For the college football-obsessed, that means 39 opportunities to sink into the couch and enjoy a four-hour cornucopia of touchdowns and trick plays. For players and coaches on teams across the US, it means spending their holiday seasons playing exhibition games in half-full stadiums in outposts like Shreveport and Boise. For companies, it means the chance to plaster their brands in front of millions of eyeballs during a month when consumerism is king.
As is our wont here at PitchBook, we'll be focusing on the latter group—specifically, those companies with ties to private equity that are paying to put their names on bowl games during this year's college football post-season.
No private equity firms themselves sponsor bowl games. But there was a time when we actually came kind of close. From 1997 to 2003, the Liberty Bowl in Memphis was sponsored by AXA, a French insurance giant. At the same time, AXA had a buyout unit called AXA Private Equity. In 2013, the unit spun out from AXA under a new name: Ardian.
Four companies that are either backed by or have significant ties to private equity firms, though, are indeed sponsors this season. Let's take a closer look at each.
(One note: I wish with all my heart that Bad Boy Mowers were backed by private equity so I could write about the wonderfully named Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl. But for now, this tease will have to suffice.)
Dollar General Bowl
When and where: December 22 at 7 pm ET in Mobile, AL
The matchup: Buffalo (10-3) vs. Troy (9-3)
The private equity: More than a decade ago, Dollar General was the subject of a prime example of pre-crisis buyout largesse, when a group including KKR and Goldman Sachs-affiliated GS Capital Partners took the company private at an enterprise value of $7.3 billion. With sales and profits booming, those investors helped Dollar General return to the public markets just two years later in a 2009 IPO. Longtime KKR partner Michael Calbert has been Dollar General's chairman since 2016.
The history: The Dollar General Bowl has existed in one form or another since 1999, but the discount retailer has only been the title sponsor since 2016. The bowl game's prior names include both the GoDaddy.com Bowl and the GoDaddy Bowl, as well as the GMAC Bowl and the Mobile Alabama Bowl. The game's former MVPs include LaDainian Tomlinson and Ben Roethlisberger.
The best edition: The 2001 GMAC Bowl was a modern classic, as Marshall thundered back from a 38-8 halftime deficit to record a 64-61 win over East Carolina in double overtime, led by 576 yards passing from quarterback Byron Leftwich.
Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bowl
When and where: December 27 at 9 pm ET in Houston, TX
The matchup: Baylor (6-6) vs. Vanderbilt (6-6)
The private equity: KKR is once again at the heart of our private equity connection, as the industry giant has backed Academy Sports + Outdoors since conducting a 2011 deal that reportedly included almost $2 billion in debt financing. At the time, the sporting goods retailer operated 133 locations in 11 states across the US Southeast and generated more than $2.7 billion in annual revenue.
The history: The Texas Bowl sprung into existence in 2006 and operated without a sponsor for the rest of the decade, a rare run in the corporatized bowl world. In the years since, both Meineke Car Care and AdvoCare have lent their name to the game, while this is the second year that Academy Sports + Outdoors has been involved.
The best edition: Let's go with the 2012 Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, which saw heavily favored Texas Tech come back from seven points down with a little more than a minute left to topple Minnesota by a 34-31 margin on a late field goal by Ryan Bustin.
Camping World Bowl
When and where: December 28 at 5:15 pm ET in Orlando, FL
The matchup: West Virginia (8-3) vs. Syracuse (9-3)
The private equity: When Camping World raised $251 million in an IPO in 2016, it brought five years of private ownership by Crestview Partners to an end. The firm maintains a stake in the Illinois-based seller of RVs, though, with mixed results: The price of Camping World stock more than doubled between its IPO and the end of 2017, rising above $46 per share, but it's plummeted to below $20 per share in 2018.
The history: There might be no better example of the transitory nature of bowl game names. Since its creation in 1990, what's now called the Camping World Bowl has gone through a host of different titles, including the following non-exhaustive list: The Blockbuster Bowl, the Carquest Bowl, the MicronPC.com Bowl, the Mazda Tangerine Bowl and the Champs Sports Bowl.
The best edition: We're going way back for this one and selecting the 1991 Blockbuster Bowl, a 30-25 victory for Alabama over Colorado that pitted a pair of top 15 teams. The Crimson Tide topped off an 11-1 season to set the stage for a national championship in 1992.
When and where: December 29 at 12 pm ET in Charlotte, NC
The matchup: South Carolina (7-5) vs. Virginia (7-5)
The private equity: Belk is currently under the ownership of Sycamore Partners, a retail-focused firm that acquired the Southern department store operator for a reported $3 billion in 2015. Sycamore is an active investor in consumer and fashion brands, with the rest of its portfolio including Hot Topic, Nine West, Staples and The Limited.
The history: The Belk Bowl was born in 2002 as the Continental Tire Bowl. From 2005 to 2010 it was known as the Meineke Car Care Bowl (before Meineke switched its allegiance to the Texas Bowl, apparently), and Belk has been the title sponsor since 2011. Nine of the game's 17 all-time meetings have involved a home-state team from North Carolina.
The best edition: It's tough to top last year's version, in which Wake Forest defeated Texas A&M in a 55-52 contest that saw a combined 191 offensive plays and 1,260 yards. Did that result cause more people to shop at Belk? Who knows. But it was certainly what all those people sitting on their couches wanted.
Related read: What's up with that VC-backed football league?