This is the home town of baseball Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Satchel Paige, Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin and the Senior Bowl, the 50-year-old college all-star game. Like it or not, the city also is home to the newest bowl game, which will be played Wednesday night between Texas Christian and East Carolina.
If this season's 23 Division I-A bowl games seem like overkill, don't whine about it to the local boosters of the inaugural Mobile Alabama Bowl. They spent $950,000 in public money for bowl costs and expect to reap benefits from an expected 15,000 visitors and national television coverage. Streets in downtown have been swept clean, and hotels are doing better-than-average business. "Welcome" signs are on every block.
And despite sagging ticket sales to the Mobile Alabama and other less prominent bowl games, a line of cities is forming behind Mobile to host a bowl game. Organizers for the Freedom Bowl in San Francisco, the Silicon Valley Bowl in San Jose, and a bowl game in Houston will have their second appearance before the NCAA postseason committee in April. All three cities could be approved to host bowls at the end of the 2000 season.
The NCAA requires cities to make a minimum commitment of $2 million to host a bowl game, which includes $500,000 to stage the event and a payout of at least $750,000 to each team.
But the glut of bowl games doesn't sit well with some college coaches and administrators, many of whom feel they must accept a bowl bid to satisfy fans.
East Carolina Athletic Director Mike Hamrick said schools are almost forced to accept invitations to smaller bowls, even if it means losing money. The perception among fans is that a team hasn't had a good season unless it is invited to a bowl game.
"You have to go. If you don't, the fans would scream and holler," Hamrick said. "The real reason you go is to reward the student-athletes. But we're probably going to lose $150,000" on the trip to Mobile.
Mobile, however, is excited to be hosting East Carolina and TCU. Mayor Michael Dow said the game is part of a sports and entertainment package that is energizing downtown Mobile. Clinton Johnson, president of the city council, was asked to name one negative aspect of the game and said: "I can't. We expect tremendous publicity, and we expect some economic benefit. We have a rich tradition in sports, and this fits right in with our city."
Mike Gottfried, the ESPN college football analyst, former head coach at the University of Cincinnati and the University of Pittsburgh and a Mobile resident, has been the force behind the Mobile Alabama Bowl. He lined up Tennessee football coach Phil Fulmer and former baseball star Pete Rose to serve as guest speakers at events for the game.
Gottfried said the city already has been approached by four corporations that want to sponsor the game next season.
There's some question as to just how popular the game will be with fans in Mobile. Asked how many tickets have been sold for the game, Mobile Bowl General Manager Bud Ratliff said Monday, "We're not sure, but we'll have a good crowd." Gottfried said he wasn't sure how many tickets had been sold.
Phyllis Ballinger, the assistant ticket manager at TCU, said Monday the school had distributed 4,000 of the 7,500 tickets it was allotted, which included complimentary tickets for families of players.
ECU's Hamrick said his school will bring 7,500 to 8,000 fans. ECU tried to sell 12,000 tickets to the game, which will be played at 40,000-seat Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
The Mobile Alabama Bowl isn't the only bowl having trouble selling tickets. Last Friday, one day before Fresno State played Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl, Fresno ticket manager Bob Moosbrugger still had 6,000 tickets to sell from his school's allotment of 12,500.
"At this point, we're hoping to break even at this game," Moosbrugger said. "We averaged 36,000 fans this season, so we thought it would be easy to sell the tickets to this game, especially with the game in Las Vegas."
But when it comes to bowl games, ECU's Hamrick is less concerned with ticket sales than with what he perceives as the inequity of college football's postseason system.
"We're in a bowl that pays out $750,000 while a team like Miami [Fla.], who we beat, is in a bowl that pays out $1.5 million and they lost four games," said Hamrick, whose team went 9-2. "How fair is that? We'll probably lose $150,000 on the game. It's three days before Christmas, and that makes it tough. But that's the fight you fight at the East Carolinas of the world."
Jim Delany, the commissioner of the Big Ten, agreed that the system can create unfairness. He only has to look at his own conference for an example. Minnesota is 8-3, but Purdue--which went 7-4 but starts quarterback Drew Brees, a Heisman Trophy finalist--is playing Jan. 1 in the Outback Bowl (payout per team: $1.9 million). Minnesota will play Oregon on Dec. 31 in the Sun Bowl, with a payout of $1 million per team.
"I wouldn't be able to counter his [Hamrick's] argument," said Delany, whose conference has seven of its 11 teams in bowl games. "I think he makes a very good argument. It looks like the stronger team is going to a lower-ranked bowl."
East Carolina might not be going to the bowl it desired, but it is luckier than Louisiana Tech, which finished 8-3 and wasn't invited anywhere. Eleven Division I-A teams had six wins and weren't invited to bowls, including two that weren't eligible with 6-6 records.
The three bowls that could join the postseason parade next season could find just enough extra teams eligible for their games.
"It's a function of supply and demand," Delany said. "If there is a TV company willing to pay the rights fees and a community willing to put on a game, then you can have a bowl game. Does everyone make money? No. Is there a huge payout? No. But is it important to players and fans? It usually is."