THOUGH MOST of us prefer playoffs, the greedy and self-serving suits manipulating college football show no sign of abandoning bowl games. By giving us more as we ask for less, it's the rough equivalent to responding to noise complaints by cranking up the volume.

Maybe, through the persuasive protest of indifference, we can find another way to get their attention.

There were almost 40,000 empty seats at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego last Wednesday for the Poinsettia Bowl, featuring Cal and Utah. Three days earlier, there were more than 40,000 empties for the Middle Tennessee State-Southern Mississippi game in the New Orleans Bowl at the Superdome.

On the day after Christmas, as Marshall faced Ohio, the announced attendance at the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl at Detroit's 65,000-seat Ford Field was 30,311.

If you're a bowl organizer, you ought to be embarrassed by the vast expanses of unoccupied seats. This is your reward after working for a year to polish and sell the game?

Of the 11 bowl games played through Monday, only two sold out: The Emerald Bowl, which brought USC to San Francisco to play Boston College at 42,000-seat AT&T Park; and the Las Vegas Bowl, which attracted caravans from those following BYU and Oregon State to 40,000-seat Sam Boyd Stadium.


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We now have 34 bowl games — a dozen more than a decade ago — because college administrators insist on a succession of games trying mightily to appear significant. That they often fail is no fault of the teams involved.

But few things convey failure more visibly than empty seats. Empties at home can get a coach fired faster than losing records. In bowl games, empties mock the notion of importance, illustrate fan apathy and provide open space for bird droppings.

Empty seats cannot and will not be ignored forever — not by college administrators with calculators for brains and cash registers for hearts.

They will forced to concede, perhaps before the current Bowl Championship Series contract expires in 2014, that this outdated system delivering games of little or no consequence to increasingly uninterested fans must be replaced.

Though some remaining bowl games — 23 including the two played Tuesday night — will sell out, most won't. Many won't come close.

And we will see the sighs and hear the grumbling about the economy, which can be a legitimate factor, certainly in a recession-battered place like Detroit.

The biggest barrier to consistent sellouts, though, is the utter absence of intrigue, or the kind of marquee status that comes when every game means something, as it would be with a 16-team playoff.

That's why the NCAA Basketball Tournament is the most riveting event on the annual sports calendar. With its spectacle and drama, March Madness compels fans to care about teams they've never heard of, from cities and towns they couldn't locate on a map. It creates Davids and Goliaths. Basketball meets Hollywood.

March Madness sells. Fans pack arenas to see unfamiliar faces from other parts of the country play championship hoops. The tournament is by far the biggest revenue generator in college sports, thanks to a $6 billion contract with CBS.

More to the point, NCAA Tournament venues don't typically have vast vacant areas. The games typically sell out, no matter the locations or the teams are involved. They are marquee events, with tickets in demand regardless of the economy.

The lords of college, mostly university presidents, cling to their beloved bowl games largely out of tradition. The system provides a means of measurement; the 68 teams earning bowl bids consider that indicative of success. The bowls are familiar and comfortable. I get that.

Fan polls consistently show a playoff system is preferred. One released Tuesday by Quinnipiac University revealed 63 percent wanting playoffs to 26 percent opting for the BCS system. The higher powers ignore that. Always have, probably always will.

But what about the numerous studies that show football playoffs payouts likely would at least double the take of the current bowl system?

What about the revenue projections showing college hoops with 20 percent to 50 percent annual growth in the coming years, with football at less than 10 percent per year?

Money talks to these folks, and empty seats assault their eyes. With these truths becoming more constantly and abundantly evident, they'll accept the desires of what amounts to a "movement."

Eventually, we'll settle into a playoff system. Sometime in the next decade, the quest for revenue will create a foundation and the empty seats will build the bridge.

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com.