Go ahead and laugh. Scan the list of bowl games this year and have your chuckles: The Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. The Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. The BBVA Compass Bowl. The Aflac Duck Bowl.
OK, that last one wasn’t real, but the others are and have been the butt of plenty of jokes among college football fans. After all, there are 35 bowl games. The Orange and Sugar are household names, but the New Era Pinstripe Bowl? Not so much.
While we make fun of the bloated bowl field—70 of the 120 eligible schools are going bowling—the players themselves make out quite well. In exchange for a couple of extra weeks of practice, they get an all-expenses paid trip to a warm place.* But the best part may be the gifts: electronics, jewelry, apparel.
*Usually. A few bowls are played in colder climates, including the Famous Idado Potato Bowl, played last weekend in Boise. The punter for Ohio University, upon learning his team would be playing in the bowl, tweeted this: “Idaho? Who the [expletive] wants to play there in December??”
The NCAA limits the value of gifts players can receive for reaching a bowl game. This year, schools can’t spend more than $400 on each player; the bowls can’t exceed $550. Most bowls spend closer to $350, though several give the maximum, meaning some players receive a total of $950 worth of gifts for winning six games.
How do the bowls, often run by middle-aged corporate types, determine what kinds of gifts young, hip football players would like? That’s where the Performance Award Center (PAC) comes in. Jon Cooperstein, a salesman for PAC, came up with the “gift suite” concept six years ago because he was tired of bowl directors complaining about what to buy for the players—even if they chose things the kids liked, half of them already owned the items.
The gift suite changed that. It allows players to choose a variety of items at difference price levels. Players can snag a few lower-priced items—noise-cancelling headphones and a leather travel bag—or one more expensive gift, like an iPad or flat screen TV.
According to a list compiled by Street and Smith’s Sports Business Daily, 14 bowls utilize the gift suite. Cooperstein estimated PAC works with 16 bowls in total, sometimes providing gifts other than suite packages.
The bowls pay for the gifts (or pay PAC, which pays for the gifts), as NCAA rules make any sort of sponsorship deal with the manufacturers difficult. Cooperstein thinks he may be the only salesman on the planet who has read the NCAA compliance manual. “I’m not going to be the reason a kid can’t play in his bowl game,” he told me.
Using SBD’s list, 28 bowls include a watch as part of their gift package. About one-third use the Timely Watch Company, which specializes in personalized watches and tailors to universities and bowls. Tom Starr, President and CEO of the TicketCity Bowl, has employees from Timely Watch come to Dallas to fit the players for their watches, which include the bowl logo. “By doing that, it makes it a lot more likely that the players will actually wear the watch,” Starr said. “They have some pretty big wrists.”
In addition to watches, some of the other popular items this year are backpacks/travel bags (18 bowls), baseball hats (14), and commemorative footballs (9). The Rose Bowl, which has a gift package that totals $500, has some interesting options. In addition to a watch, hat, and backpack, players will choose from a gift suite that includes a 26-inch TV, Vizio tablet, Fender Starcaster Acoustic Guitar, and a Lane oversize leather recliner, which Cooperstein told me was a hot item this year.
But what makes the Rose Bowl my personal favorite: the Harvard double pop-a-shot arcade style basketball game. I would choose this without hesitation, set it up in my campus apartment, and likely flunk out of school because of it.
(In case you’re wondering about players hauling this stuff back from California to their schools or homes, several bowls, including the Rose, set up the gift suite on the participating schools’ campuses. Others include the shipping costs in their gift budget.)
The Hyundai Sun Bowl takes the prize for most original gift package. No, the players from Georgia Tech and Utah won’t be getting new cars. But in addition to a gift suite that includes a bicycle and recliner, they’ll receive a souvenir coin and Helen of Troy hair dryer.
As a Sun Bowl representative kindly explained to me, Helen of Troy is the maker of Vitalis and Brut products, two previous Sun Bowl sponsors. To continue the relationship with the local company (its headquarters are in El Paso, the site of the game), the Sun Bowl offers some of its products, including the hair dryer. Troy Polamalu would be proud.