INTERVIEW WITH VICE PRESIDENT OF COMMUNICATIONS AND COMMUNITY OUTREACH OF THE ORANGE BOWL, LARRY WAHL
November 4, 2015
Larry Wahl has been Vice President of Communications of the Orange Bowl for the past 8 years. Adding this to over 30 years of experience with communications and public relations, Wahl sat down with the FBA’s Jordan Hendricks to discuss the impact that bowl games bring to the community.
Hendricks: How did your previous career opportunities in professional baseball and collegiate sports prepare you for your role in the Orange Bowl?
Wahl: I have worked with the media throughout my career, both in terms of public relations and in game operations, so it was a natural transition.
How has college football’s landscape change since you started?
Since I started at the Orange Bowl, the post-season system has changed considerably from the BCS system to the current CFP, with more money going to the conferences than ever before and more bowl games than ever before, and many new and unique alliances within the bowls.
Since I started in collegiate sports (1987) the number of bowl games has more than doubled from 18 to 42, and the conference alignments have totally shifted many times. For example, in 1987 Miami, Florida State and Penn State were independents, Texas A&M, Missouri, Colorado and Nebraska were in the Big 12, Maryland was in the ACC, etc.
How has the Orange Bowl progressed over the years?
As the second oldest Bowl game, the Orange Bowl has always been perceived in the top tier of bowls. It has also been very progressive, recognizing the need to move to a more modern stadium (what’s now called Sun Life from the Orange Bowl Stadium), ensuring its inclusion in all of the top tier iterations of bowl alliances (Bowl Coalition, Bowl Alliance, BCS and College Football Playoff) and aligning itself with the Atlantic Coast Conference and through that with the SEC, Big 10 and Notre Dame.
What would you consider to be the Orange Bowl’s biggest achievement in your tenure?
There actually are several large achievements: maintaining our place among the top tier bowls with inclusion in the College Football Playoff, the highly successful double-hosting of two National Championship games and becoming a contract bowl with potentially very exciting matchups in the years we don’t have a semifinal game while continuing our alliance with the ACC, SEC, Big 10 and Notre Dame, just to name a few.
What challenges do you see the transition to a playoff system for the Orange Bowl in the future?
We have a very experienced staff, and so I think the transition from the BCS to the CFP has been and will continue to be very smooth. Our primary conference partner has stayed the same, our network partner is the same, the CFP has stated that it wants the semifinal experience for the student-athletes and institutions to be a typical bowl week from a hospitality standpoint, so there’s not a lot different in those areas. We did enter the CFP with a new title sponsor, Capital One, and we had a great experience with them in our first year. Our biggest challenge might be having enough tickets to satisfy the needs of those who want to come to the games.
What charities does the Orange Bowl affiliate with?
Orange Bowl is affiliated with several charities and projects, in keeping with our philosophy of supporting efforts in the areas of youth academics and athletics. In addition to providing scholarships both to individuals and institutions, we have supported Make-A-Wish Southern Florida and Special Olympics of Miami-Dade and Broward counties, both in terms of financial contributions and volunteerism. Recently we have begun an Orange Bowl Leadership program designed to improve the lives of young people in the community through leadership and character development. We also have entered into a partnership with the First Tee Miami to establish a girls golf program designed to empower young women through golf to develop academic, life and athletic skills, resulting in opportunities for collegiate golf scholarships. One of our longest running programs is the Orange Bowl Youth Football Alliance where we provide programming and financial support for 15,000 football players and cheerleaders across 10 South Florida leagues encompassing eight counties from Key West to Lake Okeechobee. The Alliance is now in its 17th year. Collectively Orange Bowl has invested more than $7 million in youth sports since that time.
Along with our charities, the Orange Bowl supports other events in our community on an annual basis including junior tennis, golf tournaments and an international youth regatta that are all considered among the most prestigious in the world. Additionally, the Orange Bowl hosts collegiate swimming and basketball events, youth lacrosse and track and field events, and a large youth festival (Junior Orange Bowl) that attracts 7,500 kids from five to 18 years old from all over the world.
Can you share an example of a philanthropic event that the Orange Bowl has supported that you feel is representative of the bowl being important in the Miami community?
Each year we host our own philanthropic event, the Orange Bowl Impact and Excellence Awards: A Taste of South Florida (the OBIEs) which features a night of extraordinary food, entertainment and giving as the Orange Bowl Committee celebrates those who share organization’s values in giving back to the South Florida community. The event annually raises in excess of $100,000 with proceeds supporting Make-A-Wish Southern Florida, Special Olympics of Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, the Orange Bowl Leadership Academy and six young high school student-athletes, who are recipients of scholarships.
What are some of the challenges that you see in the community that you would like see addressed?
To me the challenges include the development of young people as future leaders and to help young people see that athletics is not the only way out of a disadvantaged situation. Too often both students and their parents think that athletics is their ticket out. I believe our Leadership Academy has the capabilities of addressing both of those challenges.
Focusing on the ways that the bowl gives back to the community, what accomplishment are you most proud of during your tenure?
I think I’m most proud that we have continued to evolve with our charitable efforts. Turning the OBIEs into a culinary event has enabled us to raise more money and the beginnings of both the Leadership Academy and girls golf program show the commitment that our membership has toward the community beyond the football game.
What are the bowl system’s strengths? What areas need improvement?
We have several areas of strength. We provide annual opportunities for more than 8,000 student-athletes, as well as twice that number of other students (band, cheerleaders, student managers, etc.) to have an extraordinary experience, many in areas of the country they might not otherwise have been able to see. We allow institutions to entertain and fundraise with some of their stakeholders. We provide entertainment and economic impact to the communities in which we live.
We need to do a better job of making sure that our stakeholders, communities and the media understands these strengths that we have.
Making all bowl games relevant is one of the challenges for the Football Bowl Association. From a branding and recognition standpoint, what can be done so that football fans see all the bowls as being important in the different communities they serve?
We need to work toward overcoming the perceptions that there are too many bowls and that not every team who goes to a bowl deserves it. It goes back to doing a better job overall in making sure our stakeholders understand exactly what bowls are and what they do. They do provide a reward to teams at the end of the year; they do provide opportunities for teams to meet that might not otherwise play; and they do provide opportunities for between 20-25,000 students to visit unique locales.