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A Simple Solution To The 'Stars Skipping Bowl Games' Problem

Want college football stars like Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey to play in bowl games? The answer is simple: pay them.

In the last week, star running backs Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey—two players that entered the season with immense Heisman hype—announced that they will be skipping their teams' respective bowl games in order to get a jump on NFL Draft preparation.

On Tuesday, the two backs were joined by a third, Baylor's Shock Linwood, although he doesn't have the same star power (or, in all likelihood, draft prospects). However, all three signal a coming trend.

While we all love bowl season, and they can be good showcase games for players to build their profiles on a national stage, for players like Fournette and McCaffrey the risks of playing in what amount to exhibition games outweigh the rewards.

Fournette and McCaffrey each put up eye-popping numbers in 2015, with McCaffrey breaking Barry Sanders' record for all-purpose yardage in a season. Each back dealt with injuries throughout the 2016 season, costing them a combined six games this year.

To be frank, for players who are likely to be drafted early, there is very little incentive to play in any of the non-College Football Playoff bowl games. For LSU and Stanford, two well-established programs, winning the Outback and Sun Bowls would be nice, but they're hardly transformative moments for teams that aim higher every year. And Fournette and McCaffrey have little to prove on the college field.

In leaving the bowl games, and their teams, behind, Fournette and McCaffrey are making largely financial decisions. There is little to gain from playing in the Outback and Sun Bowls, but plenty to lose, especially considering the pair's recent injury history.

If those Bowl games want those marquee names on the field going forward, there is an easy fix: give the players a cut of game revenues.

There is only one real reason that the college football bowl structure exists as currently constituted: money. The non-playoff bowl games are fun exhibitions, but they decide nothing. They do, however, fill key television hours during the holiday season, when plenty will tune in to anything football. ESPN has spent millions to air 38 of the 41 bowl games in 2016, leading to ridiculous expansion of the bowl slate over the last few decades. No one is establishing the Gildan New Mexico Bowl out of the goodness of his heart. Even low-level games between MAC and Sun Belt opponents draw solid viewership in December.

The College Football Playoff is a serious moneymaker, but so are nightly match-ups during the weeks leading up to it.

Last night, the Boca Raton Bowl between Western Kentucky and Memphis had fewer than 25,000 attendees, but Pete Thamel's dispatch for Sports Illustrated draws a vivid picture of how successful these games are for those with financial stakes in them.

Outside the stadium on a humid evening, the proliferation of sponsor tents and people hawking goods made it feel like a flea market popped up around the stadium. There were booths for organic juices, a woman handing out red Tire Kingdom koozies and a Coke truck (unfortunately) blasting “Uptown Funk.” And there was, of course, a tent for a local ESPN Radio station, ESPN Deportes and an ESPN VIP party to thank all the sponsors.

If there was a soundtrack to all this, it would have been a cash register ringing in perpetuity. And this is the Boca Raton Bowl, which didn’t have a title sponsor this year. Imagine the corporate money printing at the marquee bowls in bigger stadiums with better match-ups in bigger cities?

Thamel cites the aforementioned New Mexico Bowl, one of the least enticing games on the bowl slate, which stomped an excellent Butler-Indiana overtime basketball game in the ratings back in 2012, and last year's Russell Athletic Bowl, which pulled the same rating as Duke vs. UNC, college basketball's premier rivalry. Most reading this probably don't remember what that bowl match-up even was (Baylor vs. UNC). I watched the entire game—an impressive showcase of offensive ingenuity by an injury-plagued Bears team—and a year later, I certainly didn't.

For more evidence that bowl games—all bowl games—are big business, one doesn't need to look farther than the salaries of the people tasked with putting on the events.

A 2012 report by USA Today found that the average salary for bowl directors in 2011 was $438,000, with Outback Bowl director Jim McVay pulling in a high of $753,946. Those figures have almost certainly gone up in the last five years.

With significant corporate backers, as well as the pull of ESPN behind most games, there is huge money being thrown around for these games. In any other athletic model, the players would be getting a large chunk of it. Alas, this is college football, where the notion of "amateurism" is still considered sacrosanct.

In an alternate universe where Christian McCaffrey could pitch Hyundais for a few weeks, and Leonard Fournette could star in a commercial eating a Bloomin' Onion. Each could be paid for his time, and the star running backs might consider playing in these final games. In these instances, injuries played a part in their decisions, so they may have still decided to jump. Either so, the precedent has now been set.

Eventually, the world of college athletics is going to need to be honest about its existence as big business.

The bowl system, which is entirely that, is a great place to start. If the bowls and their sponsors want to guarantee that the next Leonard Fournette participates in their game, they (and the NCAA) need make it financially responsible for him to do so. Otherwise, the players are absolutely making the right decision to skip bowl season.