Steve Beck knows he made the right choice to invite Virginia Tech to the Military Bowl as its ACC representative. The bowl game’s executive director recognized the sentimental appeal of Georgia Tech – Paul Johnson could coach his final game for the Yellow Jackets at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md., where he had coached the Naval Academy for six years.
But, the record pace at which tickets and suites were being snapped up by Hokies fans earlier this week was all of the confirmation that he needed.
As the Military Bowl benefits Patriot Point, a Maryland retreat for recovering service members, their families and caregivers, game organizers have a fiduciary responsibility to do what they will raise the most money. That’s what Beck did, and he wasn’t alone. Concern about ticket sales is what caused the Jackets to fall through the ACC’s “tier-one” bowls to the Quick Lane Bowl, according to a bowl industry executive.
“We all have businesses to run, and we had to go with what we feel is right for our business,” Beck said. “A lot of times, that’s not the emotional thing or what happened on the football field.”
Tech players and fans were disappointed when the Pinstripe (Miami), Belk (Virginia) and Military (Virginia Tech) went with teams that the Jackets had beaten and finished ahead of in the ACC standings. Tech ultimately dropped to the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit, which has the eighth pick of ACC teams after teams either in the College Football Playoff or New Year’s Six bowl games. On social media, fans alleged that the ACC failed to protect the Jackets’ interests.
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Bowl officials said that they take into account factors like record and head-to-head play, but also other matters more central to their interests.
“I’d love to have Georgia Tech one year, and I would have loved to (this year’s game) be Paul Johnson’s last game,” Beck said. “It just didn’t work out that way. It was a clear decision, from our perspective.”
Tech has not sold out its ticket allotment in its past three bowl games, and likely going back farther. At the TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., in 2016, Tech didn’t hit a 7,000-ticket allotment, despite the Jackets having won five of their last six regular-season games (including over Georgia), Jacksonville being roughly 5-1/2 hours from Atlanta and an alumni base in central and north Florida. Kentucky, meanwhile, sold out its allotment in three days.
For the Orange Bowl trip in 2014, Tech sold less than half of its allotment of 15,000 tickets while Mississippi State sold about 11,000. For the Music City Bowl in 2013, Tech was assigned an allotment of 10,000 and fell far short.
There are mitigating factors. In 2016, many Jackets fans likely passed on Jacksonville having gone with the team to Ireland for the season opener. For the Orange Bowl, there likely were fans who bought through the secondary market, where ticket prices were much lower. Further, travel costs were high and some fans may have not made the trip after going to the ACC title game in Charlotte, where Tech sold out its allotment of 5,500 and sold extras in adjoining sections.
However, bowl organizers deal in volume, not mitigating factors.
The four tier-one bowls – the Belk, Pinstripe, Sun and, this year, the Gator – pick in cooperation with each other and the ACC. The bowls submit their preferences 1-4 and, as long as there are no conflicts, the league grants each bowl its top choice. Conference officials will step in to mediate in case of a tie. Other guidelines also inform the process – no back-to-back trips to the same bowl, no rematches of a regular-season game, keeping the conference title game loser in a tier-one game.
Beyond a team’s record, its fan base and teams’ interest level are also factors.
“We want teams that want to be here, and I can say this, that Duke and Temple, they wanted to be here really bad,” said Trey Giglio, the chairman of the Independence Bowl. “So that carries some weight.”
The Sun invited Pittsburgh, keeping the title-game runner-up in the first tier. The Gator snapped up N.C. State, which, by virtue of its 9-3 record, had to be picked by one of the four bowls. (ACC rules dictate that a bowl can’t pick a team that has two fewer wins than another team, and after the Wolfpack, every other available team was 7-5 or worse.)
That left the Pinstripe and the Belk, both of which were appealing destinations for Tech. Athletic director Todd Stansbury and deputy athletic director Mark Rountree made their cases with both bowls and others. It would be reasonable to assume that the potential for ticket sales with Johnson’s finale was a part of the pitch.
Tech’s competition included Miami, which has a national following that figures to bring TV ratings (which is what bowl execs want to give to sponsors). Virginia, while it had lost three of its past four games, had gone five seasons without a bowl trip until 2017 and might be expected to draw well for a game of the Pinstripe or Belk’s magnitude. Further, Tech was up against its own reputation. A home attendance average that was the lowest since 2001 didn’t help, either.
Multiple bowl officials said that the ACC does not try to push bowls to take certain teams (or not take others). Sun Bowl spokesman Eddie Morelos said that Tech’s option offense, seen by some as boring, was not a factor in taking Pitt over the Jackets.
Tech also is saddled with what is called the golden rule of the bowl business: College teams based in NFL markets don’t travel. Besides Tech, that would include schools such as Miami, South Florida, SMU, Cincinnati, Vanderbilt and Boston College, among others. (Miami may overcome this association with a strong national brand.)
No one needs a reminder, but it’s evidence once again that college football is a business.
It would appear that the upshot for Tech is that ticket sales (especially those executed through the school and not secondary markets) and travel matter. Bowls, which typically have a civic-oriented mission, count on visitors to spur the economy and in some cases fund charities.
“You need to be supporting your team wherever they go,” the executive said. “That’s what drives it.”