It’s Jan. 1, 1935, and 5,134 people have gathered at Miami Field on the corner of NW 15 Ave and Third Street for the inaugural Orange Bowl game between the University of Miami and Bucknell. They paid $1 for general admission tickets, $1.50 for reserved seats and $2 for box seats.
UM coeds ride around the field on a float tossing oranges to the fans in wooden bleachers left over from the American Legion National Convention Parade. Bucknell trounces the Hurricanes 26-0, and the stadium announcer presides over the game perched atop an orange crate.
Meanwhile, 2,700 miles away in Pasadena, California, 85,000 fans pack the Rose Bowl to see Alabama beat Stanford.
Earnie “The Mad Genius” Seiler, a master promoter and the brainchild behind the Orange Bowl, monitored the Rose Bowl success and dreamed of the day tens of thousands of tourists would flock to Miami and spend their Winter holiday taking in the area’s beaches, attractions, a parade down Biscayne Blvd., and a high-profile college football game with national championship implications and a glitzy over-the-top halftime show.
He led the Orange Bowl Committee for four decades and got his wish. His creative ideas — spraying orange blossom scent from the upper decks of the stadium, having the Orange Bowl queen emerge from a giant plastic football — turned the game into a spectacle. Although the parade no longer exists, and the college bowl system has been overhauled, the Orange Bowl remains one of the sport’s preeminent events.
Saturday night, nearly 85 years after that UM-Bucknell game, the 2018 Capital One Orange Bowl features top-ranked and undefeated Alabama vs. No. 4 Oklahoma in a College Football Playoff semifinal. Each team gets paid $6 million per the College Football Playoff Payout Formula. A sellout crowd of more than 66,000 is expected at Hard Rock Stadium to see the defending national champion Crimson Tide (13-0) against Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray and the Sooners (12-1), who have appeared in 21 Orange Bowls.
Tickets in the stadium’s luxury 72 Club are going for as high as $3,000 on StubHub. The winner advances to the national championship game Jan. 7 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. ESPN, which pays $470 million per year for the College Football Playoff broadcast rights, is televising the Orange Bowl and broadcasting the leadup festivities from a South Beach stage.
“There is star power, there are big-time things at stake as far as both teams trying to win to advance to a national title ... I mean if you’re an Orange Bowl fan, you can’t really ask for much more than these two teams coming down there with the winner advancing to the national title game,” said ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit.
The Orange Bowl is a member of the prestigious “New Year’s Six” top-tier bowl group, along with the Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Cotton Bowl, Peach Bowl and Fiesta Bowl. They rotate hosting the two semifinals. The Orange Bowl was also part of the winning South Florida bid for the 2021 National Championship game.
“My grandfather would be so proud of where the Orange Bowl is today,” said Jack Seiler, Earnie’s grandson and the former mayor of Fort Lauderdale. “He’d absolutely love the game today, where we are in the college football playoff arrangement, and he’d like that we’re one of the preeminent bowl games. I think the only thing he’d want to add are some more floats and bands and entertainers for the halftime show.
“He always wanted that halftime show to be as extravagant and spectacular as the game. He’d probably say, `Hey, can we get some live animals out on the field, a few more beauty queens from Miami Beach.”
Although the Orange Bowl Committee remains a non-profit, largely volunteer organization with 360 members and a long list of community projects, the Orange Bowl game — and the other marquee bowl games — have become big-money operations. According to tax forms filed over the past five years, the Orange Bowl Committee has annual net assets of more than $50 million, and an executive staff that averages six-figure salaries.
There is so much money at stake in the college football postseason that bowl game directors have seen their salaries soar in recent years. A 2017 USA Today story comparing compensation packages (including bonuses) for bowl game executives revealed that the Cotton Bowl’s Rick Baker is the highest paid at $1.2 million.
The Orange Bowl’s Eric Poms ranked fifth on the list at $655,000, behind Jim McVay of the Outback Bowl ($993,000), Paul Hoolahan of the Sugar Bowl ($794,805), and Gary Stokan of the Peach Bowl ($683,000). The average package among the 18 bowls listed was $490,000.
“Even though there is more money and our business plans are more sophisticated than in the past, our mission statement really hasn’t changed in 85 years,” Poms said. “Our focus is on economic development, promotion of South Florida and enriching the lives of our residents.”
Poms says the Orange Bowl organization works hard to balance the increased commercialism of college athletics and the civic-minded tradition of the Orange Bowl Committee. Although the semifinal games every third year draw more attention and make more money than the traditional bowls, Poms said the Orange Bowl remains financially stable because of prudent decisions by the committee.
“Even on traditional Capital One Orange Bowl years in this CFP era, our business model helps us sustain what we do as an organization, to sustain our annual community outreach efforts, which are significant to us, to give back to the community because by virtue of the success of the games, you’re able to really invest in promoting key programs we’re tied to,” Poms said.
Sean Pittman, the Orange Bowl Committee President, added: “The Orange Bowl is very well managed by a professional staff, so we don’t lose money. The money that is made from the game we use throughout the year for many community projects.”
The Orange Bowl Committee donates “Legacy Gifts” every few years. They have done five so far — three in Miami-Dade County, one in Broward and one in Palm Beach County. This year, they donated $1.5 million to renovate Glades Pioneer Park in Palm Beach County. They did a $5.6 million project at Moore Park in Miami, site of the Palm Festival, which pre-dated the Orange Bowl. They also worked on a $3 million project at Carter Park in Broward, a $1.5 million renovation at Ives Estates Park in North Miami, and a $2.2 million project at Harris Field in Homestead.
“I grew up in Miami and went to Orange Bowl games as a kid, and then taking this job and learning the history, it connects you with the history of the City of Miami,” Poms said. “The great story of the Orange Bowl is that we’re standing on the shoulders of generations and generations of committee members who had a vision. They saw what was going on in Pasadena, the great success of the Rose Bowl.
“Miami then was not Miami of today. It was coming off the Depression and the big hurricane. Over the years the matchups became more meaningful, then the advent of radio broadcasts and TV, and the Orange Bowl became a national brand. When we walk around college campuses in those orange jackets, people know what we represent.”
Herbstreit misses the Orange Bowls of the 1970s, ‘80s and early ‘90s, back before college playoffs.
“It was the old Orange Bowl and there was just something unique about that setting, about that stadium — the lighting. There was so much history to that stadium. And so, when you knock that down it’s going to change the image, it’s going to change the feel – even though this new stadium is beautiful, especially after the renovations.
“But there’s a new era of college football fans, a new generation, that don’t have some of the memories.
“It’s [still] very unique as far as its setting. I know people, from being around the country, when they find out their team is going to Miami, you still have such an advantage on the location and people wanting to come down and travel to be there. But I wish we could bring back the ‘80s Orange Bowl. The only stadium and bowl game that has been able to maintain that tradition is the Rose Bowl.”
Jack Seiler, 55, hasn’t missed an Orange Bowl since he was five years old. This will be his 51st Orange Bowl. He has vivid memories of going to the warehouse by the Miami River where the parade floats were stored and getting a peek before they rolled onto Biscayne Blvd. He remembers throwing the football on the Orange Bowl field with his brother and cousins, and his grandfather introducing him to famous college coaches and players.
“When you look back 85 years, some of the families that were a part of the creating of the Orange Bowl are still very much a part of the Orange Bowl today,” said Pittman. “There is real legacy there, and that helps keep the organization grounded in its roots.”
Poms keeps a photo of Seiler in his office.
“I look at it all the time and I wonder what he would think if he saw what was going on today,” Poms said.
“He’d love it,” Jack Seiler said. “But he’d miss the parade and the halftime floats.”
Miami Herald sportswriter Susan Miller Degnan contributed to this report.