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College Football Championship Comes to Bay Area

Bill Hancock is a wonderful human being. He’s universally regarded as one of the nicest guys in all of college sports.

As director of the Bowl Championship Series for many years, he stood up to the BCS haters and defended the national championship format with grace and dignity. Sure, he put a favorable “spin” on things, but Bill never lied or dodged a question. A lot of folks in Washington D.C. could learn from him.

Now, he’s the executive director of the College Football Playoff, and that’s a much easier sell. The Playoff has been an unqualified success during its four-year existence. The last three championship games have been instant classics.

The playoff semi-finals rotate each year through six bowl games—Rose, Sugar, Orange, Fiesta, Cotton and Peach. The championship game is awarded by bid. This season’s title game will be held on January 7, 2019 in the Bay Area at Levi’s Stadium.

As everyone knows, the Bay Area is not exactly the hotbed of college football. Cal’s attendance was down significantly last year, despite the arrival of a highly-regarded new coach, and Stanford only sold out one game in a 50,000 seat stadium despite the presence of the most exciting player in the country, Bryce Love.

The 49ers’ shiny new stadium in Santa Clara hasn’t done well with college football. Both the Pac-12 championship game and the bowl game I ran for 14 years—now known as the Foster Farms Bowl—have struggled to draw crowds at Levi’s.

So a lot of people around the country were a little surprised by the CFP’s choice. The committee is basically relying on the two competing teams to each bring at least 20,000 fans—hopefully more—to the Bay Area.

It’s a long haul from Alabama, Georgia, Clemson and Ohio State (the four teams that have participated in the first four championships) to Northern California. Tickets, airfare, and hotels will be expensive. And some wonder whether more conservative folks from the south will choose to venture into territory they regard as the “land of fruits and nuts.”

Most of the championship game ancillary events will be held in San Jose. With apologies to Dionne Warwick, a lot of people in the South and Mid-West don’t know the way to San Jose. I’d even wager that a few fans will book plane reservations for LA before realizing that the game’s in Northern California.

As far as the locals go, the CFP championship might inspire a yawn, particularly if two SEC teams are playing, like last year. This is a very jaded market. The Giants recently won three World Series titles. The 49ers won five NFL rings in the 80s and 90s. The Warriors have won two of the last three NBA titles. The Sharks are in the playoffs every year. The Raiders and A’s have also hoisted their share of championship trophies.

Bay Area college football fans haven’t turned out for the Pac-12 title game—even the year it matched No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 7 Arizona—and they didn’t show up for the Foster Farms Bowl even when Stanford was one of the participants.

On a Monday night in January, when traffic getting to Levi’s Stadium is a bear, and the weather is unpredictable, most Bay Area college football fans will opt to watch the game in the comfort of their own home. Car in the garage. Bathroom down the hall. Beer and food in the kitchen. Endless replays on the 60” HD TV.

Last year the face value of championship game tickets ranged from $375 to $875, but on the secondary market—where most fans would have to go to find a ticket—the average was $2,319. Unless there’s a Pac-12 team in the game, which judging from the performance of conference teams last year is a real long shot, there may well be some fans disguised as empty seats.

At a news conference this week, the CFP folks anointed the championship game as “the largest and most significant college football event ever played in the Bay Area.” (There have been some pretty amazing and important Big Games that drew well over 70,000 fans, but I won’t quibble with the hyperbole).

Fans can also enjoy an interactive amusement park, concert performances by big-name artists, and a championship campus with tech exhibits.

With his typical enthusiasm, Hancock says, “What it will mean for the Bay Area is that people will go away thinking, ‘Wow, college football is really terrific. I need to stay connected with it.’ It will bring college football to this area in ways that have never happened before.”

I hope he’s right, because Bill Hancock is one good guy who deserves to finish first.

Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//

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