Will anyone attend the national semifinals?
Here’s a bold statement: “The culture of New Year’s Eve will change in this country.”
Bill Hancock, executive director for the newly named and scheduled College Football Playoff, said that to ESPN. He was referring to the back-to-back tripleheaders that will start in 2014 as part of the Playoff. Three games — the Cotton, Orange and Fiesta Bowls — on Dec. 31, 2014 followed by three more — Chick-fil-A, Rose, Sugar — on Jan. 1 is the schedule for year one with the Rose and Sugar Bowls serving as national semifinal games.
As someone who grows older, crankier and less interested in New Year’s Eve proceedings each year, this is incredibly convenient. It’s a football feast with a champagne toast intermission. It is revolutionary for the couch-committed college football fan, but what does it mean for the fan who might actually want to attend a game?
Football has a TV problem. Television has brought unprecedented levels of revenue to athletic departments but as technology progresses — HD, streaming, streaming HD, Twitter, the stuff that’s still to come — it becomes more and more alluring to just stay home and watch many games over attending one, even if it’s in your backyard and features your favorite team. In 2012, attendance across college football fell to the lowest average in a decade.
That’s the climate right now, which makes these neutral site national semifinal games particularly interesting to watch. There’s one big, glowing question out there — Who is going to go? Will even the most well-off alums of State U travel to watch the 2015 Rose Bowl with the knowledge that the bigger stage, the title game, is but one win and two weeks away?
We’ve already seen that conference championship games — which offer a similar experience of being just an emotional appetizer and only that if your team wins — struggle in terms of attendance. You can see those 2012 attendance figures in relation to listed stadium capacity below, but keep in mind that announced attendance is almost always overstated. The SEC packed the house, yes, but just remember what the Pac-12 championship game, and to a lesser extent the Big Ten, looked like. It was an embarrassment and that game was on Stanford’s campus.
There’s a lot that’s good about the new playoff. First, it’s the playoff that we’ve all been clamoring for. (Or at least a playoff. Some already wish it included more teams.) Second, the schedule does restore a sense of the good old days of college football for those watching at home. New Year’s Day is going to be a great day to watch college football again and New Year’s Eve is coming along for the ride. In a rare display of sense in our increasingly corporatized times, the playoff organizers even want the Chick-fil-A Bowl to go back to being the Peach Bowl.
Good things are clearly happening, but is it diminished at all if those national semifinals — which instantly became the two most important games of the season behind the actual title game — are played in front of a stadium that’s maybe 65-percent full? Does it say anything that’s not mostly repellant about the role television occupies in our lives or is it just refreshingly honest? ESPN, after all, is paying about $470 million per year to televise this thing. Attendance concerns didn’t seem to register at the network.
But college football fans do talk about it. That’s the new dynamic. More and more of us watch games from home, but when we tune in we’d like a lot of people to be where we aren’t. We want it to look and feel like a big event and that’s not a totally unreasonable expectation for a fan who genuinely loves college football. It’s the second-biggest sport in America and it’s finally doing things the way the public has almost always wished it had. It seems like the stadiums should be full.
I’m just not sure they will be and, if that happens, it will be very interesting to watch how fans respond. What happens when we got what we wanted, only it doesn’t feel like we thought it would feel? In truth, it may not matter much if that is the case. One, television drives the bus. Two, the schedule is locked in for 12 years.
But here’s an idea if it turns out that people aren’t turning out for the semifinals — put them in the same place. Make a weekend of it. You can’t replicate the Final Four because you can’t play the title game right away — you can’t even play two games in one day — but you can come close. If you play both semifinals, one on New Year’s Eve and one on New Year’s Day, in the same city you’ve got the foundation for a pretty great holiday for the college football fan. Then you start adding layers. Do your Hall of Fame announcements there. Hold the skills challenge and all of those other Final Four-type events for the players whose seasons are over. It’s unlikely to happen, but move the Heisman announcement too.
Maybe I’m crazy, but that’s something I’d attend regardless of who was playing. It might even be enough to lure me out of my house on New Year’s Eve.