College football is rich with statistics, particularly during bowl games when color commentators have an entire season full of fresh numbers to draw upon. The GoDaddy Bowl was no exception and anyone who was tuned into to ESPN Jan. 5 may recall the graphics that accompanied new drives explaining such things as where Ball State ranked nationwide in total passing yards (9th) and how that compared to Arkansas State quarterback Adam Kennedy entering the game with the fifth-best completion percentage in the FBS.
Number crunchers may also appreciate the Senior Bowl, where NFL scouts dissect every aspect of a potential recruit’s college football career, while the players also try to exhibit their best qualities in a single week and raise their draft stock. Both of these games take place at Mobile’s venerable Ladd-Peebles Stadium, which has some interesting statistics of its own.
For example, of the 30 different stadiums that host post-season college football games, Ladd is the third-smallest (40,000 capacity) and fifth-oldest (completed in 1948). The other stadiums hold an average of 61,356 people, or 53 percent more than can squeeze into Ladd, while the average age of those stadiums is 38 — 27 years younger than our Ladd.
In recent years the ongoing feasibility of Ladd has been called into question, especially while taxpayers are routinely pouring money into a facility, which arguably, has exceeded its functional life span. In any given year, it is almost exclusively used for football and beside the two bowl games this season, also hosted six home games for the University of South Alabama and 16 high school football games.
But is size everything and does age matter? This year’s BCS title game was held in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, which was completed in 1922 and features a capacity of 92,592. While it’s the largest stadium in the college football bowl circuit, it’s also the oldest.
Meanwhile, Ladd’s General Manager Vic Knight believes Mobile’s stadium has unique qualities that are actually sought after by its bowl partners.
“Ladd works well for the events it has and there have actually been a lot of upgrades through the years,” Knight said during a walk-through prior to the GoDaddy Bowl. �
A heavy rainfall had hit the city a day before and 24-hours later, there was still water pooled in the concourse under the bleachers, but the $311,000 artificial turf installed the previous summer was dry to the touch.
“The turf is a big, big positive,” he said. “From the player’s standpoint, this is NFL-quality turf and it’s as good as it gets. In fact, there are a lot of NFL stadiums that have worse field issues than we do. You can come out here when it’s pouring down rain but the field is draining and it’s dry enough to run and cut on.”
The turf is one of a number of upgrades, including new and renovated corporate suites and a press box that have cost city and county taxpayers more than $3 million since 2009. That figure does not include the stadium’s annual operating budget or sponsorship payments allocated to encourage the bowl games to stay in Mobile.
“You still have to bring in all this stuff for the hospitality and in some cases that can be looked at as an advantage,” Knight said. “If you sponsor a game in Bryant-Denny Stadium or the Superdome, you’re not going to have a hospitality tent inside the stadium where you can come and go as you please. That’s a big amenity that just isn’t an option at many stadiums. Here you can wander between your seat and the tent and still watch the game on a simulcast. But if your company has a pre-game tent outside some other stadium, you’re not going to get a pass out. Once you’re in, you’re in. Other places may have more suites, but if we can sell 25 tents to corporate sponsors, that’s a big number. It’s a popular amenity and to make GoDaddy and the Senior Bowl work that’s a part of it.”
GoDaddy Brand Manager David Welsh called the corporate relationship with the stadium and the game “symbiotic,” saying it was the goal of GoDaddy to maximize exposure for the game itself, while hoping the company gets the same thing in return.
“The value for us is that it’s a nice tie-in with our customer base,” he said. “We have narrowed our focus on small businesses, particularly those that have a really great idea but don’t know how to market that idea further. We know entrepreneurs are a very passionate group of people and sports fans are a very passionate group so for us it goes hand-in-hand. We’ve been [sponsoring the bowl] for three years now, and we’ve had nothing but positive feedback. It’s good timing for a bowl game, the teams are always competitive and the fans and viewers are always there for us.”
Chris Morgan, the director of game operations and corporate sponsorships for the Senior Bowl, expressed a similar sentiment, stressing that the Senior Bowl’s 63-year relationship with Ladd Stadium and Mobile is maintained with more than familiarity.
“We essentially have three revenue streams that keep us going as a business,” he said. “Ticket sales, fees from broadcast rights and corporate sponsorships.”
Morgan said although the Senior Bowl has had title sponsors come and go (candy-maker Reese’s is in its first year of a four-year contract) the game has managed to retain many secondary sponsors for decades, a feat he attributes largely to the hospitality of Mobile and the amenities of Ladd Stadium.
“Our relationship has been outstanding and they have done a really good job,” Morgan said of Ladd’s management, which is a relatively new arrangement with the third-party Mishkin Group, Knight’s employer. “Despite some rumors over the years, we’re not going anywhere and Ladd is the only venue we have that can accommodate the Senior Bowl, the GoDaddy Bowl and South Alabama’s program so you need to be able to work well together. They’ve made some improvements and I’ve heard fewer and fewer complaints every year. It’s never going to be perfect when you have 40,000 people, but they’ve made sure the playing facility is top-notch, they accommodate for our sponsors and they do the best they can for the fan experience. That’s why we don’t always have to rely on the biggest-name players to sell tickets. People just enjoy coming to the game.”
But if big names help, Senior Bowl organizers had secured a number of them prior to this year’s contest on Jan. 25. As of this publication’s deadline, Alabama quarterback and Mobile native A.J. McCarron was still non-committal, but his teammates, Crimson Tide linebacker C.J. Mosley, wide receiver Kevin Norwood and punter Cody Mandell will be there. They will play alongside Auburn fullback Jay Prosch, defensive end Dee Ford and cornerback Chris Davis — yeah, that “Kick Six” Chris Davis.
Senior Bowl PR executive Rob Lehocky said participation in the bowl’s activities is considered vital for most invitees, especially among those that are not a top-five lock for the NFL draft.
“The only people that ever decline are the people guaranteed to be a top-five pick,” he said. “Maybe their agent doesn’t want them to play, but the trend is more and more that it’s a can’t-miss event for NFL prospects.”
McCarron is currently a projected third-round pick.
In an unrelated tale, Lehocky made an example of former West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith, who was projected to be a first-round pick entering the 2013 NFL draft but declined an invitation to the Senior Bowl. At the same time, quarterback E.J. Manuel of Florida State did accept the invitation and was later drafted 16th overall by the Buffalo Bills, signing a four-year contract worth $8.8 million. Smith, who was the better quarterback on paper, was eventually drafted 38th overall in the second round, agreeing to a four-year deal with the New York Jets worth $5 million. After the draft, Smith fired his agent.
While the payout at the Senior Bowl is largely individual, college programs participating in the GoDaddy Bowl consider it a more collective achievement. Bill Scholl, the athletic director at Ball State University, left Mobile satisfied even though his team lost when a last-second field goal was blocked by Arkansas State.
“Anytime the season ends with a bowl invitation it’s a big deal,” he said. “It is always one of the major goals of any program and our fans and athletes were really excited about getting back to Mobile. It’s such a validation of the success we’ve had throughout the season and we all play sports for a variety of reasons and winning or losing doesn’t necessarily make or break the experience, but losing isn’t as enjoyable. Ball State has yet to win a bowl game so our first win will be that much sweeter.”
Back at Ladd, Knight said part of the job was making sure the 65-year-old stadium was prepared for any unforeseen game day-problems. There probably aren’t any statistics for how often a toilet might clog, or the probability that an electrical surge will cripple the lights, but citing a partial power outage that temporarily darkened the Superdome during the 2013 Super Bowl, Knight said Ladd has to be ready for anything.
“The improvements made have enabled the stadium to survive and continue to host these events, but it’s like anything that has some age on it, you have challenges in keeping it running from the scoreboards to the lights and plumbing all those things show age and break, so you have to continually monitor that and be prepared to fix it,” Knight said. “Even the big guys aren’t immune to it. On game day we’ll have a back-up Internet guy here, a back-up phone guy, we’ll have a back-up heating and air guy on standby. We’ll have a plumber here, we’ll have electricians and a scoreboard guy from Birmingham. You’ve got that time between when the gates open and when the final whistle is blown that everything has to work and you don’t get a chance to fix it tomorrow.”