In that same old TV Guide I cited a few days ago (December 27, 1969), there’s an interesting article by Melvin Durslag – “The Annual Howls Over the Annual Bowls.” Seems that way back in 1969, there were people, former Georgia Tech coach Bobby Dodd among them, who thought the bowl situation had gotten way out of hand. There were now 12 – count ‘em, 12 – bowl games on TV. Can you believe it?
Imagine how Bobby Dodd would feel today. We now have not 12 but 28 bowl games, starting with the New Orleans Bowl on December 14 and ending with the Orange Bowl on January 4. Someone figured out that there were now so many bowl games, only two or three bowl-eligible teams would be left out. Whereas bowl games were once seen as rewards for outstanding seasons, today over 25% of the teams playing in bowls had 5 losses (out of 11 or 12 games). I don’t know about you, but it’s really hard for me to work up any enthusiasm for watching a game between teams with combined records of 12-10, played before an announced crowd of 30,000, many of whom came disguised as empty seats.
Bowl games started out as inventions of local tourist boards looking for ways to bring in more tourist dollars in the winter. It shouldn’t be surprising, therefore, that even then money was a major component. The Rose Bowl, the granddaddy of them all, was designed by the Tournament of Roses Committee to augment the chariot races and ring toss events that followed the parade. Winter vacation getaway destinations like Miami and New Orleans soon followed, and the race was on.
Even now, most bowl games look not only at the record of the teams, but also at the number of fans that are likely to follow along – fans that can be counted on to spend plenty of money while they’re down there. The University of Minnesota, which has had a couple of good seasons recently, probably got stiffed out of more prestigious bowls because they have a small traveling base of fans, which ultimately means less money coming into the city’s coffers.
But believe it or not, there was a time when bowl games weren’t as big a deal as they are now. In the early 1960s, Ohio State refused an invitation to the Rose Bowl because the faculty thought there was too much of an emphasis on football. Georgia Tech players turned down a game one year because their Christmas vacations had been disrupted two years in a row and they were tired of it. Notre Dame had a no-bowling policy until 1969, because bowl games interfered with exams (they changed the policy when the academic calendar was altered).
Until the late 60s, the bowls didn’t even count toward picking the national champion. That was done at the end of the regular season by the AP and UPI, and the bowls were seen more as exhibitions. As legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes saw them in Durslag’s article, they represented “a player’s just reward for hard work during the season.”
The problems arose when the national championship team lost in the bowl. It was even worse if they were beaten by a team which had its own claim to being number 1. For that team, it was a case of winning the battle, losing the war; beating the number 1 team might earn you acclaim as the people’s champ, but it doesn’t take up much space in the old trophy case.
Eventually, of course, the old system was scrapped and the wire services started choosing the national champion after the bowl games. While this wasn’t without its own problems (for example, AP and UPI sometimes chose different teams, thus creating a split national champion), at least all the games were played before the voting was held. The ultimate goal was a national championship game between the top two teams. This did happen on occasion, but not very often, because many of the best teams were committed by conference contract to playing in specific bowl games.
Thus, the desire for a national championship game, and the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) was born. About this, the less said, the better. Frank Deford had a recent article which puts it better than I could ever hope to.
You’ve probably figured out by now what’s at the bottom of all this chaos. That’s right, money. Bowl games are cheap programming for ESPN, the network that covers most of them and created many of them to fill their prime-time schedule. They’re also cheap advertising for corporate sponsors, the proliferation of which has robbed most games of any semblance of identity (the classic Champs Sports Bowl, for example*).
The NCAA gets big bucks for selling the rights to the BCS (Fox recently shelled out $80 million for four years’ worth). The schools and conferences involved in the games stand to make windfalls, thanks to those networks and corporate sponsors. Think the University of California is upset with the BCS bumping them from the Rose Bowl to the Holiday Bowl because they’d rather have spent New Year’s in Pasadena? Try the difference between $2 million and $14.5 million instead.
The players don’t get paid for playing, of course. But before you feel too sorry for them, don’t forget the free scholarships, not to mention who-knows-what from some of the school’s more energetic boosters.
What we’re left with are often meaningless games between mediocre teams in front of lethargic and sparse crowds. The matchups are often uninspired (most of them are locked in by pre-arranged deals between conferences and bowls), and there are always at least a couple of teams claiming they deserved better.
Obviously the answer to all this is a playoff. They’ve been talking about one since, well, this 1969 TV Guide article, where the idea was already being bandied about.
But there are just too many egos involved, and too many bowl games to satisfy, not to mention the money. If it was impossible to take care of everyone when there were only 12 bowls, imagine what it’s like when there are 29. Check out this excerpt from the Durslag article:
The minor games get ordinary-to-weak ratings on TV. They are offered for incidental amusement, serving mostly as promotional gimmicks for the communities sponsoring them. Heat from such promoters is believed responsible for the tabling last spring of a national playoff proposal at a meeting of the NCAA Executive Committee. A disgusted coach remarked: “The bowl people are doing what’s good for them. We favor what’s good for college football.”As I’ve said before, the more things change…
Was the old system unfair? Sometimes. But you know what? Life can be like that sometimes. What we’re seeing now is an unholy alliance between those who counsel mediocrity – the “everyone’s a winner” group – and those for whom money is the bottom line.
Keep it in mind tonight when you watch that gripping Fort Worth Bowl matchup between Marshall (6-5) and Cincinnati (6-5). Enjoy!
* The Champs Sports Bowl, previously known as the Blockbuster Bowl, the Carquest Bowl, the Micron PC Bowl, and the Tangerine Bowl, and played first in Miami, and now in Orlando.