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Hall of Fame puts bite into bowl game

For years, Hall of Fame Bowl officials have been unfailingly positive. They have smiled at everyone _ even on the phone _ hoping to win sponsors, court conferences and break through the bowl picture.

On Thursday, their smiles showed some teeth.

The Hall of Fame emerged in the forefront among the non-alliance bowls when it confirmed its six-year deal matching the third-place finishers from the Big Ten and Southeastern conferences.

And when they officially announced their extended six-year contract with ESPN, it was enough to send Hall of Fame officials to some puffy spots in the sky.

"We are really excited today," Hall of Fame Bowl chairwoman Shirley Ryals said at the noon news conference. "This is the biggest announcement we have made since we started this bowl. We are truly a baby bowl when you think about it. This is the most significant announcement we have made _ it has taken us to another level."

The SEC realized what kind of showcase the Hall of Fame Bowl could offer and chose the Tampa game for a variety of factors. According to SEC executive associate director Mark Womack, the conference was excited about playing a Big Ten opponent on New Year's Day, on its regular-season broadcast partner ESPN, and in the Tampa Bay area.

"This bowl really has an opportunity to grow and for making revenue," Womack said. "The SEC is excited about it and is looking forward."

The 9-year-old Fame Bowl had been looking toward this matchup all along, said executive director Jim McVay. "We had long-range planning sessions a couple years ago and we tried to target what would be an aggressive and advantageous bowl matchup, and it's the Big Ten and the Southeastern Conference."

In order to achieve that, it was "really an effort to move into people's territory. That's what we did, position ourselves to be able to get the third picks. The combinations had to be together at the right time. This is really a home run for everybody.

"These are two premier conferences You look at the top teams in those conferences, we are assured a great, great matchup."

One major factor enabled the bowl to make the agreement. The Bowl Alliance _ created in hopes of staging a national championship game _ gave the bowls on the second level a window to negotiate. "We moved quickly. And, fortunately, it worked out the way we hoped," McVay said.

Although the Fame Bowl is guaranteeing a $1.5-million payout to each school, it is hoping to raise that to $2-million by January 1996 when the agreement takes effect.

"When you're dealing at that level, you're dealing with larger dollars and you're dealing with a better economic impact for our market," McVay said.

Payout was not the major factor in the conferences' decision, though. Currently, the third-place Big Ten team goes to the Holiday Bowl (offering a $1.7-million payout this season) and the third-place SEC team goes to the Gator Bowl ($1.5-million this season, compared with the Fame Bowl's $1-million this year).

The Fame Bowl is trying not to let the announcement overshadow this year's game, matching fourth-place teams from the ACC and Big Ten. Until that Jan. 2 game is over, officials say they will not solidify plans for a title sponsor _ the next logical step.

"We will get a title sponsor, with that kind of matchup that is almost assured us," McVay said. "It's almost a slam dunk. It's just an attractive game in terms of TV ratings. We know we'll be able to sell more tickets, and we think there will be more local sponsors."

The contract with ESPN, which has carried the game since 1993, was the stabilizing force in the agreement. The Fame Bowl will kick off the New Year's Day games and will be the highest-ranking bowl matchup ESPN offers. "ESPN told us that the Hall of Fame Bowl is their crown jewel in their football coverage," Ryals said. "We really feel like that crown jewel."