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By: Doug Kelly

Director of Communications

Football Bowl Association

Gary Cavalli, the co-founder and lone Executive Director of the Foster Farms [formerly Emerald and Kraft Fight Hunger] Bowl, is retiring at the end of February.  Formerly an associate athletic director at his alma mater, Stanford University; and one of the founders of the American Basketball League, the pioneering forerunner to the WNBA, Cavalli has viewed the college football bowl landscape from the inside out.  He shared some thoughts in a conversation with

What are the biggest bowl industry changes you‘ve seen during your 14-year tenure with San Francisco’s bowl game?

“The post-season landscape has changed dramatically in the last fourteen years. When we started our game, there were twenty-six bowls. Now we have forty-one, with more apparently in the pipeline. That’s a huge change. And we’ve gone from the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) to the College Football Playoff. I think the BCS gets a bad rap. It accomplished its stated goal of picking the best two teams in the country to compete for a national championship. It also preserved the integrity of the best regular season in all of sports, and it played a large part in elevating college football from a regional to a national game. Now the playoffs have taken the sport to a new level in terms of popularity and awareness.”

When you look back at your games, which ones will you consider your favorites, and why?

“I have several favorites. Probably my number one was the 2006 Emerald Bowl between Florida State and UCLA. It was our first sellout, it was a great football game, and we had the honor of hosting the legendary Bobby Bowden. I think that game really put us on the map. Two years later, we had Cal vs. Miami, and the presence of the hometown Cal Bears dramatically increased our prestige and prominence in the Bay Area. After the 2010 season, we had to choose between Boise State, a team that had challenged for a No. 1 ranking early in the year, or Nevada, which upset Boise on Thanksgiving weekend. It was a tough decision, but we selected Nevada because they were 11-1 and their fans were really clamoring to come to San Francisco. It turned out to be the right choice, as they brought about twenty thousand fans with them and played a great game. We’ve had Navy on two occasions–2004 and 2012–and that’s always a great experience. And finally, this year’s game was very special to me because it was my last one. The fact that it featured two iconic programs–Nebraska and UCLA–and was one of our most entertaining games didn’t hurt.”

What are the essential elements of running a successful bowl game operation?

“The three key elements to a successful bowl game–or the ‘three T’s’ as my friend Gary Stokan used to say–are Teams, Title (Sponsor) and TV. If you have an attractive team matchup, a good TV partnership, and a supportive and involved title sponsor, chances are you will be successful. In terms of the operation itself, the two key elements are a host committee that takes excellent care of the teams and makes sure they have a first-class experience, and a dedicated, talented, hard-working staff that is committed to putting on a great event. I’ve been very fortunate to have both.”

When your bowl game was approved for play in 2002, it became the 26th overall game. Does it surprise you there are now 41?

“I think all of us are surprised at the number of bowls. The reason for this proliferation is that the paradigm has changed. In the early days, and really throughout the entire 20th Century, bowls were organized to promote tourism and reward two teams for a successful season. Now, there are two other drivers. One is to provide TV content. We have all these networks televising college football now–I’m old enough to remember when all we had was the ABC game of the week–and they have programming windows to fill. Bowl games are very popular with audiences and advertisers, so they provide good content for the networks. The second driver is that every conference commissioner wants to have a bowl opportunity available for all the bowl eligible teams in his conference. So in recent years we’ve had the new phenomenon of bowl games being created, and in some cases owned and operated, by TV networks and conferences. That’s why the number of bowls has grown so substantially.”

What effect do you believe the College Football Playoff has had on the other bowl games, both big and small?

“I think the playoff has increased the popularity of college football and heightened overall interest and awareness. However, I do think the playoff has had a significant impact on the other bowls. Nick Saban talked about this after winning the national championship, and I have to agree with him. From the start of the season, ESPN’s promotional message focused entirely on the playoff. From day one, their slogan was ‘Who’s In?’ The six bowls included in the semi-final rotation have benefited greatly from being part of the semi-finals. The rest of us have had to work that much harder to stay relevant and to attract media attention, fan interest, and sponsorship support.”

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing bowls in the future?

“I think there are two big challenges. One is in marketing and public relations. The other is financial. From a PR standpoint, we have to do a better job of getting our message across and explaining the value of bowl games. As I mentioned earlier, there is a huge fascination with and concentration on the playoff. But the rest of us aren’t chopped liver. There is tremendous value to each and every bowl game in building tourism, supporting non-profits in the community, providing the players with a memorable experience, creating interesting matchups, and putting on great football games for the enjoyment of fans throughout the country. The media may think these games are “meaningless,” but don’t tell that to the teams that play in them. I’ve seen fourteen winning teams in our bowl game, and they were all ecstatic. They also felt that their week in San Francisco was one of the highlights of their lives. We need people to understand that. Then financially, the challenge is to find a way to pay for everything. Costs are increasing for bowl organizers. Everything is going up–stadium costs, hotels, officials, insurance…you name it. And the conferences want higher payouts with lower ticket obligations. Costs are going up for fans, too. One of the complications of conference championships and Selection Sunday, is that we pick our teams later. That means fans have a tougher time getting decent flights and inexpensive hotel rooms. So some of them are choosing to stay home and enjoy the game on their 60″ HDTV, with their parking space in the driveway, their restroom down the hall, and their six-pack in the kitchen.”

What are some of the things you plan to do in“retirement?”

“Well, I’m not quite ready to be put out to pasture.  I’ve been teaching for the last five or six years at Stanford and USF [University of San Francisco]. I really enjoy it, and plan to continue. I also hope to do some writing. Back in the late 1960s and early ’70s, I started out as a sportswriter, so it would be a fitting return to my roots. On the personal front, I’m not much of a golfer, but my wife and I plan to do some traveling and spend more time with our children and grandchildren.”