FORT WORTH, Texas – As the growing stable of bowl games run by ESPN Events continues to permeate college football TV broadcast each holiday season, ESPN officials believe at least one game can be a blueprint for those still finding their legs.
The Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl finished its 12 edition Monday at TCU's Amon Carter Stadium. Navy (9-4) pulled away from Middle Tennessee (8-5) in the second half for a 24-6 victory, giving service academies a 3-3 combined mark in the game.
Eleven years ago, ESPN began the Armed Forces Bowl under another name, the Fort Worth Bowl. Bell Helicopter landed as title sponsor in 2006, and despite a two-year temporary residence at SMU in 2010 and 2011 because of a major remodeling of Amon Carter, the bowl continued to thrive into its second decade.
Starting in 2014 with the addition of the Boca Raton Bowl and Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, Ala., ESPN Events will have 11 dates on the crowded bowl annual bowl calendar. Counted among the more sturdy acquisitions are the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl and the BHAFB – the latter being a relative newcomer to bowls in general.
"Especially the last six years, this has been one of our more consistent performers," ESPN Events senior director of events Clint Overby said. "Las Vegas is also one of the more consistent. Since the ice bowl, this event has had good crowds, a great sponsor base and community involvement."
The "ice bowl," a teeth-chattering, lightly-attended game with wind chills in the teens for the second year of the old Fort Worth Bowl in 2004, was predicted widely to be the event's death knell.
"We always enter all of our businesses as long-term ventures," said Overby, recalling the early days of ESPN's involvement with the fledgling event. "You have initial ups and downs to navigate. You prepare for challenges that exist when you start a new venture. Over time, you balance and make it work."
The BHAFB made it work and continues to with its can't-miss celebration of those who served and still serve in all branches of the U.S. armed services. Navy's first-time presence on Monday helped broaden the game's appeal to all three academies that compete in the Football Bowl Subdivision (The U.S. Coast Guard does not). Army and Air Force are past participants.
The bowl's mission and sponsor support have helped see the underwriting of a number of large contributions to military-related charities through the years. Ultimately, that community involvement convinced ESPN Events that its involvement with the BHAFB was the right decision, long-term.
"All the things going on in and around the game are important to those who are in our armed services and those who have served," BHAFB executive director Brant Ringler said. "We have such presentations as a $100,000 check for Hiring for Heroes and another $300,000 check for Operation Homefront. These are just the tips of the iceberg.
"Over half the people in the stadium are active duty military personnel thanks to the generosity of our sponsors and related groups. …We also are very fortunate and blessed to have Bell Helicopter as a sponsor of the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl for the last eight years. This has been vital to the bowl and its activities."
An unstated/unofficial goal to have an academy on one sideline is in keeping with ESPN's desire to push college football into areas that otherwise might be exposed to a national television audience – Middle Tennessee among them, Overby said.
Simply filling programming through bowl games is important for ESPN Events, but it's not the end-all bottom line.
"(Operating bowl games) are a programming opportunity, he said. "But for us it's much more. It's also a service to conferences and schools that might not have existing opportunities. We can extend college sports into other venues. You have the bands, the fan bases and communities that might not have been involved in a lot of these games.
"For us, it's deeper than just programming. We see it as service- and opportunity-based, as well as business-based."
If including a service academy team when available in a military-themed sporting event is in keeping with those goals, then so be it.
"Stated or understated, we want to involve multiple institutions," Overby added. "Military academies are one of the potential opportunities to keep in the mix, if they're available."
In Fort Worth, the BHAFB brand has resonated, but ESPN Events naturally wants to keep growing the event. It's a perfect fit at TCU and will continue to be so – Monday's game drew an announced crowd of more than 39,000.
The event's usual military-themed pageantry with a flyover, skydivers, branch tributes, swearing-in ceremonies and a holiday surprise for one family on the field when their active-duty serviceman son/brother arrived unannounced from overseas, has helped give ESPN Events the kind of community anchor it wants associated with one of its bowls.
"The next 10 years, we have all they ingredients here to be successful," Overby said. "The stadium, this city, the sponsor base. We really want this to extend to locals here and make them see that it benefits the community, and that it's a show worth seeing time and again. We want it to keep resonating. From that standpoint, we think the next 10 years will be very strong."