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Fiesta Bowl, others ushering in new era

A phone call made to the Monitor's sports desk a year ago provided a glimpse into the changing world of college bowl games. The caller, who was only doing his public relations duty for a client, wished to set the record straight. The Fiesta Bowl, he informed this writer, was now officially the Sunkist Fiesta Bowl, a name change reflecting a major sponsorship agreement.

The conversation was amicable enough. The caller even professed to understand the media's general reluctance to use the longer, commercialized name when plain, old ``Fiesta Bowl'' would do - and without appearing to be a free ad.

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The discussion provided an enlightening preview, however, of the latest trend in post-season football: The marriage of bowl games and major corporate sponsors.

A handful of bowls have gone this route, including the Sugar Bowl, the first of the traditional Big Four to grant name rights to a supporting company. As the result of a five-year agreement with the United States Fidelity and Guaranty Insurance Company, it is now the USF&G Sugar Bowl.

Other mergers have produced the Sea World Holiday Bowl, the John Hancock Sun Bowl, and the Mazda Gator Bowl, and the promise, in some cases, of corporate logos on the 50-yard line, game tickets, and prominence in TV promotions.

Other bowls are almost sure to follow this emerging pattern, since corporate tie-ins offer a degree of financial security that TV contracts once afforded. The glut of televised regular-season and post-season games has made it harder to sell advertising, and thereby threatened the flow of TV dollars to bowl games.

The biggies, like the Rose, Cotton, and Orange, don't appear worried yet, but they might someday follow the Sugar Bowl, which moved to secure its financial house in the wake of sagging TV ratings.

Then, too, corporate sponsorships may be the only way either for the big boys to stay a step ahead or for the lesser bowls to keep pace.

The Rose Bowl is currently the richest of the 18 bowls, with an estimated payout to each team of $5.8 million. The Orange, Cotton, and Sugar have usually formed the next tier, but now the Fiesta and Florida Citrus Bowls, the latter supported by Florida's citrus growers, have entered the club offering participating teams $2 million or more.

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In and of itself, however, financial parity won't necessarily erode the status of the older, more-established bowls. What might topple the status quo, though, is just what has occurred this season with the Fiesta Bowl.

By virtue of being free of conference tie-ins, the Fiesta could play matchmaker to two independents - Miami and Penn State - looking to square off in a dream game. The Florida Citrus and Gator Bowls also entered a month-long bidding war, but ultimately the Fiesta offered the best package of money, prestige, and date - a special Jan. 2 ``Duel in the Desert'' (8:15 p.m., ET, on NBC) from Tempe, Ariz.

Walter Byers, executive director of the NCAA, which certifies the bowls, labeled the shift from New Year's Day an ``arrogant'' move, and others have been disturbed by this effort to garner maximum attention.

But if this attempt to create a Super Bowl atmosphere seems inconsistent with the purpose of college sports, it at least comes as no surprise. Big-time college football is, after all, ``big time'' and has been for many years.

About the only thing missing has been a championship game, and here, Fiesta officials sensed, was a golden opportunity to give many people just such a long-awaited event - one that the Big Four bowls, locked in to various conferences, haven't been able to arrange.

The Fiesta matchup, the first between two perfect-record bowl teams in 13 years, may just be the straw that breaks the camel's back - or in this case, leads to some sort of playoff/championship format at the major college level. There has never been one, largely because a playoff seemingly would dilute the importance of the bowls, which have been so good for the game.

The forces now exist, however, for a rethinking of the major-college bowl season. The Fiesta, with its ``national championship'' game, may just usher in a new openess to integrating the existing bowls into some type of regular championship showdown.

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