SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The Bowl Championship Series is facing a threat that's greater than any lawmaker or political action committee pushing for a playoff.
Apathy seems to have set in among many college football fans toward the sport's marquee games, and bowl officials indicate they are ready to try and fix it.
The problem really isn't the BCS national title game. Tickets to Monday's showdown between No. 1 Auburn and second-ranked Oregon are a hot item. It's the undercard that could use a boost.
Ticket sales for some of those games — the Orange, Sugar, Rose and Fiesta bowls — have been sluggish, and ratings generally have been lukewarm for matchups that haven't gotten the casual fan excited.
"We have to find a way to revitalize the market place," Sugar Bowl executive director Paul Hoolahan said.
The ratings for Hoolahan's game were down a touch, from 8.5 last year when the game was on Fox to 8.4 this season, ESPN's first as the TV home of the BCS — though the Superdome in New Orleans was filled to capacity Tuesday for BCS-newcomer Arkansas and Ohio State, one of college football's glamour programs and a reliable draw with its enormous alumni base.
The Fiesta Bowl and the Orange Bowl had more serious issues.
The Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1 between Oklahoma and Connecticut drew a 6.7 rating, down 22 percent from last year, and UConn sold only about 5,000 of the 17,500 tickets the school was required to buy from the organizers.
Attendance at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., was 67,232, about 6,000 below capacity for the game.
At the Orange Bowl in Miami, Stanford and Virginia Tech drew a 7.1 overnight rating, down from last year's 7.2 for Georgia Tech-Iowa, and the attendance of 65,453 was about 9,000 below capacity at Sun Life Stadium as neither team came close to selling its allotment of 17,500 tickets.
Geography was clearly an issue for those two games. In a perfect world, Stanford would have played in Arizona, far closer to its campus in Palo Alto, Calif., and Connecticut could have shot down to south Florida. But the way BCS berths are dolled out prevented that.
"Anytime we can make it better for fans that want to support their teams and for the quality and the excitement of the game and the attraction of the matchups, that seems a sensible thing to address and to discuss," Fiesta Bowl executive director John Junker said Friday. "That may not be easy to do, but I think there's some obvious value."
He also added: "I'm not sure it's all necessarily, solely geographic."
While Junker praised Connecticut and its fans, the Huskies were clearly a problem for the BCS this season. They earned the program's first BCS bid by winning the Big East's automatic berth, but they were 8-4 and a huge underdog against Oklahoma, sneaking into the last spot in the AP Top 25 at very end of the regular season. The game played out about as expected with the Sooners winning 48-20.
No one in the bowl business likes lopsided games.
That's why, even though it made more sense geographically for the Orange Bowl to take UConn, given the choice between the Huskies and fifth-ranked Stanford, with Heisman Trophy runner up Andrew Luck, officials in Miami understandably went for the more attractive team — even if it meant empty seats in the stadium.
"We can't just focus in on the gate," Orange Bowl CEO Eric Poms said.
Poms also said he was pleased with the opportunity to bring a Pac-10 to the Orange Bowl, just like he was thrilled to bring a Big Ten team in Iowa there last year.
The Orange Bowl's relationship with the Atlantic Coast Conference clearly hasn't been what either side would have hoped. With Miami and Florida State struggling to win the league in recent years, the ACC's representative in the Orange Bowl has been Virginia Tech three times in the last four years.
Hokies fans flocked to Charlotte, N.C., for the ACC title game in early December, but were not so enthusiastic about gobbling up Orange Bowl tickets — again.
Return bowl trips generally aren't ideal for anyone involved.
"Within the system there's a great degree of agreement that one of our primary goals is the experience for the student-athlete and frequent return trips probably doesn't serve that at its best," Junker said.
To make matters worse, from an Orange Bowl standpoint, Stanford then went on to run away with the game in the second half, winning 40-12 and celebrating before rows and rows of empty seats.
So what can be done? Bowl officials aren't ready to present specific ideas — and don't think for a second think that a playoff will be one of those ideas — but there are a few others that will likely be tossed around in New Orleans when bowl officials and conference commissioners get together for their annual BCS meeting.
— A minimum BCS ranking for automatic qualifiers. A way to eliminate future UConn-type problems would to make conference champions have to reach a certain ranking to secure a spot. That number would need to be no higher than around 18th for the conferences to even listen.
— Mandating geographical considerations, so teams play closer to home.
— Making more teams at-large eligible, which could require lifting the rule that limits conferences to no more than two BCS bids. So an 11th-ranked, two-loss LSU could still make it to a big-money bowl.
— Allow for more horsetrading. The system doesn't allow much (if any) flexibility for the bowls to broker deals to trade teams.
BCS executive director Bill Hancock files some of the apathy issues under "unintended consequences" of a system that basically works, and isn't sure this season's problems are anything more than just that — this season's problems.
"You have to be careful to evaluate the difference between a blip and a paradigm shift," he said.
"In every enterprise, you're making a mistake if you're not trying to improve it every year. The commissioners are absolutely committed to making this the best it can be ... through collaborative conversations."