Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

GATOR BOWL CRISIS Sitting Room Only Catlett Is Facing Tough Challenge in Reinventing Bowl

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

GATOR BOWL CRISIS Sitting Room Only Catlett Is Facing Tough Challenge in Reinventing Bowl

Article excerpt

For almost seven months, Rick Catlett has stewed over the number 43,316. Bet on this: the Toyota Gator Bowl executive director will never play any combination of that figure in a lottery.

That was the number of people who spread themselves very comfortably within the confines of Alltel Stadium Jan. 1 for the 55th edition of Jacksonville's college football bowl game, won by the University of Miami over Georgia Tech, 28-13. It was the lowest attendance since Dwight Eisenhower was president, when 41,312 saw Mississippi beat Florida 7-3 Dec. 27, 1958.

And it was 27,475 people less than the previous Gator Bowl, which matched Georgia Tech against Notre Dame.

But Catlett's summer hasn't been spent on the golf course or the beach. Since the disappointment of that day, he has worked on the local and national level to improve attendance for not only the Gator Bowl, but for other bowl games that suffered similar declines.

The Gator Bowl was one of 19 postseason games that showed attendance declines in 1999-2000 (out of 23 bowls), and Catlett thinks he has some ways to help them all, including some tinkering with conference affiliations, toughening bowl eligibility and trying to slow the increase in the number of bowls.

What Catlett doesn't plan are drastic changes to local marketing or ticket drives. He thinks the package of football game, parade, New Year's Eve celebration and other peripheral activities is enough. Whether area fans buy more tickets now depends on the matchup.

"I don't know if there's more we can do," he said. "Other than continue to try and give people the best game we can."

Catlett said part of the attendance problems at bowl games are a result of the Bowl Championship Series, the complicated system that produces a national championship game and places the champion of six major conferences, plus two at-large teams, in the Rose, Sugar, Orange and Fiesta bowls -- with massive payoffs between $11 and $13 million per team last year.

"I think the reason for the decline in attendance is obvious," Catlett said. "The Bowl Championship Series, while very good for the teams which play in those four games, cuts the interest in all other bowls. When you place all the emphasis on one national championship game, it's hard to get people excited about other games, outside of the fans from those schools."

Some, including Catlett, point out that the Jaguars have siphoned some local ticket sales from the Gator Bowl.

"I think having the NFL has a lot to do with it," said Jill Spowell, executive director of the Beaches Division of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce. "Many people who have spent money on Jaguars tickets aren't buying Gator Bowl tickets."

"The world has changed in Jacksonville with the NFL there," added Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner John Swofford. "We have to recognize, and deal with those changes."

With the knowledge that the BCS will determine college football's national champion through 2005 (that's the length of the current ABC television contract), Catlett said one of his possible solutions to spark new interest in the Gator Bowl is to have more flexibility in the selection process.

The Gator Bowl has two more years remaining on a contract to match ACC and Big East teams. Catlett knows First Coast football fans may be tired of seeing North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech in repeat performances and offered a plan with the Cotton Bowl (Big 12 vs. SEC) and the Holiday Bowl (Big 12 vs. Pac-10) to pool their conference tie-ins and have a selection-day draft.

The Holiday Bowl has lost interest in the idea, but a deal with the Cotton Bowl still has an outside shot.

"I see a movement with some of the conferences to take a look at flexibility in bowl partnerships," Catlett said. "We have a strong desire for that, and by the end of the summer, we'll have met with or talked to all of the commissioners [of the ACC, Big East, SEC, Pac-10, Big 12 and Big Ten] and discussed it with them. …

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