After decades of swelling, there are signs that college football's bowl season might have reached a tipping point.
Three 5-7 teams are participating in the postseason. One matchup pits teams from the same league against each other. At least two conference commissioners have publicly questioned the direction of the industry, with one declaring the system "broken."
"This whole bowl season may give rise to a very honest conversation at the highest level," said Wright Waters, executive director of the Football Bowl Association. "What do we want to do with the bowl system?"
How the sport's power brokers answer that fundamental question will shape a nine-figure industry that kicked off Saturday with games from Orlando to Albuquerque.
When Tampa landed what was then called the Hall of Fame Bowl in 1986, there were only 12 other bowls in the country. This year's schedule features nine in the state of Florida alone and 40 total (plus the national title game).
"I don't know if there's too many or not enough," said Brett Dulaney, executive director of the St. Petersburg Bowl. "Here's what I know: I know there wouldn't be that many bowl games if communities couldn't support them."
But they do support them, eagerly welcoming tourists that put heads in hotel beds. Players get free gear and trips to unique locations. Coaches get extra practice time to reteach basics while evaluating younger players who are important to the program's future.
"We learned a lot more about our football team these last couple of weeks with these practices," said USF coach Willie Taggart, whose Bulls will break a four-year postseason drought with Monday's Miami Beach Bowl.
Broadcasters get cheap programming that delivers solid ratings. The Outback Bowl's 6.4 million viewers last year made it the most-watched program in ESPN2 history. The 2014 N.C. State-UCF game at Tropicana Field attracted more than 3.2 million TV viewers, making it cable's most-watched program shown that day — ahead of two other bowl games that also cracked the top four.
Although some schools have lost money on games, bowls paid out more than a half-billion dollars to conferences last year, according to NCAA figures. That left schools and leagues with a surplus of more than $200 million, according to the Football Bowl Association.
Bowls are so popular that Waters heard about them all the time when he was a conference commissioner. One university president told him that if his 7-5 team couldn't make a bowl over a 6-6 team, he would become Waters' worst enemy.
"That's a problem that no commissioner wants to deal with," Waters said.
So now commissioners and bowl directors are dealing with new problems of their own making.
Average attendance has fallen each of the past five years (and 16 percent overall), according to a CBS Sports analysis.
The Holiday Bowl is without a title sponsor for the first time since 1985. The city of Birmingham gave its Birmingham Bowl an extra $200,000 because it lost its title sponsor. After going through three different title sponsors in the first seven games, the St. Petersburg Bowl doesn't have one, either.
The biggest controversy stems from what teams belong in the postseason.
The NCAA's manual describes bowl games as a "national contest between deserving teams." As the number of bowl games climbed, the standard for what "deserving" means has fallen, with 80 of the country's 128 teams participating in this year's postseason.
Wherever the line is drawn creates problems because you can't predict how many worthy teams there will be next winter. Set the bar too high and deserving teams will be left out. Set it too low and you risk cheapening the product.
When only 77 teams finished at least 6-6 this year, the field had to expand to add three 5-7 teams that ranked near the top nationally in the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate. That's why 5-7 San Jose State traveled 2,400 miles to play Georgia State in Orlando's Cure Bowl.
"It doesn't seem to me a healthy direction to continue to encourage 5-7 teams participating in bowl games," SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said. "It's a reward."
The "national" part of the NCAA's definition has changed, too.
When other spots disappeared, the Mountain West had to put two of its teams (Nevada and Colorado State) against each other in the Arizona Bowl. It's the first time teams from the same conference have met in a non-national championship bowl game since 1979.
"It is a travesty the Mountain West has been forced into this situation," Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said in a scathing statement. "Clearly the system is broken. … There is consensus change is needed and this year's outcome must not be repeated."
How you fix that depends on the answer to Waters' fundamental question. What purpose are the bowls supposed to serve?
Marshall coach and former Florida assistant Doc Holliday sees them as a way to reward players for their months of hard work on the field and in the classroom.
"The more the merrier," said Holliday, whose Thundering Herd plays UConn on Dec. 26 at Tropicana Field. "They're talking all the time about how they don't get enough cost of attendance or how they don't get paid or whatever. But give them an opportunity to go to a bowl game."
In that case, maybe 40 games isn't enough. The field could expand to 64, giving every team a year-end celebration and preventing bowls from having to dip below an arbitrary line to find enough participants.
The ACC is closer to the other extreme and a stricter definition of "deserving." The league wants to raise the number of required wins to seven, which would mean eliminating some bowls.
"Somewhere between there is where we should be, probably," Waters said. "But we have to have agreement from everybody. I'm not sure we're ready."
Times staff writer Joey Knight contributed to this report. Contact Matt Baker at [email protected]. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.