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RIP to the bowl tradition

With so many players opting out of bowl games, is it only a matter of time until fans opt out too?

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The Orange Bowl trophy is displayed during the Orange Bowl game between Texas A&M and North Carolina, Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. Several of Carolina’s top players elected not to play, including the team’s leading tackler, top two running backs and top receiver.

Lynne Sladky, Associated Press

While we await Monday’s national college football championship between the Rockefellers and the Carnegies — aka Ohio State and Alabama — it’s a good time to conduct a postmortem on the bowl season, which was pretty much DOA.

Let’s put it this way, when players are opting out of bowl games — even New Year’s Six bowls — then why shouldn’t fans opt out too? 

Bowl games have simply become meaningless. The creation of a playoff seven years ago formally rendered 37 bowls pointless for fans and players. The opting out of bowl games by star players (more on this below) rendered the games even more meaningless for fans. And the proliferation of bowl games has further eroded their significance and purpose.

There were 18 bowl games in 1995 and it grew like COVID-19 from there as more cities, TV outlets and corporate sponsors wanted a piece of the action.

There were 18 bowl games in 1995 and it grew like COVID-19 from there as more cities, TV outlets and corporate sponsors wanted a piece of the action. Now there are 40 bowl games — so many that there have been years when there weren’t enough teams that had the required six wins to qualify for a bowl.

Remember what Mark Cuban said a few years ago: “Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. When you try to take it too far, people turn the other way. I’m just telling you, when you’ve got a good thing and you get greedy, it always, always, always, always, always turns on you.”

Cuban was referring to the NFL after the league announced that, in addition to playing games on Sunday, Sunday night and Monday night, it would also play games on Thursday night.

He could’ve been talking about college football, which has gotten fat and greedy. To wit: According to USA Today, in 2017 schools were forced to cover $25 million in unsold tickets to play in bowl games. The Washington Examiner reported last January that 10 to 20 teams lose money on bowl games annually.

This wouldn’t happen if there were fewer bowl games and only the best teams were invited.

Another symptom of an overgrown, fat, mostly pointless bowl season is the increasing number of players each year who are choosing not to play in bowl games that are not part of the College Football Playoff. According to The Eagle, more than 50 players chose not to play in bowls.

The 13th-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels were invited to play Texas A&M in the Orange Bowl, a New Year’s Six bowl. Several of Carolina’s top players elected not to play, including the team’s leading tackler, top two running backs and top receiver, the latter three accounting for 36 touchdowns and 3,500 yards.

When players are choosing not play in the Orange Bowl — or any other New Year’s Six bowl — what chance do the other bowls have? The Cotton and Peach bowls also were played without a number of top players who opted out.

Florida coach Dan Mullen, whose team lost to Oklahoma 55-20, played without eight starters. He described his lineup this way: “Guys that have played very minimal snaps throughout the season, guys that were at best in backup roles, a majority of who were on the scout team for most of the year …. ”

The stated reason for opting out of bowls is that the players don’t want to risk injury, which would compromise their NFL draft standing; the unstated reason is that the bowl games simply don’t mean anything and therefore aren’t worth the risk. Nobody is opting out of the three CFP games.

(Besides players opting out, this year saw about two dozen entire teams opt out of bowl games, largely due to COVID-19-related issues — one athletic director said his players were “emotionally spent.”)

“Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. When you try to take it too far, people turn the other way. I’m just telling you, when you’ve got a good thing and you get greedy, it always, always, always, always, always turns on you.” — Mark Cuban

Mack Brown, the North Carolina football coach, thinks the way to address the problem is to expand the playoff. Referring to the opt-outs, the coach told ESPN, “This is totally different than what anybody has ever dealt with. I think the No. 1 thing we need to look at is expansion of the playoff. Not one playoff player opted out ... If we expand it, it will help some of the other bowls.

“But I think we have to keep pushing the other bowls. Bowls have to be fun again, and have to be important. We only talk about the final four.”

So add one more reason that the playoff needs to be expanded to at least eight or, ideally, 16 teams. The creation of a playoff was a long-overdue step in the right direction but a four-team format was not enough. The NFL takes 14 of its 32 teams to the playoffs; the NCAA takes four out of 130 teams to the playoffs. It has effectively shut out the Group of Five conferences — about half the field.

Until big changes are made, it’s RIP for the bowl tradition.