Instant Bowl: How the Frisco Football Classic sprang to life overnight

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The tradition-steeped Rose Bowl is considered the “Granddaddy of them all.”

But the hastily arranged Frisco Football Classic, which kicks off Thursday in the same stadium that on Tuesday hosted the Frisco Bowl, says far more about what’s driving the proliferation of postseason games.

The Frisco Football Classic was ginned up the week before this season’s bowl pairings were announced to solve a thorny problem that arose when 83 teams finished the regular season with at least six wins. That was one too many bowl-eligible teams for the 82 slots in the 41 preapproved bowls.

So ESPN Events, which owns and operates more than one-third of the bowl games, huddled with the conferences that stood to lose out and proposed a 42nd bowl. With the NCAA’s Football Oversight Committee agreeing Dec. 2 to waive a deadline for certifying bowl games that had passed eight months before, a new bowl was born virtually overnight.

As a one-off, the Frisco Football Classic — which will pit North Texas (6-6) of Conference USA against Miami of Ohio (6-6) of the Mid-American Conference — will be canceled upon its conclusion.

This season’s 42 bowl games set a record — up from 35 in 2011, 25 in 2001 and 18 in 1991.

Still, there’s no sign that the sport has hit a saturation point among fans, conference leaders or certainly residents of the Dallas exurb of Frisco, which bills itself as “Sports City USA.”

“I don’t think ‘football’ and ‘saturation’ would go together in the same sentence,” said Frisco Mayor Jeff Cheney, who planned to attend both bowl games at Frisco’s 20,500-seat Toyota Stadium this week, as well as the Football Championship Subdivision title game that Frisco will host Jan. 8.

The same can be said of ESPN, which broadcasts all but a handful of bowls and now owns and operates 18 of them (43 percent) via ESPN Events.

Clint Overby, vice president of ESPN Events, called the creation of the Frisco Football Classic a win for all concerned.

“If you’re bowl eligible and you’ve been telling your players all season that you’re playing for something, and all of the sudden you don’t have the chance to do that, that’s a potential negative,” Overby said. “College football continues to be incredibly popular. The bowl does everything we want it to do in the college football postseason: It serves the student-athletes, the participating institutions, and it serves fans.”

CBS football analyst Jerry Palm agrees that 42 bowls isn’t too many, given the TV ratings for even mediocre matchups.

“The primary thing you have to consider, though, is that ESPN is not doing this for charity,” Palm said. “If they’re owning and operating bowl games, they’re making money at it. The programming is valuable to them.”

It is something of a Christmas miracle that the Frisco Football Classic came together in a matter of weeks.

“This is very much the definition of building it while you fly it,” said Overby, alluding to the challenges of the compressed timetable.

The heavy logistical lifting fell primarily to Sean Johnson, executive director of the Frisco Bowl since its inaugural game in 2017, who was also named executive director of the Frisco Football Classic.

According to Overby, ESPN Events discussed the potential of adding the bowl game with its conference partners the morning of Nov. 30. On Dec. 2, the Football Oversight Committee granted the waiver.

“For this set of facts and this timing, there wasn’t much pushback,” said Ty Halpin, director of Championships and Alliances for Division I football.

With the 42nd bowl authorized but its name, date and venue yet to be announced, Palm dubbed it the “Mystery Meat Bowl” in updating his CBS Sports.com bowl projections that night.

“The bowl that was already there is called the Frisco Bowl,” Palm noted. “Now this one is called the Frisco Classic, even though there is really nothing classic about it — and it will exist for less than a month. That is classic.”

The choice of date, time and location wasn’t difficult, Overby explained, because there were limited options. The game had to be shoehorned into an ESPN broadcast window not already occupied by another bowl and that didn’t go head-to-head against an NFL game. And location had to include an available stadium that was “game-ready” and within proximity to an airport.

Frisco’s Toyota Stadium, just 30 minutes north of Dallas, fit that bill. And Dec. 23 at 3:30 p.m. Eastern time was the best time slot.

The bigger challenge was figuring out how to house, feed, entertain and arrange gifts for the additional 250 football players and officials from North Texas and Miami on the heels of providing exactly that for a comparable contingent from San Diego State and Texas San Antonio in town for the Frisco Bowl two days earlier.

Johnson, who had a strong suspicion the new bowl would land in his market, started exploring hotel options before it was official. His initial plan was “a seamless transition,” which makes him chuckle in retrospect, in which players in the first bowl would check out Tuesday and players in the second bowl would check in to the same hotels Wednesday, the day before their game.

But players from the first bowl wanted to spend an extra night, given that game’s 7:30 p.m. start. And players from the second bowl wanted to arrive earlier, as is customary for bowl teams. So he had to expand the search for suitable hotels with help from officials at North Texas, roughly 30 miles away.

It was hardly the only logistical hurdle that required an audible by Johnson, who had to orchestrate two bowls with a full-time staff of 1½ people, roughly 20 college interns and can-do Texas spirit.

“It has been a whirlwind, I’ll tell you that,” Johnson said at the end of a 20-hour day, detailing the frenzied effort to create a second website for ticket sales as well as distinct Twitter and Instagram accounts for the new bowl.

Volunteers were dispatched to buy crates of snacks and soft drinks to stock the additional players’ lounges. An array of electronics, apparel and potential items for moms were corralled for the players’ gift suites, where players can “shop” for their preferred bowl gifts. A movie outing to “Spider-Man: No Way Home” was arranged for the night Frisco Football Classic players arrived.

But the plan to paint the teams’ names in the end zones for both bowl games had to be scrapped. Given Toyota Stadium’s natural turf, the paint couldn’t be removed and repainted after Tuesday’s bowl without destroying the grass for Thursday’s bowl and, in turn, for the FCS title game.

Though finding sponsorship wasn’t Johnson’s top priority, ESPN announced Dec. 15 that a Dallas-based tax services and software provider had signed on, making it the Frisco Football Classic presented by Ryan.

Given that it will be the game’s first and last edition, whoever tallies the most touchdown passes, rushing yards and tackles Thursday afternoon is assured of being a bowl record holder for all time.

For Johnson and his crew, the metric of success is more modest yet equally meaningful in his view.

“What I tell my interns when they come in,” he said, is, “ ‘Hey, if you walk out into the stadium on Thursday and see just 2,000 people, don’t let that be a measure of our success. Our success lies in how well we are able to take care of our student-athletes. Do they have smiles on their faces? Are they having a good time while they’re here? Will they leave Frisco and say, “That’s a pretty nice town, and they did a nice job?”

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