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D-III is adding more bowl games. Here's why:

The Culver's Bowl (and more), explained:

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This narrative existed a few years ago, but took on new life at the end of this FBS college football season. Bowl season is in trouble. A cluttered calendar, mass opt-outs, empty stadiums and more paint a picture that many traditional bowl games simply don’t have the prestige or significance that they enjoyed in the past.

The games probably aren’t going away, since ESPN and other networks still need affordable late-December broadcast inventory, and America loves to gamble, but I do think it’s fair to say that the Citrus Bowl, or the concept of playing a game on January 1st, just doesn’t mean the same thing it might have in oh, 1998.

But just because a few FBS bowl games are struggling doesn’t mean that the concept itself is struggling everywhere.

If you’re looking for a place where bowls could see more positive momentum, check out D-III.

On January 8th, Opendorse announced they’re sponsored a new, two-game D-III bowl series, featuring the best teams from the HCAC, NCAC, OAC, and PAC, to be played in Canton’s Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. The event will be the first bowl game for each of the four leagues.

NCAC commissioner Keri Alexander Luchowski and OAC commissioner Sarah Otey both told me that the idea of securing some sort of additional postseason experience for their athletes had been discussed for a few years. Even as D-III considers potentially expanding their postseason field, making the actual playoffs is very difficult.

Only 32 of the 240+ teams that play in DIII make the field right now, and only four of those bids go to at-large teams. If you don’t win your conference, you almost certainly don’t play in the postseason, so teams that win eight or nine games in Ohio regularly end their seasons without the postseason.

Otey built relationships with personnel at Tom Benson and around Canton after helping the efforts to bring the 2021 D-III Stagg Bowl to the stadium. Once Opendorse approached her and other commissioners about potential games, the group was quickly able to leverage those relationships to put the framework of a series in place.

“We’re really excited about this partnership, not just because of the games, but because of the partnership with Opendorse, which will benefit all of our athletes,” Otey told me. As part of their sponsorship, Opendorse has pledged to provide NIL education services to athletes at participating schools beyond the football teams.

Between Opendorse and a strong commitment from Visit Canton, Otey is confident that the event will make financial sense. “My presidents were not going to support a postseason effort that became a resource drain on our member institutions….and we are confident that even with travel expenses, this event will be in the Black.”

Both Luchowski and Otey told me that while the event is thrilled to have Opendorse as a title sponsor, they’re also looking for partners to be naming sponsors for the individual games, as well as other sponsors that can help defray costs to make the game an experience, rather than just a game. “We’ve had more interest since the public announcement,” Luchowski added.

Corporate involvement isn’t very common in D-III athletics, period. Most D-III schools don’t have the time or resources to partner with major MMR firms or to handle outbound sales calls on their own. Most other D-III bowl games, like the ECAC Bowl Series, or the Centennial-MAC Bowl Series, don’t have major corporate partners.

But there is an exception.

Meet the Culver’s Bowl and the Cousins Subs Lakefront Bowl

Both Wisconsin-based bowl games are run by a gentleman named Mike Shaw, of DIII Midwest Bowl Series LLC. Mike is not an event management professional, fundraising professional, or even somebody who works in sports at all. His day job, he told me, is in corporate recruiting.

The entire bowl game project was, according to him, partly “out of COVID boredom.”

A former D-III basketball player, Shaw told me he originally tried to create some sort of D-III basketball NIL event. But after finding the NCAA bylaw and regulatory process too cumbersome, he opted to focus on football games, after learning about other successful DIII events…and quickly discovered he had a knack for it.

Shaw desired to create “something more than just a single game, but a tradition, a real experience.”, and that takes money and time. Sponsors can help with both.

Shaw quickly identified Culver’s, the iconic Wisconsin-based fast food franchise famous for custard, fried cheese curds, and butter burgers, as a potential fit. Craig Culver, the former CEO and current board chairman of the company, is a graduate of D-III Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and the chain employs scores of WIAC grads. “Craig Culver comes out and does the pregame coin flip for us at the game, and he’s told us he wants to be involved for as long as we do it,” White told me.

I asked Shaw if he was aware of the over-the-top brand activations from the Pop-Tarts Bowl or Duke’s Mayo Bowl. Are we going to see a winning coach doused in cheese curds, or get dumped in a vat of custard?

He laughed and told me that while that would be pretty great, the games aren’t “at that budget level” yet.

But they do have enough money for other things

Shaw told me that for 2023, he was able to raise “about $100,000 between the two bowl games.” That was enough to help subsidize travel for all participating teams, as well as pay for stadium rental fees, officials, a postgame press conference, and more.

Even after running the games for a few years, there’s still a bit of a DIY ethos with the project. Shaw told me that he relies on friends and family to help work the livestreams for the games, as well as help with other operational, marketing, and logistical duties.

If fundraising capacity expands, White hopes to find other ways to improve the experience for athletes (like team dinners, swag bags, etc), and to defray more expenses for the participating schools.

These games won’t ever be FBS bowl games. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be cool and meaningful

D-III football games aren’t ever going to attract the broadcast audience needed to make lucrative television contracts possible. Nobody I spoke to envisions a world where a D-III bowl game can fork over not just travel expenses, but significant cash awards. The economic incentives that make the New Mexico Bowl possible simply do not exist for Case Western Reserve football to play Rose-Hulman in a postseason exhibition. That’s okay.

Budgets, the academic calendar, and the sheer size of D-III also probably make it impossible to expand the playoff beyond 40 teams, meaning that a lot of good D-III football programs will not have meaningful access to postseason play or experiences.

If, through bowls, more leagues can find a way to give their athletes one more game, something that feels different and special from the rest of their games, and they can do it without breaking their budgets or disrupting class schedules, then it certainly warrants further discussion.

It’s unclear exactly how much the D-III bowl season can expand or scale. Some of that will depend on the success of the Opendorse games, and some will likely depend on how well D-III leagues can secure other partnerships. Another software or services company that sells to athletic departments could probably generate a lot of goodwill by sponsoring a D-III bowl game.

And if we don’t get the College Sports Solutions or Teamworks Bowl, this would be a golden opportunity for, say, a local restaurant chain.

Whit’s Frozen Custard…buy the rights to these games before Graeter’s Ice Cream or…shuddersWhite Castle…beats you do it.

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