Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Bowl Games: Do we really still need them?, by DaSkeeza

This winter, 32 bowl games will be played between the middle of December through January 8th's BCS Championship game. Teams have competed throughout the fall to be among the 64 teams selected to play in a bowl game. No doubt, this is a wonderful accomplishment, and all the players, coaches, and fans have every right to be proud of it. But with the questions about the bowl system, BCS voting, and the like raging through the minds of angry Michigan fans, elated Florida fans, and filling the TV and sportstalk airwaves, maybe a thoughtful inspection of how the bowl system came to be in the first place can provide some perspective on why it exists in its current form and whether it really is still necessary given modern conventions.

The Rose Bowl was the first of college bowl games. If you read the history, the Pasadena Tournament of Roses began in 1890. The townspeople of Pasadena basically got together and said, "You know what, all our friends and family back east are covered in snow, and here our flowers are in bloom and fruits are bearing. Let's give those east coasters the bird by having a parade and floral pageant to show them how much our place rules and their place sucks!"

Thus was born the Pasadena Tournament of Roses. And even then, football wasn't a part of it from the beginning. The first game wasn't held until 1902. Even then, the organizers thought the sport too violent for the tone of the festival. Football did not return as part of the festivities until 1916 (when a certain excellent Ivy League university was invited to play after a stellar season).

Throughout its history, the Rose Bowl was a unique opportunity for a western team to play an eastern team. As college football grew in popularity, regional powers emerged, and the bowl game proved to be an excellent arena to settle all the gossip floating around each region and its superior teams.

In the end, that's really what a college bowl game accomplishes. Its goal is to bring together two teams that otherwise would not play each other. Furthermore, it is also an opportunity for fans from one region to inspect teams from another region, together with its own fans and traditions.

It has since evolved into a substantial moneymaker. Host cities expect millions of tourism dollars from the two competing schools and traveling fans. The payouts to the schools and conferences are quite substantial (and if you're Notre Dame, you don't have to share that money with a conference). Television and sponsorships make the bowl system even more of a cash cow. In the end, just about all the participants seems to make a nice payday from the bowl system, and therein lies the largest obstacle to starting a playoff in the Bowl Subdivision*.

Today, with television, radio, and Internet pervading sports media, seeing teams far from one's home region is much easier. It is now possible to see games thousands of miles from home on a weekly basis. Fans today know more now about teams from other regions than their predecessors, and as a result, the bowl game may very well prove little in the way of exposing people to new teams and traditions.

This knowledge, however, now manifests itself in the ongoing debate as to which two teams should be given the honor of playing for the "national championship." Given whatever you think about the decision to match Florida with OSU instead of Michigan (or whether Notre Dame belongs in the BCS at all, if you read my distinguished colleague's piece on this site), you cannot deny that all the voters in the polls had access to every single minute of game film of both teams this season. In some ways, that makes it easier to come to a decision, given full information. But what's missing though, is perhaps key. In a game between Florida and Michigan, who would win?

Given the sports fan's desire to settle matters on the field, as well as the concept of the bowl game no longer filling its original purpose, perhaps a playoff system is a accurate reflection of the fact that we now have full information on the abilities of any team in the country, and thus can accurately select a group of teams to participate in a short championship tournament.

*In as much as I have served on the staff at several NCAA Championships, I feel it necessary to inform you that Division I-A (the division with the BCS), is no longer referred as Division I-A, but rather the Division I Bowl Subdivision. Division I-AA has since been renamed the Division I Championship Subdivision, thus changing the name of the I-AA tournament to the "NCAA Division I Football Championship.

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