Playoff fans in the cold as college football shapes its future

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INDIANAPOLIS – Freezing rain had turned the downtown sidewalks into granite-hard slip and slide tracks. A downtown concert stage and beer garden were vacant, a dance and light drone show was canceled, and getting a restaurant table – even a socially distant table – was no problem on Saturday night. .

It seemed that Georgia and Alabama football fans, many of whom had traveled from Atlanta and Birmingham to avoid sky-high airfares and save money to buy tickets for Monday’s national championship game, had decided after going through ice storms that it was wiser to stay in their hotel rooms and order. (How about, when a room at TownePlace Suites cost north of $ 900?)

The weather was dry on Sunday, but temperatures dropped until the teenage years.

If the college football playoff title game is the pinnacle of the season, a time when legions of fans wave the school flag – and provide respite from another dismal pandemic winter – then this edition was more like a Siberian getaway at an abusive price.

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

There’s no shortage of milder January spots – and if you’re planning to lean into winter, why not do it somewhere like New York City and have a frosty weekend at the theater, museums, shopping. or sip cocktails under the heat lamps in the rooftop bars? (If you’re going to get soaked for a hotel room, at least get something extra.)

This is not all for kvetch, but a way of explaining why the college football qualifiers are in their current state: an outdated four-team playoff with falling TV odds in which the system’s stewards – the same who thought put on a title match that was a great idea – were prevented from making changes by their own interests.

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

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

Of course, if there’s a venue that emphasizes bureaucratic inertia and leadership voids, there’s no better place to host a championship than Lucas Oil Stadium, just steps from the NCAA headquarters. While the governing body does not oversee college football playoffs, there have been calls for it to address other issues in the sport: the transfer portal and rules governing the use of name, name, name image and likeness, which allow players to enjoy their fame.

Bill O’Brien, Alabama’s offensive coordinator and former NFL head coach, likened the transfer portal to “free agency, but without the rules.” And the two head coaches of Monday’s game, Kirby Smart of Georgia and Nick Saban of Alabama, joined the chorus calling for legislation to prevent universities from using student proposals to profit from their athletic fame as recruitment incentives.

Mark Emmert, the president of the NCAA, made this case before Congress, but even if this body was not occupied with more important issues, lawmakers might well remember how Emmert and other college leaders have spent years (and tens of millions in legal fees and lobbying) trying to thwart state legislation that would allow athletes the same money-making opportunities as any other student. When those laws came into effect last July, instead of trying to establish safeguards, the NCAA essentially shrugged and walked away.

The hands-free approach to the wheel has led to a parade of gamers with professional ambitions retiring from boules or entering the transfer portal. And the uproar of the coaching carousel was only sped up by allowing rookies to sign in December rather than waiting until February, prompting schools to make coaching changes sooner, even at halfway through the season.

All of this, along with the coronavirus cases, clearly manifested itself for the state of Louisiana, which lined up against the state of Kansas last week with just 36 stock players – which required the use of ‘one receiver at quarterback – and four coaches who stayed on from the regular season.

The predictable grinding of teeth over the state of the game was given over to water with lukewarm TV ratings.

Alabama’s convincing victory over Cincinnati drew fewer viewers, just over 16 million, than any other semi-final except Clemson’s victory over Oklahoma in the 2015 season. And Georgia’s clash against Michigan drew just over, 16.5 million, the lowest of any prime-time semi-finals since the start of the 2014 season playoffs. The combined audience of the two games decreased by 14% compared to last year.

George Kliavkoff, the recently appointed Pac-12 commissioner, said the numbers were further proof that the playoffs were “a flawed system”.

Fixing it will require a bigger system. But eight teams, or 12? Guaranteed berths for the five so-called power conferences: the Southeast, the Atlantic Coast, the Pacific-12, the Big Ten and the Big 12? And Notre-Dame? Will there be a place for teams outside of Power 5? How can the Rose Bowl – which has drawn as many viewers as Alabama and Cincinnati – be appeased to break out of its coveted New Year’s time slot? And how could a new NCAA constitution that has yet to take shape play a role in the changes?

When those questions are answered – and with the extra games worth an additional $ 500 million each year, they will be answered – there will be one constituency involved: the gamers.

When the NFL took its regular season down to 17 games, it had to negotiate with the players to get it done. In college football, a new system will likely leave open the possibility that a champion will have to play 17 games, with the latest extra time in a season that has gone from 12 games in the past 30 years, raising welfare questions. players. to be. (Ivy League presidents have long refused to extend 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 the ones the NFL has adopted – as evidence of the lack of attention paid to player protection. This despite the dangers of brain damage highlighted by the suicide four years ago of Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski, whose autopsy showed he suffered from significant brain damage associated with head trauma. .

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

So, as the playoff commission crouched over the weekend, plotting but saying little, those who were at the center of the business were left, at least metaphorically, alongside the fans who traveled here. for the championship: in the cold.

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