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College bowl ties may get makeover for 2006

FORT WORTH, Texas (KRT) - Tom Starr has spent 26 years in college football’s bowl "bidness." Consider him an expert witness. His opinion counts.

"I’ve never seen it this topsy-turvy," said Starr, the executive director of the PlainsCapital Fort Worth Bowl. "There are so many uncertainties so close to the time when so many of the decisions are usually made. There are so many different scenarios and different conference-bowl agreements that we’ve not seen."

Outside of the Bowl Championship Series' big four - Fiesta, Sugar, Orange and Rose - uncertainty in bowl games is as prevalent as the bright-colored blazers worn by the Bowl Guys. While the drama and mystery might not reach Wisteria Lane levels of hysteria, there is plenty of angst as contract negotiations between bowls and their conference partners are in play.

The Big 12 Conference is a key player in the current game of musical bowls. When the league starts its annual spring meetings Monday in Colorado Springs, Colo., it will hope to decide which bowl games it will partner with starting in 2006.

The Big 12 could maintain most of its current agreements, or it could wind up with new and more lucrative deals involving the Gator, Sun, Liberty and/or Insight bowls.

"Our goal was to have all our bowl agreements in place by the spring meetings, but that didn’t happen," Big 12 commissioner Kevin Weiberg said. "Hopefully, during the meetings we can get the deals in place. But I don’t know if that’s going to happen.

"We’re in discussions now to either renew our current deals or change them. We’re not dissatisfied with our current arrangements, but we need to do a good job of considering all our options."

The Fort Worth Bowl, which will stage its third game Dec. 23 at Amon G. Carter Stadium, has raised its per-team payouts to $1.2 million in an effort to maintain its relationship with the Big 12.

The Fort Worth Bowl also wants to move up in the Big 12’s selection order; it currently gets the final pick of Big 12 teams. The bowl also must decide if it continues with Conference USA or signs up with a different league (such as the Mountain West).

"There are so many unknowns, things change on almost an hourly basis depending on who has talked to who," said Pete Derzis, senior vice president of ESPN Regional Television, which runs the Fort Worth Bowl. "So many things about the Fort Worth Bowl is predicated on what happens with the Big 12. The Big 12 is getting courted in all directions."

During the BCS era, conference-bowl negotiations have been stagnant. When the BCS debuted in 1997, most conferences and bowls locked in deals for non-BCS teams. Those agreements have remained in place over the past eight years, coinciding with the BCS bowl and television contracts.

However, the BCS starts a new contract and new format in 2006. Also, the expansion of the Atlantic Coast Conference, which led to a watered-down Big East Conference, has contributed to a pocket-breakdown scramble for some of the major non-BCS bowls.

The BCS will institute a “double-hosting” format in 2006. Beginning with the ’06 postseason, whichever bowl is hosting the BCS championship game also will host its regular game on its regular date. Expanding the BCS field from eight to 10 teams and creating the double-hosting format has basically added a bowl game at the top of the bowl food chain.

That has created concern among bowls like the Capital One. The Orlando, Fla.-based bowl features the biggest non-BCS payouts (over $5 million per team), plus an exclusive television window on ABC.

In the midst of a 60-day negotiating window, ABC is playing hardball negotiating a new Capital One deal. With the number of BCS teams growing by two, the chances of more at-large BCS berths also have increased. The Capital One, which matches teams from the Big Ten and Southeastern conferences, might not get marquee games because the top available teams could be siphoned off to fill BCS at-large spots.

Networks and bowl executives aren’t interested in buying a Hummer but winding up with a Mini Cooper.“There’s a fair amount of strain right now among some of the elite bowls,” said one television executive who asked not to be identified. “When all is said and done, not everybody is going to be happy.”

Tom Mickle is executive director of Florida Citrus Sports, which operates the Capital One and Champs Sports bowls. He pitched a three-bowl parlay including the Cotton Bowl that would have involved the Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and ACC. Instead of being locked into taking teams from two conferences, the three bowls would pick from a pool of teams from four conferences.

Now, the idea has been pared down and could involve just the Capital One and Cotton plus the Big 12, Big Ten and SEC.

“We were looking at getting some variety; at times we’ve had the same team three out of four years,” Mickle said. “It might be a long shot, but it’s worth pursuing. The conferences have been receptive.”

The Gator Bowl, which matches teams from the Atlantic Coast and Big East conferences, is talking about raising its per-team payouts from $1.6 million to nearly $2.5 million. The Gator also might drop the Big East in favor of a deal with the Big 12, SEC or Big Ten.

The Big Ten, which has deals with the Capital One, Outback, Alamo, Sun, Music City and Motor City bowls, has asked for significant increases (40 to 60 percent) from its bowl partners.

“I’ve never had a conference ask for less money,” said Derrick Fox, executive director of the Alamo Bowl and chair of the Football Bowl Association. “There’s a more competitive landscape than there has been over the last eight years or so.”

Once the Capital One and Gator bowl agreements are decided, the rest of the bowl agreements will fall in place. If those bowls continue with their current partners and arrangements, the bowl landscape could remain basically the same. But if those two dominoes fall in different directions, warm up the bulldozers.

“There are a lot of situations where bowls and conferences are looking at their options instead of just staying with the status quo,” Weiberg said. “Change is in the air, but it could wind up where everything winds up staying just about the same as it has been.”

(c) 2005, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.