A brief and incomplete history of bowl scams
Nothing is new in college football. Not even the scams.
Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.
Last week, you might have missed one of the weirder stories in recent college football history. The New Mexico Bowl just dropped their title sponsor, DreamHouse, after just three weeks, on account of DreamHouse not being an actual company.
The fledgling DreamHouse has no business license with the city of Albuquerque, and state records list the company’s address as a residence on Cactus Trail NW on Albuquerque’s West Side – the same address listed for Martinez in court records.
An Oct. 1 press release from ESPN said DreamHouse has a 25,000-square-foot post-production studio. And the sponsorship was announced outside the Aperture Center at Mesa Del Sol, where ESPN officials and Martinez said DreamHouse’s post-production studio was located.
But this week, there were no signs of DreamHouse at the Aperture Center. The three-story building is mostly vacant, except for a cafe and a construction business.
That seems like a relatively easy thing to check before you agree to a multi-year partnership for your bowl game, but what do I know? I understand the appeal of trying to lock down a sponsor tied to the New Mexico film industry, but nobody doubled checked to make sure the company actually existed? Or, you know, made stuff?
This seems like a bizarre hustle to me, making up a company, telling a bunch of lies…all in the name of becoming the sponsor of a 4th tier bowl game. I imagine this is all part of a multi-stage grift that people in my tax bracket can’t really understand. Maybe you start with setting up a shell company, then you sponsor the New Mexico Bowl, then you somehow flip that, package it with some shady mortgages, end up buying the Tampa Bay Lightning, and then end up in the Trump White House? That seems to be how these things tend to work?
Sure, this story is strange. But the idea of a bowl getting kinda catfished by a sponsor? Not that surprising! College football history is full of dumb and bizarre hustles, even with bowl games.
Take the Orange Bowl, for example
To the extent that you can have a safe establishment within the bowl structure, the Orange Bowl would be there. It’s part of the College Football Playoff rotation, it’s held national title games, and it’s the second oldest bowl game, after the Rose Bowl.
The Orange Bowl’s origins though? Uh, not so safe or establishment.
The basic gist is that South Florida was economically hurting after hurricanes and a crash in real estate prices, so local officials looked to find a way to jumpstart tourism by emulating the Rose Bowl.
George Hussey, who worked as Miami’s “official greeter”, organized the game, and because he was friends with Manhattan coach Chick Meehan, convinced them to play in the first game against a not-very-good Miami Hurricanes squad. Right from the start, this would be a low-budget affair. Here’s Earnie Seiler, who would later run the modern Orange Bowl, speaking to Sports Illustrated in 1972:
Miami was the host team—the poorest team you ever saw. I mean poor. They had 14 pairs of shoes for 32 players. They had to swap around. We offered Manhattan College $3,000 to come down to play, with $1,500 in advance. We couldn't give Miami anything. To save expenses, Manhattan came by boat. It took three days, and half the players got seasick. Chick Meehan was their coach. He said if they didn't get the other $1,500 immediately they were going home. By train. He was smart. We hadn't sold enough tickets to meet the guarantee.
Henry Doherty. the owner of Miami’s Biltmore hotel, underwrote $5,000 of the game’s expenses, but even that didn’t cover the guarantee. So Seiler had to resort to desperate measures. Again, via SI::
"So I made the sheriff my finance chairman, and he went around to some of the prominent bookies in town, like Acey Deucey. At 10 o'clock the day of the game our finance chairman came up with the guarantee. Well, you could do things in those days. I made promises I'd never make today. The red tape and the politicians slow you down, and the newspapers can tear you apart."
Robert M. Ours, in his book Bowl Games: College Football’s Greatest Tradition, digs into this story further (page 24):
…Only half of the guarantee had been raised, but one of the Palm Festival organizers (who was also the sheriff) made arrangements with local bookies to make up the missing half. The organizers had one request…hold down the score if the margin got to be as high as three touchdowns. They were fearful because Miami had only a 3-3-1 record in 1932, and had played no one of Manhattan’s status.
Meehan agreed, but as it turned out he did not have work that angle. The game was played before 6,000 fans on a field at Moore Park that was six inches deep in sand, and although Manhattan mounted several threats, all were stopped by the Hurricanes, including one drive that ended inside their 1-yard line…
Eventually, Seiler secures a permanent stadium, in part by inviting Catholic University, the alma mater of a critical federal official who supplied a grant to build the thing. Then he secures a major participant, Oklahoma, to really launch the bowl into major status. How? Well… (again, via SI)
Take 1939. Seiler coerced unbeaten Oklahoma into the Orange Bowl game with half the money offered by the Sugar and Cotton bowls by stealing through the campus at Norman in the middle of the night writing ON TO MIAMI! in chalk on the sidewalks and then educating the Sooners with a morning lecture that featured huge posters of girls reclining on the sugary sands of Miami Beach in the barest excuses for bathing suits the '30s would allow. "I'm a great believer in visual aids," said Seiler.
So what’s the moral of the story? With a little help from self-interested politicians, gamblers, girls in revealing bathing costumes and a bunch of luck, you too can build one of the most prestigious and celebrated events in college football. America. What a country!
The Orange Bowl wasn’t the only game to have money problems
Nowadays, it barely matters if anybody actually shows up to a bowl game. Sure, the local Chamber of Commerce types want big crowds who will then spend money on bars and hotels, but most bowl games exist essentially just as TV inventory for ESPN.
But back before deregulated cable, ticket sales were a critical source of income for bowl games, which meant many of them struggled to stay solvent.
A particularly memorable example of this was the 1962 Gotham Bowl. This was Nebraska’s first bowl victory, and helped launch Bob Devaney’s Cornhusker program into the national elite. It was an important game!
But the bowl’s TV contract with ABC wasn’t nearly as lucrative as organizers hoped, and with the game (allegedly) a charitable enterprise, their pockets weren’t deep to begin with. Then New York’s newspaper workers went on strike, so local coverage was terrible. Two weeks before the start of the game, the bowl hadn’t even officially locked Nebraska down as a participant. Could you imagine this happening today?
How close was this game to not happening at all? Via Bob Devaney’s autobiography (page 92):
…we sat down with them and the chancellor and talked about it. Finally, we decided we had to have expense money put in escrow before we could leave. Even that got shaky. We didn’t know if the game was ever going to come off. Hell, the whole team was at the airport, waiting to get on the plane and there still wasn’t any money in the bank. We must have waited a couple of hours. When we heard they had the check, we got on the plane. Then we got another call, saying the check wasn’t certified. So we waited some more. We wouldn’t let the pilots take off. I still didn’t care that much about going. But I thought since we wasted time practicing, and it meant a lot to the kids, we might as well get this show on the road. Finally, someone called and said everything was all set. It had to be the shakiest situation in the history of bowl games…
That was the last Gotham Bowl. Terrible weather, horrible attendance and Nebraska’s public uneasiness with the whole thing scuttled the game, although all reports indicate that anybody who actually braved the weather saw a banger of a football game.
The Gotham Bowl certainly wasn’t alone. The Cherry Bowl, Bluebonnet Bowl, Raisin Bowl, Salad and several others folded when ticket, TV, or corporate revenue wasn’t quite what it was expected to be, among several others. Five bowl games vanished after the NCAA required games to share at least 80% of the gate revenue with schools in 1949, a good sign that not everything was on the up and up before.
And prior to the 1970s, bowl invitations often didn’t even pretend to be meritocratic. One could go undefeated and miss a game entirely, or go 6-3-2, but have friends in the right places, and still earn a bid.
This wasn’t a REAL bowl game, but let’s quickly talk about the Bacardi Bowl
This event warrants a 30 for 30, or an hourlong podcast, or a bunch of other things. But no blog on bowl scams is complete without at least a brief mention of the 1912 Bacardi Bowl, even though it wasn’t technically a bowl game.
In 1912, Florida went a pedestrian 3-2-1. After an exhibition win over the Tampa Athletic club, the team sailed to Cuba to place an exhibition game against the Cuban Athletic Club. Then all hell broke loose.
Via the AJC. And again, this is the highly abridged version:
“The ‘Gators’ coach spent most of the first period arguing with the referees over holding penalties called against his squad and their failure to call or fully enforce penalties against the home squad,” Wood writes. “The contentious situation reached a climax when the referees penalized the C.A.C. five yards instead of the mandatory 15 yards for illegally pushing or pulling the ball carrier on offense.
A Tampa Bay Times article from 2006 says Pyle refused to continue play “citing excessive penalties against the team.”
The Florida Gators Football Vault by Norm Carlson says that Pyle discovered the referee in question was the former coach of the Cuban Athletic Club.
Cuban authorities arrested Pyle at the game for violating a Cuban law “forbidding the suspension of a game for which gate money has been charged.”
Florida’s official athletic website, FloridaGators.com, says that Pyle was then “taken to a Cuban judge and ordered to take his team and get out of town before he put them in jail.”
In his article for the Florida Historical Quarterly, Wood says Pyle and his team “slipped back to the United States” after his release.
If you had to guess which college football team would nearly cause AN INTERNATIONAL INCIDENT during a bowl game…you’d have to guess Florida.
No idea why we don’t play bowl games in Cuba anymore.
Also, we’ve had some sketchy modern bowl sponsors too
This stuff isn’t just fun college football history from the days before color TV. We’ve had more modern examples of weird bowl sponsors.
Like, remember when the Independence Bowl was sponsored by Duck Commander show? That only lasted for one season…probably because the Duck Dynasty dudes never paid the bowl any money.
It turns out that instead of a contract that would have required Duck Commander to pay money for sponsorship privileges, like having its logo on the bowl game’s logo and stadium, the Independence Bowl officials only had the Robertsons sign a “letter of intent.” That means no lump sum payment and ultimately few or no partners for “sponsorship and revenue opportunities.” Basically, Duck Commander got a free bowl sponsorship that costs most other companies plenty.
We’ve had AdvoCare, a sketchy multi-level marketing company (not to be confused with the sketchy multi-level marketing company that sponsors the Coaches Poll, the sketchy poll that coaches don’t actually vote in) sponsor multiple bowl games. We’ve had a slew of fly-by-night websites, from HomePoint.com to EV1.net to Ourhouse.com sponsor games.
We’ve had a Chicago suburb sponsor a game….in the goddamn Bahamas, which led to me driving around in the snow, trying to find ANYTHING Caribbean about Elk Grove Village, Illinois. We let BITCOIN, the official currency of reckless speculators and those looking to buy drugs or anti-aircraft missiles or elephant tusks or other contraband, sponsor a bowl game. And there’s probably been even funnier and dumber games too.
So is it weird that the New Mexico Bowl got catfished by a fake company? Yeah, but it’s not like the real companies have always done so much better.
And because this is college football, I’m sure something even dumber will come along in a few years.
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