Clemson-UK), ESPN: 3.5M/5.8M/3.4M
Liberty Bowl (Miss St-Texas Tech/Arkansas-KU/Memphis-ISU), ESPN: 3.9M/3.9M/3.6M
Holiday Bowl (UCLA-NCSU/Oregon-UNC/USC-Louisville), FOX: DNP/4.0M/3.5M
Music City Bowl (Purdue-UT/Iowa-UK/Maryland-Auburn), ESPN/ABC: 5.6M/3.0M/2.6M
ReliaQuest Bowl (PSU-Ark/Illinois-Miss St/LSU-Wisconsin), ESPN2: 3.9M/2.2M/4.6M
Las Vegas Bowl (Wisconsin-Arizona St/Oregon St-UF/NW-Utah), ESPN/ABC: 3.7M/2.5M/3.1M
Duke’s Mayo Bowl (South Carolina-UNC/Maryland-NCSU/WVU-UNC), ESPN: 2.6M/2.7M/3.8M
Gasparilla Bowl (UCF-UF/Wake Forest-Missouri/Georgia Tech-UCF), ESPN: 3.2M/3.5M/2.4M
Sun Bowl (CMU-Washington St/Pitt-UCLA/ND-Oregon St), CBS: 2.9M/2.8M/3.3M
Texas Bowl (KSU-LSU/Texas Tech-Ole Miss/Oklahoma St-Texas A&M), ESPN: 2.4M/2.6M/3.1M
Pinstripe Bowl (Maryland-Virginia Tech/Minnesota-Syracuse/Rutgers-Miami), ESPN: 2.4M/2.7M/3M
LA Bowl (Utah St-Oregon St/Fresno St-Washington St/Boise St-UCLA), ABC: 2.9M/2.4M/2.4M
First Responder Bowl (Air Force-Louisville/Memphis-Utah St/Texas St-Rice), ESPN: 2.7M/2.2M/2.8M
Birmingham Bowl (Houston-Auburn/CCU-ECU/Duke-Troy), ESPN/ABC: 2.4M/2.6M/2.7M
Cactus Bowl (WVU-Minnesota/Oklahoma St-Wisconsin/KU-UNLV), ESPN: 2.4M/2.6M/2.7M
Armed Forces Bowl (Army-Missouri/Air Force-Baylor/Air Force-JMU), ESPN/ABC: 2.6M/2.0M/2.4M
Military Bowl (BC-ECU/Duke-UCF/Virginia Tech-Tulane), ESPN: DNP/2.2M/2.3M
Independence Bowl (BYU-UAB/Houston-Louisiana/Texas Tech-Cal), ABC/ESPN: 3.2M/2.4M/1M
Celebration Bowl (SCSU-Jacksonville St/NCCU-Jackson St/Howard-FAMU), ABC: 2.6M/2.4M/1.5M
Quick Lane Bowl (WMU-Nevada/NMSU-BGU/Minnesota-BGU), ESPN: 1.1M/2.3M/2.2M
Fenway Bowl (SMU-UVa/Cincinnati-Louisville/SMU-BC), ESPN: DNP/2.0M/1.5M
Cure Bowl (NIU-CCU/Troy-UTSA/App State-MiamiOhio), ESPN2/ESPN/ABC: 1.3M/1.5M/2.0M
Camellia Bowl (Ball St-Georgia St/Buffalo-Georgia Southern/NIU-Arkansas St), ESPN: 1.7M/1.5M/1.6M
New Mexico Bowl (UTEP-Fresno St/BYU-SMU/NMSU-Fresno St), ESPN/ABC: 1.5M/2.0M/845K
Boca Raton Bowl (WKU-App State/Toledo-Liberty/USF-Syracuse), ESPN: 1.6M/1.5M/1.1M
Idaho Potato Bowl (UK-Wyoming/EMU-SJSU/Georgia St-Utah St), ESPN: 1.3/1.1M/1.2M
New Orleans Bowl (Louisiana-Marshall/WKU-USA/Louisiana-Jacksonville St), ESPN: 1.1M/1.2M/1.1M
Frisco Bowl (SDSU-UTSA/Boise St-North Texas/UTSA-Marshall), ESPN: 1.2M/1M/1M
Hawaii Bowl (Memphis-Hawaii/MTSU-SDSU/CCU-SJSU), ESPN: DNP/1.1M/1M
Myrtle Beach Bowl (ODU-Tulsa/Marshall-UConn/Ohio-Georgia Southern), ESPN: 918K/921K/1.2M
LendingTree Bowl (EMU-Liberty/Southern Miss-Rice/EMU-USA), ESPN: 1.2M/1.2M/765K
Bahamas Bowl (MTSU-Toledo/UAB-Miami-Ohio/ODU-WKU), ESPN: 851K/822K/668K
Arizona Bowl (Boise St-CMU/Ohio-Wyoming), The CW: DNP/~100,000*/1.1M

*-available only via streaming (Barstool); no “average viewers” (as with TV) number available
DNP = bowl canceled in December 2021 because of COVID-19 complications

This year’s Pop-Tarts Bowl, for example, drew an average audience of about 4.3 million for its NC State-Kansas State matchup on ESPN. The Oregon-UNC matchup in last year’s Holiday Bowl attracted an average audience of approximately 4 million viewers on FOX. Those are very impressive, impactful numbers.

For comparison, in men’s college basketball, the second most popular college sport, even conference championship games almost never reach that 4 million number anymore. NCAA Tournament games almost always attract bigger (typically much bigger) audiences, but during the regular season and conference tournaments, only a small handful of must-see-TV games (e.g., Duke-Carolina in most years) reach or surpass the 4 million threshold.

Among the dozens of other college sports, 4 million is an almost unthinkable number.

The only exceptions are in women’s basketball, mainly in the sport’s NCAA Tournament championship game, which has attracted 4 million (or more) viewers 10 times in the last 26 seasons. In 2023, even one of the women’s Final Four games attracted 5.6 million viewers, and the title contest drew a stunning estimated audience of roughly 10 million.

Because the Disney-owned family of networks (ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, etc.) controls the TV/streaming rights to all but three bowl games — a corporate subsidiary, ESPN Events, actually owns and operates more than a dozen of the smaller and mid-level bowls — the company can seek the best matchups, select its preferred day/time slots, mostly avoid head-to-head competition with other bowls, and otherwise maximize its chance of high ratings and, thus, the multimedia world’s version of postseason success.

This season, the Disney outlets collectively televised seven bowls on Saturday, Dec. 16 (starting at 11 am and finishing after midnight), one on Dec. 18, one on Dec. 19, one on Dec. 21, one on Dec. 22, seven on Saturday, Dec. 23 (starting at noon and ending after midnight), three on Dec. 26, three on Dec. 27 (starting at 2 pm and finishing after midnight), four on Dec. 28 (starting at 11 am and ending after midnight), three on Dec. 29, three on Dec. 30, five on Jan. 1 (including the two national semifinals) and of course the championship game on Monday night. Only rarely was a game in competition with another bowl.

Clearly, then, there is a method to this postseason gridiron madness, and as long as millions — and sometimes tens of millions — continue to watch, there will continue to be a lot of bowl games, large and small, from mid-December through mid-January every year.