Playoff Fans in the Cold as College Football Plots Its Future

On College Football

Recent huddles among the sport's leaders have shown how much television drives their thinking.

A band played to a sparse crowd in an area for college football fans in Indianapolis on Saturday, ahead of the national championship game on Monday night. Credit... AJ Mast for The New York Times

Jan. 10, 2022

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INDIANAPOLIS -- The freezing rain had made the sidewalks of downtown Indiana into slip-and-slide tracks. A downtown concert stage and beer garden sat vacant, a dance and light drone show was canceled, and getting a restaurant table -- even a socially distant one -- was no problem at all on Saturday night.

It seemed that Georgia and Alabama football fans, many of whom had driven from Atlanta and Birmingham to avoid exorbitant airline fares and to squirrel away money for tickets to Monday's national championship game, had decided after driving through ice storms that it was wiser to stay in their hotel rooms and order in. Why not? A TownePlace Suites room was selling for nearly $900.

The weather was dry by Sunday, but temperatures plummeted into the teens.

This edition felt more like an expensive Siberian vacation, even though the College Football Playoff title match is the crowning moment of the season. It's a time when legions of college football fans can wave the school flag and provide a welcome respite from another winter pandemic.

It was so easy to think: Why not New Orleans? Or Miami. Or Phoenix? Or Los Angeles? Or Tampa? Or Las Vegas?

There are plenty more pleasant January destinations than you might think. So why not go to New York for a warm weekend of shopping, theaters, museums, and cocktails under the heat lamps at rooftop bars, while also enjoying some balmy January weather? You should at least get something if you're going be too soaked to stay in a hotel.

This is not an attempt to kvetch. It's simply a way of explaining why College Football Playoff is at its current stage: a stale four-team playoff with sinking ratings. In which system stewards -- who are the same ones who thought putting there a title was a great idea -- have been prevented by their own selfish self-interests from making changes.

Ten conference commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick have met seven times in June to finalize the College Football Playoff management plan. They also met this weekend in Indianapolis to reach an agreement on a new format for the 2019 season.

After Monday's negotiating session, Bob Bowlsby, Big 12 Commissioner said, "Have any of you ever seen the movie "Groundhog Day?"

However, if you want to emphasize bureaucratic inertia as well as leadership vacuums, then Lucas Oil Stadium is the best place. It is only a short distance from N.C.A.A. headquarters. The governing body is not responsible for college football's playoff. However, there have been requests to fix other matters in the game, including the transfer portal as well as rules regarding the use names, images, and likeness. This allows players to benefit from their fame.

Bill O'Brien, former N.F.L. quarterback and Alabama's offensive coach, is now the head coach. Bill O’Brien, former N.F.L. quarterback, was Alabama's offensive coordinator.

The N.C.A.A. president, Mark Emmert. President of the N.C.A.A. Mark Emmert has made this case to Congress. But even if Congress wasn't occupied with more pressing matters, legislators may recall how Emmert spent years and tens to millions in legal and lobbying costs trying to stop state legislation from allowing athletes the same moneymaking opportunities that all students. The N.C.A.A. instead of trying establish guardrails after the July law went into force. The N.C.A.A. merely shrugged and left.

Large statues of football stars were posed by fans during Saturday's fan event. Credit... AJ Mast for The New York Times

The hands-off-the-steering-wheel approach has led to a parade of players with professional ambitions opting out of bowl games or entering the transfer portal. And the coaching carousel's tumult has only been accelerated by allowing recruits to sign in December rather than wait until February, which has encouraged schools to make coaching changes earlier, even by the season's midway point.

All of this, along with coronavirus cases, neatly manifested itself for Louisiana State, which lined up against Kansas State last week with only 36 scholarship players -- which necessitated using a receiver at quarterback -- and four coaches who remained from the regular season.

Tepid television ratings added more grist to the predictable teeth-gnashing around the state of the game.

Alabama's convincing win against Cincinnati attracted fewer viewers than any other semifinal, with just over 16million, except for Clemson's victory over Oklahoma in 2015. Georgia's defeat of Michigan attracted slightly less viewers, 16.5million, which is the lowest number of prime-time semifinals since the 2014 season. The combined viewership of the two games fell 14 percent from last season.

George Kliavkoff was recently appointed Pac-12 Commissioner. He said that these numbers are more evidence that the playoff system is "broken."

Fixing it will require a bigger system. Do you prefer eight teams or twelve? Guaranteed berths for the five so-called power conferences: the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast, Pacific-12, Big Ten and Big 12? What about Notre Dame, though? Are there any berths for teams not in the Power 5 countries? How can the Rose Bowl, which drew more viewers than Alabama or Cincinnati, be compelled to give up its New Year's Day spot? And how might a new N.C.A.A. constitution that has yet to take shape play into any changes?

When those questions are resolved -- and with the additional games worth an additional $500 million each year, they will be resolved -- there will be one constituency that is along for the ride: the players.

The N.F.L. bumped its regular season to 17 games, it was required to bargain with the players to do so. College football's new system could mean that a champion may have to play 17 games. This would be an extension of a 30-year-old season that had grown to 12 games. This raises serious questions about the health and well being of the players. (Ivy League presidents are known to have resisted the idea of extending their season beyond 10, citing safety and security concerns.

Ramogi Huma is a college athlete advocate who points out the lack of uniform concussion guidelines, such as those adopted by the N.F.L. Ramogi Hua, an advocate for college athletes, points to the lack of uniform concussion guidelines -- such as those adopted by N.F.L. This despite the dangers of brain injuries being brought to the fore by the suicide four years ago of Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski, who was shown in an autopsy to have extensive brain damage associated with head trauma.

"How many conference commissioners are rallying the troops to make sure health and safety concerns are addressed?" Huma said. "Zero."

So while the playoff committee hunkered down for the weekend, plotting but not saying much, the ones at center of the enterprise were left, metaphorically at most, with the fans who had traveled here to see the championship: out cold.