SDCCU Holiday Bowl will not be played this year

A view of the field during 2019 Holiday Bowl at SDCCU Stadium.
A view of the field during 2019 Holiday Bowl between USC and Iowa at SDCCU Stadium.
(Los Angeles Times)

Local bowl organizers determine that physical, financial risks presented by COVID-19 are too great to stage 43rd annual game


For the first time since its inception in 1978, the SDCCU Holiday Bowl will not be played.

Holiday Bowl officials have decided health risks — both physical and financial — caused by the coronavirus pandemic were too great to stage this year’s 43rd annual bowl game in late December.

“This absolutely kills me,” said Mark Neville, executive director of the Holiday Bowl. “It’s so hard, because this is what we do.

“We have such a passionate group, our board and our volunteers They do it because it’s such a great thing for the community and it’s college football and it’s fun.”

“But the current status of the virus is not good. It’s trending the wrong way. We would never do anything that would risk the health of those participating in the game, the management group that are operating the game or the volunteers.”

The decision comes now, more than two months before the game would be played, Neville said, because “now is the time we start spending a lot of money to present the game.”

The nightmare scenario would be moving forward with plans and one week (or day) before kickoff having to cancel the game because of a COVID-19 outbreak on one of the teams.

“The real financial risk is there,” Neville said. “You’re seeing games get postponed left and right.”

Nearly three dozen FBS games have been canceled or postponed this season, the latest being in the Mountain West with cancellation of Saturday’s New Mexico-Colorado State game.

“If our game got canceled in December, now what?” Neville said. “In the worst case scenario, what if we have Florida State and Washington in our game and they get into town and five kids on Florida State’s team test positive. Then what?

“Then you’ve got all those expenses for flights; they’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to get out here.”

The San Diego Bowl Game Association, which operates the Holiday Bowl, is registered as a nonprofit organization with the IRS. It has reserves of $2.56 million, according to a 2019 Form 990 filing. That entire reserve could be wiped out by a last-minute cancellation. By making the decision now, losses are estimated in the mid-six figures.

The Holiday Bowl becomes the fourth postseason game to go dark this season — joining the Bahamas Bowl, Hawaii Bowl and Redbox Bowl —leaving 37 bowl games.

That number is certain to dwindle further in the coming days and weeks as other bowl groups determine the risks/rewards for playing a game this year.

One bowl official estimated only 30 postseason games will be played this year. That would mean just 60 slots available in a year that all 130 FBS teams are bowl eligible. The NCAA eliminated the six-win minimum requirement this season.

With a new six-year bowl cycle set to begin this year, the Holiday Bowl would have welcomed an ACC team for the first time against a Pac-12 team.

Another challenge for the game, if it had been played this year, is organizers would have had to find a new venue since San Diego State announced last month no more events will be held at SDCCU Stadium.

The last event held at the 53-year-old stadium was the 2019 Holiday Bowl. Iowa defeated USC 49-24 in the game.

The Holiday Bowl was the 14th bowl game chartered by the NCAA when it began just over four decades ago.

According to SDSU’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, the game’s annual average economic impact for the region the past decade is $30.96 million.

That includes an average of 28,748 hotel night stays in December, the city’s slowest time of year for tourism.

“The mission of our game is to generate tourism, visibility and economic impact for the region,” Neville said. “Because of the pandemic, because of the regional- and state-mandated protocols that are in place, No. 1, we’re not going to be able to have fans. No. 2, outside of the teams playing in the game, there’s not going to be any tourism.

“The economic impact is gone.”

Teams typically arrive in town several days before kickoff and enjoy a bowl week that includes visits to the San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld and a luncheon on a aircraft carrier, among other activities.

Virtually all of that would have been canceled this year, with teams likely flying in the day before the game and flying home the day after the game.

Special fan events would also have been canceled this year as well as the annual Port of San Diego Holiday Bowl parade, one of the game’s biggest side events.

In a normal year, the game would have paid each participating team approximately $3.2 million. That figure would have been slashed this year because state and county restrictions would have prevented fans from attending, eliminating the game’s primary revenue stream.

Revenue from ticket sales and title sponsorship are the largest revenue sources for team payout.

Tickets for the game range from $35 to $175. Ticket sales generate an estimated $4 million for the game (figuring an average ticket price of $80 and an average attendance of 51,909 over the past decade).

In the bowl industry, a game of the Holiday Bowl’s standing commands a title sponsorship in the low seven figures. That figure would likely have been substantially reduced this year because of the limited exposure under the circumstances.

“In the end, it’s extremely limited tourism and economic benefit for the region,” Neville said. “There’s real financial risk for our nonprofit organization and with the virus, we don’t want to jeopardize anyone’s health, depending on where the virus is trending health-wise.”