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Military Bowl, San Jose State reach agreement; Spartans likely to play MAC team

By Mark Giannotto,

San Jose State, fresh off its first 10-win season since 1987, will play a team from the Mid-American Conference in the Military Bowl on Dec. 27 at RFK Stadium, bowl organizers announced Friday.

It will be San Jose State’s second trip to the Washington area this season. On Sept. 29, the Spartans defeated Navy, 12-0, in Annapolis.

The Spartans’ opponent likely will be chosen by the MAC on Saturday after Friday night’s conference championship game between No. 18 Kent State and No. 19 Northern Illinois. Northern Illinois won, 44-37, in double overtime in Detroit.

Besides the Golden Flashes and Huskies, there are five other bowl-eligible teams in the MAC: Bowling Green, Ohio, Ball State, Toledo and Central Michigan.

This year, the Military Bowl was slated to have the No. 8 pick of ACC teams and also had an agreement to be Army’s bowl destination.

But neither the Black Knights nor an ACC team will be playing at RFK Stadium. The ACC only has six bowl-eligible teams at the moment and Army is just 2-9 heading into its annual meeting with Navy next weekend, so Military Bowl Executive Director Steve Beck was forced to look elsewhere.

“If you have a strong conference tie with the ACC on one side and then you have the military angle on the other side, that’s what we bought into when we formed the game,” Beck said earlier this week. “I hate using the word ‘disappointed,’ but that’s what comes to mind. It’s not like the ACC is trying to not have enough bowl-eligible teams and it’s not like they entered into the contract thinking they wouldn’t.”

When the Military Bowl, originally known as the EagleBank Bowl, began in 2008, it settled on the ACC as a partner because many of the league’s fan bases are within driving distance of Washington.

But the agreement hasn’t worked out as Beck and company hoped. The ACC has sent a team to the Military Bowl just twice, in 2008 when Wake Forest played in the inaugural game and 2010 when Maryland played East Carolina.

That year, the hometown Terrapins and a passionate Pirates fan base helped attract a record crowd of 38,062 and, Beck said, brought in more than $18 million to the city.

But the bowl’s bottom line is hurt when its partners aren’t eligible to participate. Army, for instance, had agreed to account for half of the tickets in RFK Stadium, which has a capacity of more than 45,000 for football. But a team from a far-flung, second-tier conference will likely be able to negotiate that figure down.

In addition to the ACC, both the Southeastern Conference and Big Ten won’t be able to fulfill all of their bowl tie-ins this year.

That has created something of a free agent market among bowl games, and second-tier conferences that are scrambling to find the best possible scenario for their particular interests. In addition to monitoring games on recent weekends, Beck said he’s in constant communication with various conference officials campaigning on behalf of their teams.

“It’s the worst two weeks of the year for a commissioner,” said former Sun Belt Conference commissioner Wright Waters, who is the executive director of the Football Bowl Association, an organization that works to promote bowl games. “You’re tracking it like a hawk. You’re trying to figure out who’s gonna put two in the BCS and therefore have an opening at the bottom. And then calling that bowl, putting your team in the best light and trying as hard as you can to cut a deal. It’s like dominoes, and there’s got to be a better way of doing this.”

If Waters had his way, the bowl-selection process would be more of a free-market system. He believes there shouldn’t be any contracts between bowls and conferences for teams that finish worse than third in the standings. Then, he added, bowls that aren’t part of the top-tier Bowl Championship Series would have a better chance to attain success, whether that means drawing a big crowd and filling hotels or creating a marquee matchup to increased television ratings.

Beck is adamant that this year’s Military Bowl will be successful. In addition to donating at least $100,000 each year to the USO and giving away more than 5,000 tickets to military personnel, Beck said even the UCLA-Temple game in 2009 generated about $8 million for Washington.

“It does drive you crazy a little bit because you’re at the whim of how the teams play,” Beck said. “We’re gonna have a positive game. We’re gonna have a great game. We have every year. . . . The challenge is to make sure you have that matchup to create that.”

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