Playoff fans in the cold as college football plans for the future

INDIANAPOLIS. Freezing rain turned downtown sidewalks into granite-hard slip and slide paths. The downtown concert stage and beer garden were empty, the drone dance and light show was cancelled, and getting a table at a restaurant—even a socially distant one—was no problem on Saturday night.

It seems that football fans from Georgia and Alabama, many of whom traveled from Atlanta and Birmingham to avoid exorbitant airfare and save money for tickets for the national championship game on Monday, decided after driving through an ice storm that it would be wiser to stay in their hotel rooms and order in. (And why not, if the TownePlace Suites cost north of $900?)

By Sunday, the weather was dry, but temperatures dropped sharply into the teens.

If the college football playoff title game is the highlight of the season, a time when legions of fans can wave the school flag and offer a respite from another dreary pandemic-driven winter, then this edition was more like an overpriced Siberian vacation.

So much so that it was easy to return to this thought: why not in New Orleans? Or Miami? Or Phoenix? Or Los Angeles? Or Tampa? Or even Las Vegas?

There’s no shortage of warmer January destinations, and if you’re going to make it through the winter, why not make it to a place like New York City and spend a chilly weekend at the theater, museum, shopping, or sipping cocktails in the heat. lamps in rooftop bars? (If you’re going to get wet for a hotel room, at least get something to boot.)

All this is not a shout out, but a way of explaining why the college football playoffs are in their current state: an outdated playoff with four teams with falling television ratings, in which the system stewards are the same ones who thought to put on a title game. it was a great idea – they were limited in their own interest from making changes.

Ten conference commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, who make up the college football playoffs steering committee, have met seven times since June, including at 12 noon this weekend in Indianapolis, to work out a format change before the current contract expires. . after the 2025 season.

“Have you ever watched the movie Groundhog Day?” Big 12 commissioner Bob Boulsby said after another negotiating session ended Monday without a decision.

Of course, if there’s a place that highlights bureaucratic inertia and a leadership vacuum, there’s no better place to host a championship than Lucas Oil Stadium – within walking distance of NCAA headquarters. Although the governing body does not oversee the college football playoffs, it has been called upon to fix other issues in the sport: the transfer portal and the rules governing the use of name, image and likeness that allow players to profit from their fame.

Bill O’Brien, Alabama offensive coordinator and former NFL head coach, likened the transfer portal to “a free agent but no rules.” And both head coaches in Monday’s game, Georgia’s Kirby Smart and Alabama’s Nick Saban, joined the chorus calling for legislation to stop universities from using student offerings to profit from their sports glory as recruitment incentives.

Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA, took this argument to Congress, but even if that body wasn’t busy with more important issues, lawmakers might well remember how Emmert and other college leaders spent years (and tens of millions on legal and lobbying fees) , trying to prevent the passage of state legislation that would give athletes the same earning opportunities as any other students. When those laws went into effect last July, instead of trying to put up barriers, the NCAA essentially shrugged and walked away.

The hands-on approach has resulted in many players with professional ambitions abandoning bowl games or entering the transfer portal. And the turmoil in the coaching carousel only accelerated when recruits were allowed to sign contracts in December rather than wait until February, prompting schools to make changes to coaches earlier, even by the middle of the season.

All of this, along with cases of the coronavirus, was clearly on display in Louisiana State, which lined up against Kansas State last week with only 36 fellows, requiring the use of a quarterback receiver, and four coaches left over from the regular season.

The predictable gnashing of teeth over the state of the game was filled with lukewarm TV ratings.

Alabama’s landslide win over Cincinnati drew fewer viewers, just over 16 million, than any other semi-final except for Clemson’s win over Oklahoma in the 2015 season. And Georgia’s win over Michigan drew a bit more at 16.5 million, the lowest of any prime-time semi-final since the playoffs began in the 2014 season. The combined audience of the two games is down 14 percent from last year.

George Klyavkoff, the newly appointed Pac-12 commissioner, said the numbers are further proof that the playoffs are a “broken system.”

A larger system would be needed to fix it. But eight teams or 12? Guaranteed seats at five so-called energy conferences: Southeast, Atlantic Coast, Pacific 12, Big Ten and Big 12? And what about Notre Dame? Will there be room for non-Power 5 teams? How can you appease the Rose Bowl, which has attracted as many viewers as Alabama and Cincinnati, to move away from its coveted New Year’s time slot? And how might the new NCAA constitution, which has yet to take shape, affect any change?

When these issues are resolved – and with additional games costing an additional $500 million each year, they will be – there will be one group that will be on the trip: players.

When the NFL extended its regular season to 17 games, it had to bargain with the players. In college football, the new system will likely leave open the possibility that the champion will need to play 17 games, the latest extension to a season that has grown from 12 games in the last 30 years, raising questions about good player quality. Existence. (The Ivy League presidents have long resisted extending their season beyond 10 games due to health and safety concerns.)

Ramogi Huma, an advocate for college athletes, points to the lack of uniform concussion standards like those adopted by the NFL as evidence of how little attention is paid to player protection. And this despite the danger of head injuries brought to the fore by suicide four years ago. Washington State Quarterback Tyler Hillinskywho, at autopsy, was found to have extensive brain damage associated with a traumatic brain injury.

“How many conference commissioners are raising troops to make sure health and safety issues are addressed?” Huma said. “Zero.”

So while the playoff commission squatted over the weekend, plotting but saying little, those at the heart of the enterprise were left, at least metaphorically, with the fans who had come here for the championship: in the cold.