Bernie Madoff guessed wrong. His Ponzi scheme would have yielded bucks just as big as the millions he bilked, and he would have been able to hide in plain sight, had he done just one simple thing: corral investors to sponsor college football bowl games.
No fewer than 34 bowls will be played to cap this 2011 college football season, with the Bowl Championship Series national title game set for a rematch of No. 1 Louisiana State University and No. 2 Alabama. The tradition, the rivalry, the pageantry, the -- oh phooey, where's Keith Jackson to properly hype this game? Ah, but to get to this prince of a football showdown, scheduled for an 8:30 p.m. ET Jan. 9 kickoff on ESPN, gridiron fans will have to kiss a lot of frogs.
The Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Really?
That's an afternoon kickoff Dec. 17 in Boise, Idaho, netting a 5:30 p.m. ET kickoff between Utah State (7-5) and Ohio University (9-4). There was a time when a combined nine losses meant that those two teams were in the weight room, dreaming of what might have been and waiting for spring football to begin.
Yup, those were the good old days of collegiate sport, when bowls bore names that honored the tradition of their hometown boosters: Rose, Orange, Sugar, Cotton.
That also was before the birth of the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, before nosebleed figures on contracts drew salivating sponsors eager to reach 18-to-25-year-old testosterone-driven, beer-drinking, truck-buying man-children.
What's now neatly and familiarly packaged as ESPN (remember when some doubted the all-sports channel would sail?) is an industry unto itself, with multiple channels and marketing/merchandising spinoffs that include a multi-story hangout on the Las Vegas Strip.
With money to spend, ESPN has bowls to buy, and obedient college football conferences are only too glad to oblige. Thus, the six-victory season now crowns a team "bowl eligible." And, having plunged to the depths of mediocrity, note this: There are exceptions. Yes. Because USC is banned from the post-season, UCLA, a 6-7 team whose faded glory couldn't be detected by using quantum analysis, is playing Illinois (6-6) in the Fight Hunger Bowl, a New Year's Eve 3:30 p.m. ET kickoff in San Francisco. How could such a worthy cause get saddled with two nags who should have been retired at the end of the season?
Don't have a bowl invitation? Not to worry. Wait at the nearest bus stop; one will be along presently. Beef O'Brady's, Poinsettia, Maaco, Little Caesar's, Pinstripe, Music City, Meineke CarCare, Chick-fil-A, TicketCity and BBVA Compass bowls -- they make you want to tune in just to hear the sponsors explain, in their obligatory on-camera interviews, just who they are and what they do. Just imagine, though, that Bernie Madoff could have slipped another half-dozen bowls into that lineup, signed sponsors and melted into obscurity before kickoff.
And if you think that's farfetched, consider this: East Carolina University (the team nickname is the Pirates, so hang onto that for a minute) finished the season 5-7 and couldn't swing a bowl invitation. Team boosters, the Pirate Club, have organized The Virtual Bowl and are selling tickets for $50 apiece. The money is considered a donation and the Pirate Club seems to have taken a page from the Green Bay Packers playbook. Remember the recent Packers stock sale? An asking price of $250 got you a share, but no vote, and no seats -- on the board or in the stadium. Anyhow, keep an eye on that nonexistent bowl. There will be more.
Some bowls speak for themselves. The New Orleans Bowl (9 p.m. ET Saturday, Dec. 17, on ESPN) already has me hungry for jambalaya and bread pudding, even though I wouldn't toss a coin to decide between Louisiana-Lafayette and San Diego State. They're both 8-4; maybe that's what's called evenly matched.
The Hawaii Bowl (8 p.m. ET Christmas Eve) is worth watching for the cutaways alone, but Southern Mississippi (11-2) was good enough to upend Houston's unbeaten dream season, and should just slap Nevada (7-5) silly. The GoDaddy.com Bowl, with the company's provocative ads (read that "offensive to women and thoughtful men") will draw an audience on Jan. 8 (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), even if few care about Arkansas State University (10-2) and Northern Illinois (10-3).
Non-serious fans can leave the TV sets on throughout the casual bowl season (Dec. 17-Dec. 31), pausing occasionally out of curiosity about the bowl name, locale or team nickname (Red Wolves come to mind).
Serious fans will be engaged from kickoff tonight (Saturday) through the BCS title game in the New Year, managing their betting sheets.
Then the serious and the casuals can join forces Jan. 2 for the Rose Bowl (5 p.m. ET, ESPN), when Oregon and Wisconsin, both 11-2, line up. That'll be -- what is it, Keith? -- a "Whoa, Nelly!"
At least until LSU and Alabama have at it.