In addition to the dubious claim that college football has the “most compelling regular season,” another claim that Bowl Championship Series apologists often make is that “a playoff would put the great traditions of the bowls at risk.” Yet, if college football didn’t kill those traditions long ago in the interest of generating revenue, the BCS took care of them. Now the final weeks of the college season are spent discussing whether the BCS itself is fair or not. What a great tradition.
Before we go any further, it should be noted that postseason playoffs and bowls are not mutually exclusive. In fact, bowl games would still make a great showcase for those programs that don’t make the playoffs. This season, 70 out of the 120 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision (worst moniker ever) will play in bowl games. If 8 of those 70 teams played in a playoff, there would still be 62 teams that could play in 31 bowl games. Several playoff proposals include using the most prominent bowl games for the playoffs, including a rotating national championship, similar to how the BCS works now.
So this is not a call for eliminating bowl games, but an attempt to show that the BCS’ claim that playoffs would endanger the “great traditions of the bowls” rings hollow. College football and the BCS sold out the “great traditions” long ago in the name of corporate sponsorship and television contracts.
The bowl games are often lampooned – as they should be – for their shamelessness in affixing corporate brand names to their bowl names. Some of the all-time greats include the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsetta Bowl, the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl and the Poulan Weed-Eater Independence Bowl. Some bowls don’t even bother with the pretense of maintaining the original name (if there was one). Consider the GMAC Bowl, the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl (who knows), and the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Even the “Grandaddy of them all” is referred to as the “Rose Bowl presented by Citi.”
Tradition could not save the Bluebonnet Bowl, which was played from 1959 to 1987 in Houston. Indeed, it was the lack of a title sponsor that ultimately did in the bowl. There were no NCAA bailouts for the Bluebonnet in the name of tradition. It wasn’t making money so it folded. That’s the real tradition.
The latest one is the Pinstripe Bowl, which takes place for the first time on December 30 in the lavish new Yankees Stadium. Nothing says tradition like celebrating the successful swindle of over a billion dollars of public money into private hands by hosting a game in a baseball stadium in frigid late December between the sixth-ranked Big 12 team and the third-ranked Big East team. Apparently, someone forgot what happened last time they tried to host a bowl game (1962’s Gotham Bowl) in Yankee Stadium – no one showed up. Or maybe they were inspired by the late Seattle Bowl, which played its inaugural game on the Mariners’ baseball field and folded after two seasons.
If the bowl games feel watered down now, it’s because they are. The NCAA’s decision to add an extra game starting in 2006 meant that teams could now play 12 games, opening the door for teams to be bowl eligible with a 6-6 record. Last season, 8 teams entered bowl games with .500 records overall. Further, 21 teams had .500 records or worse in their conferences. The pinnacle of mediocrity was surely the Insight Bowl which pitted Minnesota against Iowa State – both entered the game 6-6 and 3-5 in their respective conference.
The Insight Bowl itself is just over 20 years old. It originated in Tucson, moved to Phoenix and now is played in Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe. Meanwhile, the Fiesta Bowl started in Tempe but now is played in Phoenix. The actual location of the bowl game itself obviously isn’t fundamental to the “tradition” of these bowl games. In fact, only the Rose Bowl seems truly married to its location.
The “Grandaddy of Them All” has begrudgingly accepted the changes that come with accepting massive amounts of television revenues. The BCS itself is responsible for ending the tradition of the Rose Bowl being played on January 1 (or the 2nd if the 1st is on a Monday). The BCS also hampers the Rose Bowl’s traditional Pac 10- Big 10 rivalry. And ultimately, the mystique of the Rose Bowl, the true granddaddy, died when it became just another cog in the BCS wheel.
So depending on the bowl, the location, name, date and conference ties to the bowl have been sacrificed for the sake of generating revenue and because of the BCS. In fact, the BCS now trumpets the same arguments that were once used against it. Prior to the BCS or its predecessors the Bowl Coalition and the Bowl Alliance, the argument was made that even having one national championship game would hurt the bowl games.
Regardless of whether the BCS has harmed the specific traditions of the bowl games, the BCS does mark a fundamental transformation of the college football postseason landscape. For the first time the system features one game above all the other bowl games. There really is one winner now; not just a group of teams that won their final game. The decision to play one national championship game ended what was once unique about the college football bowl system – that there was no one winner.
The BCS and the NCAA have decided that television revenues trump bowl traditions and that the largest bowls are now just vehicles for showcasing one game above them all. So we might as well fix the system so that these bowl games are used to feature an equitable system of determining a national champion. There’s no sense in pretending that the bowl games have great traditions. The bowl games long ago sold out their images to the highest corporate bidder and the BCS killed the spirit of the whole thing.
Brian Frederick is the Executive Director of Sports Fans Coalition. He holds a Ph.D. in Communication and lives in Washington, D.C. His favorite teams are the Kansas Jayhawks, North Carolina Tar Heels, and whichever team his brother is coaching for. And the underdog. Email him at email@example.com