WASHINGTON -- In college football, there are two statistics bowl executive committees study -- a team's winning percentage and its ability to sell tickets … and not necessarily in that order.
Air Force figured out that being a good football team was only one part of the bowl equation. Before coach Troy Calhoun's first season in 2007, the Falcons were a troubling combination for the bowls: a winning team that barely sold any tickets.
"The most we had ever sold up until that point was like 2,500," Air Force athletic director Hans Mueh said. "So we had a reputation in the bowl community of not traveling well. Every time I met with folks, they'd give me the 'We'd love to have you, but …' "
That has changed dramatically. Air Force has sold plenty of tickets the last five bowl seasons, and in turn, bowl executives speak excitedly about the chance to land the Falcons.
The Military Bowl, which Air Force will play in Wednesday against Toledo, paid about $124,000 to the Independence Bowl to make sure it could get the Falcons. The Independence Bowl, which could have selected the Falcons, was counting on Air Force selling tickets and distributing them at Barksdale Air Force Base. The Military Bowl stepped up and made the financial contribution when it heard of the Independence Bowl's concern.
Mueh said the Poinsettia Bowl, which has the second pick among Mountain West bowl games, was strongly considering the Falcons before it invited TCU. Air Force was fifth place in the Mountain West and lost to all four teams that finished ahead of it in the standings. That matters little to bowl games, which need to fill seats to remain financially viable.
"In order to make it financially feasible you have to have all the parts come together," Military Bowl executive director Steve Beck said. "There are two main sources of revenue: corporate sponsorships and ticket sales. Air Force has helped us with both."
When Calhoun became coach in 2007, the athletic department put an emphasis on selling bowl tickets, knowing how important it was for their potential bowl destinations, and got creative. They got corporate sponsors involved. This year, L-3 Communications, EADS, Northrop, and Boeing were among the corporations that bought tickets to be distributed to airmen. Mueh credited EADS vice president Charles Coolidge, an academy graduate who helped rally support from fellow corporate sponsors.
The "Tickets for Troops" program distributed Military Bowl tickets from McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey to Tyndall AFB in Florida. Last year, Air Force sold 12,098 Independence Bowl tickets, and senior associate athletic director Jim Trego estimated 25 percent of those sales were from corporate sponsors.
This year, Calhoun sent four mass emails to Air Force fans urging them to buy tickets, for themselves or to donate. Individuals who donated $1,000 for tickets were rewarded with a signed Air Force jersey.
Air Force had an allotment of 10,000 Military Bowl tickets and sold out that allotment about a week before the game. That's why the Falcons have become an attractive commodity to bowls.
"Ultimately, to be able to earn respect in the bowl community, you want to play good ball, we have a brand as a school that's very attractive, and yet there is a factor that's involved as far as being able to bring people," Calhoun said. "If you want to be competitive in the future and build a football program, you have to be able to sell bowl tickets."
Air Force sold almost 10,000 tickets per game for its last four bowls, and passed 10,000 this year. In just a few years, the Falcons have completely changed their reputation of not traveling well, and that should continue to help them get favorable bowl destinations.
"Very proud," Calhoun said. "It speaks remarkably of our followers across the country."
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