Though most of us prefer playoffs, the greedy and self-serving suits manipulating college football show no sign of abandoning bowl games. By giving us more as we ask for less, it’s the rough equivalent to responding to noise complaints by cranking up the volume.
Maybe, through the persuasive protest of indifference, we can find another way to get their attention.
There were almost 40,000 empty seats at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego last Wednesday for the Poinsettia Bowl, featuring Cal and Utah. Three days earlier, there were more than 40,000 empties for the Middle Tennessee State-Southern Mississippi game in the New Orleans Bowl at the Superdome.
On the day after Christmas, as Marshall faced Ohio, the announced attendance at the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl at Detroit’s 65,000-seat Ford Field was 30,311.
If you’re a bowl organizer, you ought to be embarrassed by the vast expanses of unoccupied seats. This is your reward after working for a year to polish and sell the game?
Of the 11 bowl games played through Monday, only two sold out: The Emerald Bowl, which brought USC to San Francisco to play Boston College at a 42,000-seat stadium; and the Las Vegas Bowl, which attracted caravans from those following BYU and Oregon State to 40,000-seat Sam Boyd Stadium.
We now have 34 bowl games — a dozen more than a decade ago — because college administrators insist on a succession of games trying mightily to appear significant. That they often fail is no fault of the teams involved.
But few things convey failure more visibly than empty seats. Empties at home can get a coach fired faster than losing records. In bowl games, empties mock the notion of importance, illustrate fan apathy and provide open space for bird droppings.
Empty seats cannot and will not be ignored forever — not by college administrators with calculators for brains and cash registers for hearts.
They will be forced to concede, perhaps before the current Bowl Championship Series contract expires in 2014, that this outdated system delivering games of little or no consequence to increasingly uninterested fans must be replaced.
The biggest barrier to consistent sellouts, though, is the utter absence of intrigue, or the kind of marquee status that comes when every game means something, as it would be with a 16-team playoff.
That’s why the NCAA Basketball Tournament is the most riveting event on the annual sports calendar. March Madness sells. Fans pack arenas to see unfamiliar faces from other parts of the country play championship hoops. The tournament is by far the biggest revenue generator in college sports, thanks to a $6 billion contract with CBS.
The lords of college, mostly university presidents, cling to their beloved bowl games largely out of tradition.
But what about the numerous studies that show football playoffs payouts likely would at least double the take of the current bowl system?
Money talks to these folks, and empty seats assault their eyes.
Eventually, we’ll settle into a playoff system. Sometime in the next decade, the quest for revenue will create a foundation, and the empty seats will build the bridge.