College football: Hawaii Bowl ebbing, not flowing, without UH

Officially, the University of Houston is the “home” team for Sunday’s Hawaii Bowl, but that designation is clearly more deserved by the Cougars’ opponent, Fresno State.

This is, after all, the Bulldogs’ third appearance as the Mountain West Conference representative in the Christmas Eve game in six years making them something of a regular holiday visitor if not exactly kamaaina.

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While it has allowed the Bulldogs to acquire a nodding familiarity with the Waikiki landscape and be the envy of the rest of the MWC, it underlines the frequent absences by the University of Hawaii, who the game was built around but an absentee going on six of seven games now.

The Rainbow Warriors’ disappearance — and a 35 percent, or more, accompanying drop in attendance — is just one of the challenges facing the bowl as it marks its 16th game and charts its future.

There is also the matter of declining television ratings, a result of sharing dates with the NFL, and the continuing lack of a title sponsor.

“The game has been a positive force, but, like everything else, there are ebbs and flows, there are highs and lows,” said Pete Derzis, senior vice president, college sports programming and events for ESPN, which owns and operates the event as well as the Diamond Head Classic basketball tournament. “It is a fluid business.”

You also might wonder about ESPN’s examination of the bottom line in the wake of major cutbacks. The network, which owns and operates 13 bowl games, has laid off more than 200 employees from in front of and behind the cameras in two sets of cutbacks this year. The reductions reflect a drop in subscribers from 100 million in 2012 to 87 million this year amid escalating rights fees for content.

ESPN’s contract with Aloha Stadium and the participating leagues, the MWC, American Athletic Conference and, on a rotating basis, Conference USA, expires after the 2019 game, parties said.

“We will look to sit down with our key stakeholders and partners and talk about extension at the appropriate time,” Derzis said.

“Yes, when Hawaii is in it’s a different level with the attendance,” George Szigeti, president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, told the Star-Advertiser’s Dave Reardon. “But Pete Derzis is very bullish on (the game). Because of the (Christmas Eve) timing, TV viewership is very good. He wants to continue and renew the contract, also with the Diamond Head Classic.”

They are scheduled to meet Friday regarding its continued in tandem annual ($525,000) support of the bowl and Diamond Head Classic.

The Hawaii Bowl lost Sheraton Hotels and Resorts as an 11-year title sponsor in 2014 and has yet to announce a replacement, making it a minority in the 40-game bowl lineup that includes the Cheribundi Tart Cherry Boca Raton Bowl and Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl.

Meanwhile TV viewership has fallen off in recent years as the Hawaii Bowl has found itself sharing the Christmas Eve date with the dominant NFL.

Last year’s UH-Middle Tennessee matchup managed only an 0.7 rating with 1.4 million viewers on ESPN, the smallest audience for the game in at least 11 years, according to Sports Media Watch. Much of the decline was attributable to going opposite the NFL Network’s Bengals-Texans game on a Saturday.

This year, while the Hawaii Bowl’s 3:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m. Eastern time) kickoff does not figure to go head-to-head with the NFL, it comes as the tail end event on a Sunday after a full slate of NFL games.

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A contract extension with its partners would enable the bowl to make the turn toward a 20th anniversary eclipsing the late Aloha Bowl (1982-2000) as Hawaii’s longest-running college bowl game.

“I’m excited about our game this year,” Derzis said. “There were naysayers after Year One (2002) that said we wouldn’t make it through Year Two. And, where are we now, Year 16 … or something?”