A peek into the selection process – A Hawai‘i Bowl Q&A with Director of Athletics Chris Massaro

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MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Middle Tennessee football is currently rapidly preparing for its bowl trip west to the Aloha State, where the Blue Raiders will take on the San Diego State Aztecs on Christmas Eve at 7 p.m. CT.
 
It will be the second island bowl in as many seasons for the Blue Raiders, who for the next couple of weeks will still be the reigning Bahamas Bowl Champions. MTSU’s selection to the Hawai’i Bowl, understandably, has led to some questions on how the bowl selection process works and how Blue Raider fans that might be unable to make the quick turnaround can help support the program.
 
GoBlueRaiders.com Staff Writer Sam Doughton sat down with Chris Massaro earlier this month to learn a bit about how the bowl selection process works behind the scenes in Conference USA, how MTSU was selected for this year’s Hawai’i Bowl, some of the benefits of the selection Massaro experienced when the Blue Raiders went to Honolulu in 2016, as well as how fans can continue their support of the Blue Raiders from the mainland.
 
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
 

 
SD: MTSU last went to the Hawai’i Bowl in 2016. What do you know about the bowl and the type of event it will be for the student athletes and fans who are making the trip, and how can Middle Tennessee capitalize on a second island bowl in as many years?
 
CM: The Hawai’i Bowl is a tremendous experience for our student athletes. They run one of the best bowls that I’ve ever been to. It’s fantastic. We recognize that it’s hard to get there, but once you get there it’s a fantastic experience for all involved. Their Luau is the best bowl event I’ve ever been to. So, I’m excited for our student athletes, none of them have been to the Hawai’i Bowl before.
 
On the recruiting trail, our football coaching staff will be able to highlight that we’ve been to these premier island settings for our bowl games. Getting the chance to go to Hawai’i or the Bahamas are often once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Many of our players will now be able to say they’ve been to both. That’s the type of experience that can be very attractive to future student athletes.
 
The Hawai’i Bowl has a ton of prestige to it. It has great history, Notre Dame and BYU have both played in the Hawai’i Bowl, and we’re proud to be part of that history. We’re proud to be playing San Diego State this year. When I look at the teams we’ve played in bowl games, I would say the Aztecs and Navy might have the best brands that we’ve matched up against. Here’s a chance for us to play a team that we’ve never played before, that has a great brand and to play them in a bowl game, that’s exciting. The Hawai’i Bowl, being the only bowl game on Christmas Eve, also gets good numbers ratings wise, so the university is going to receive great national exposure.
 
There’s a lot of positives about going to Hawai’i. We do recognize some of the deficiencies of it. It’s difficult for fans, on a quick turnaround, to make arrangements to travel to Hawai’i. We know that, and ESPN knows that, and other stakeholders understand that as well.
 
SD: I suppose the best way to start out here is to start at the beginning. In today’s college football landscape, how does the Bowl selection process go from start to finish, and who are we communicating with during that process?
 
CM: You start with the conference. The conference has seven bowl tie-ins, and I track that pretty closely, as far whether Conference USA is going to have seven teams bowl eligible, nine teams, or five teams, and so on. All of those groups have different scenarios. If Conference USA hits nine teams, and you’re 6-6, you can be in a worrisome spot, you might not get a bowl that year. There is a Conference USA rule that all seven win teams have to be placed before a six-win team.
 
Then you let the conference know what your preferences are. We relayed our desire to go to a bowl that we had tie-ins within Florida, like the Boca Raton Bowl, the Gasparilla Bowl and the Cure Bowl, for example. They do their best to match them, but they tell you right off that if everybody wants, for instance, the New Orleans Bowl, they can’t put seven teams in the New Orleans Bowl.
 
Then the conference office works with our bowl partners. There are a couple of independent bowls in our lineup, like the New Orleans Bowl, which is not owned by ESPN, it’s televised by ESPN but not owned by ESPN. But most of our other bowls are all ESPN-owned and televised, like the Bahamas Bowl, the Hawai’i Bowl, Myrtle Beach, Camellia, Gasparilla, and on and on.
 
SD: ESPN plays a bigger role in these bowl selections than the way things used to be, when more bowls were independent. How does that intersect with the decision-making process at the conference level?
 
CM: ESPN plays a huge role. They own the bowls for a lot of different reasons. One is that it’s great programming for them in December. And we’re very grateful for that. ESPN then tries to set their lineups to what would be attractive matchups. And they like to match seven- and eight-win teams against each other so they can promote that. If they can match a Group of Five Champion with another Group of Five Champion, that’s attractive to them as well. So, they try to do these matchups, and then they try to do a little nod to geography in terms of who can draw their fans to each location.
 
In 2022, Conference USA has five bowl eligible teams. So, one team has to go to the Bahamas and one team has to go to Hawai’i, because those are the two bowls with permanent C-USA arrangements this year. We weren’t going to go to the Bahamas two years in a row, so we’re out of the Bahamas picture.
 
We just told the conference and ESPN that it’s hard on our fans, our students and our player parents to be in the island bowls two years in a row. They recognized that, but at the end of the day, they wanted that matchup with us and San Diego State. They wanted North Texas in a bowl in Texas (The Mean Green play Boise State in the Frisco Bowl on December 17). The New Orleans Bowl went with Western Kentucky. And there’s a desire to pair UTSA, the C-USA Champion, with another Group of Five Champion, Troy (the Roadrunners and Trojans will face off in the Cure Bowl December 16).
 
We are excited about our match-up with San Diego State. It isn’t often we get to play Mountain West opponents.
 
SD: Rice is also going bowling in the Lending Tree Bowl in Mobile, Ala. at 5-7 thanks to the program’s APR score. Were they mentioned as a Hawai’i Bowl option?
 
CM: Good question. People need to know that Conference USA had Rice teed up to Hawai’i, and Rice was ready to go, but ESPN was reluctant, because they weren’t sure how the field was going to look as far as whether Rice was going to be in, whether they’d have enough six-win teams to fill out the schedule. They also wanted to announce the Hawai’i and Bahamas Bowl matchups early, so teams had a week to prepare for the travel. It’s not easy, Larry Maples is going to put all of our equipment on a barge and get it over to Hawai’i. That takes an incredible amount of planning by our staff.
 
ESPN wanted us instead of Rice for that, as well as the fact that they viewed Middle Tennessee and San Diego State was a better matchup with two 7-5 teams. We should be complimented that they view us in that light.
 
SD: Have you seen positive ripple effects behind the scenes from MTSU’s last trip to the Hawai’i Bowl in 2016?
 
CM: Yes. When we went to the Camellia Bowl in 2017, we were 6-6 and got the nod to head to the Camellia Bowl over a MAC School, largely because we went to Hawai’i in 2016.
 
I think that when you play these long-term games, ESPN recognizes that. Keeping a long-term relationship with them pays dividends for us in the future.  
 
SD: Do you anticipate these bowl tie-ins changing as Conference USA membership changes these next few years?
 
CM: I think they will. The numbers will change, and that’s leading to discussions that are happening now. The Sun Belt has grown, we’ve shrunk in our membership, so all of that needs to be sorted out. You still have the basic number of teams throughout FBS, with a few new teams coming up like James Madison, next year Sam Houston State and Jacksonville State and then eventually Kennesaw State, that are going to be new to FBS.
 
SD: Obviously, a lot of fans will be unable to make the trip to Hawai’i due to the quick turnaround and the distance needed to travel around the holidays. How can fans still support the team from afar as they travel west to the Aloha State?
 
CM: The best way is to buy tickets through our office. I know most won’t be able to go, but the tickets help defray our bowl costs. The conference does a nice job with reimbursements, so the university is not going to be financially liable for a big number because we’re going to Hawai’i. But ticket sales do help us from a financial standpoint with some of the extra expenses of traveling such a long distance. Fans will also get a free Bowl Bound t-shirt with any ticket option you choose at this link: am.ticketmaster.com/mtsu/HawaiiBowl
 
For this year’s EasyPost Hawai’i Bowl, MTSU is working with Vet Tix, a complimentary service to Veterans and active Military personnel and their families, to attend events around the country. Tickets purchased directly through MTSU via our ticket allotment will be provided directly to Vet Tix to place in the hands of Military families in the Aloha State. Everyone will also receive an MTSU Bowl t-shirt as they attend the game and cheer on the Blue Raiders within our sections.
 
It’s a win-win for everybody. We get to help raise our standing, the bowl gets a great crowd, and we get to support our military families protecting our nation. I can’t encourage that enough for our fans to get involved.
 

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