For those who weren’t keeping score, viewers were treated to a staggering 20 college bowl games before baby 2005 arrived. That’s pretty remarkable, since even as a fan I’m damned if I can say who won any beyond the one involving my alma mater. (We lost, but I’ll get over it.)
Despite possessing the most exciting process for selecting a basketball champion via the NCAA tournament, college football offers by far the worst post-season approach. Yet that warped template has taken root thanks to the largesse of corporate sponsors in homely jackets, TV networks that underwrite the current scheme while their analysts lament it, and greedy university presidents who talk of “student athletes” with less sincerity than the undertaker and charwoman in “A Christmas Carol.”
January, in fact, represents that one month where the National Football League puts the colleges to shame, showcasing a sudden-death playoff that consistently grabs huge ratings even before the Super Bowl lumbers in to remind the sports world who really is their daddy.
The problem is that nobody has the will to fix a flawed system made considerably worse since the introduction of the Bowl Championship Series in the 1990s.
As it stands, the only bowl game that means anything this year is the Jan. 4 Orange Bowl, pitting USC against Oklahoma. Even that showcase comes with an asterisk, however, since Auburn and Utah escaped the regular season equally unbeaten.
Even the Rose Bowl has been transformed from “granddaddy of them all” into afterthought, jettisoning its tradition by tapping Texas to play Michigan, a decision welcomed only by breweries in the Pasadena area.
Yet an ESPN exec told the New York Times that the December bowls are “not a watered-down product,” which is sort of like insisting Shrek isn’t a large green ogre. The sports net also expressed considerable satisfaction with the ratings — a generous appraisal considering that more people watched a Christmas-week rerun of the WB’s “Everwood” than the GMAC Bowl or Las Vegas Bowl.
Companies like Capitol One, Outback Steakhouse and MPC Computers have paid to plaster their names across lesser bowls, but it’s hard to see what value they derive from this elaborate product-placement other than backslapping vendors. No offense, but those old staples, hookers and gin, are cheaper and generally work better.
No solution is perfect, especially because the universities have steadfastly resisted any form of playoff, fearing it would over-tax student athletes. I’m still hard-pressed to see how a Final Four, played over two weeks after the last bowl game, would be a major hardship to the vast majority of schools, but then again I’ve had to muddle through life on a bachelor’s degree.
Simply restoring the old bowl framework followed by a national championship game based on final polls — what’s known as the “bowls plus one” proposal — would be a marked improvement, but as long as network and sponsor checks keep clearing, the NCAA seems unlikely to buckle.
Admittedly, I don’t care a whit about the Super Bowl’s outcome, but the inherent drama surrounding the pro playoffs is like a bolt of lightning into the necks of the sluggish TV networks, luring vast numbers of viewers into the tent.
College football will never scale those heights, but a true championship game would be an enormous attraction, and the present set-up is such a pallid stand-in it’s hard to imagine the corporate fat-cats have allowed it to continue this long.
Granted, few fans welcome being force-fed product messages around and on the field, but as long as networks and sponsors are going to be aggressively obnoxious on that front, couldn’t they throw their weight around a little more and demand that they, and the public, get what they’re paying for?
Death at a Distance: TV news producers understand that disasters register most profoundly when they’re close to home, or can be made to feel that way. Still, the rapid turn to U.S.-centric coverage of the tsunami that devastated South Asia has at times provided a troubling reminder how in broadcasters’ eyes, not all life is created equal.
By now it’s customary to say a plane crashed, quickly followed by the number of Americans or New Yorkers or what have you on board. With casualties measured in the tens of thousands, however, you’d think it wouldn’t require so much of the obligatory “Can it happen here?” speculation to appreciate this tragedy’s scope and human toll, even with relatively few Americans among the dead and missing.
Counseled by consultants to exploit the local connection, news organizations and viewers have grown inured to images of suffering abroad, which explains the self-obsessed “How does it or could it affect me?” response. Sadly, the net effect not only obscures perspective once the camera pans beyond our backyard but also makes our cloistered little worlds that much smaller.