Bowl Highlights, Lowlights, Bail Outs; Playoffs; Pac-12 for Sale
There have been some incredible performances—both good and bad—in this year’s bowl games. For example, Cal’s 10-7 loss to TCU in the Cheez-It Bowl featured some of the worst quarterback play in the history of organized football.
The New Year’s Day games, on the other hand, were all competitive and meaningful: Ohio State hanging on in the Rose Bowl against Washington in Urban Meyer’s final game (with the Buckeyes, anyway); Texas removing any doubt as to whether Georgia belonged in the Playoff in the Sugar; Penn State’s Trace McSorley showing tremendous grit and talent against Kentucky in the Citrus; and UCF proving it could play with the big boys in the Fiesta.
Earlier, Stanford edged Pitt 14-13 in the Sun Bowl, despite gaining less than 100 yards through three quarters and being forced to punt nine times. After quarterback K.J. Costello made a few clutch fourth quarter throws to JJ Arcega-Whiteside to put his team in position for the winning score, the Cardinal got a gift touchdown when Costello’s fumble flew into running back Cameron Scarlett’s hands in the end zone.
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.
CFP: The College Football Playoff Semi-finals went about as expected. Alabama beat Oklahoma 45-34 in an entertaining affair highlighted by Tua Tagovailoa’s near flawless performance at quarterback and head coach Nick Saban’s embarrassing sideline eruptions. Screaming profanities and throwing your headset when you’re up by three touchdowns is a bad look.
Over the years I had the privilege of working very closely with a lot of great coaches, including one who won three Super Bowls, one who won two Rose Bowls, and one who beat Saban 38-0 in a bowl game, and one thing was quite obvious.
You don’t have to be a jerk to win.
Notre Dame’s performance in the other semi-final was disappointing. Clemson’s overall speed advantage, NFL-quality defensive line, impressive freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence and stable of outstanding receivers was way too much for the Irish to handle.
Championship Game Pick: So next Monday at Levi’s Stadium, for the third time in four years, Alabama and Clemson will meet for the national title. I correctly picked Clemson to win two years ago, and I think the Tigers will prevail once again, 38-34, in another down-to-the-wire thriller.
Crowd Concerns: Tickets to the National Championship Game are now selling below face value on the secondary market. I’m not surprised. Back in April, we wrote in this space:
“Unless there’s a Pac-12 team in the game, which is a real long shot, there may well be some fans disguised as empty seats…It’s a long haul from Alabama, Georgia, Clemson or Ohio State to Northern California. Tickets, airfare and hotels will be expensive…As far as the locals go, the CFP championship might inspire a yawn. As everyone knows, the Bay Area is not exactly the hotbed of college football…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.”
Bowl Bail Outs: Michigan was trounced 41-15 in the Peach Bowl. That's what can happen when four of your top players decide to skip the bowl game to prepare for the NFL draft.
Michigan wasn't the only team to suffer because of players bailing out. Arizona State, playing without its best player, wide receiver N’Keal Harry, lost a tight game to Fresno State and West Virginia, playing without its star QB Will Grier, got smoked by Syracuse. Sadly, what started out as a few isolated instances, mainly involving players nursing injuries, is fast becoming a national epidemic.
Some folks believe that participating in a “meaningless” non-playoff bowl is too risky for a top NFL prospect, and that you have to protect your future earnings. I beg to differ. From this vantage point, if you’re on a team, you're a member of that team for the entire season.
Fact is, when a player bows out of a bowl game, he impacts a lot of people. His absence could cause his team to lose, affect his teammates’ performances and draft status, influence recruits’ decisions, cheat fans who spent money on travel and tickets, and cause TV ratings to fall and bowl games to decline.
Fortunately, not everyone is jumping ship. Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert, who would’ve been a high first round pick in this year’s NFL draft, decided not only to play in the Redbox Bowl, but also to come back for his senior season.
Good for him.
Ratings tip: The lead-in for the Sun Bowl on CBS was an episode of "The Young and the Restless." The lead-in for the Redbox on Fox was "Fox Winter Preview Special.” Is it any wonder that bowl games on ESPN draw higher ratings than those broadcast on CBS and Fox?
Investment Opportunity: In another sign of the Pac-12’s dysfunction, the conference reportedly is seeking investors for a new company that will hold its TV rights, sponsorships and other commercial assets. You can buy 10% of the company for a mere $500 million.
I’m not sure how that jibes with the NCAA’s stand on amateur athletics, but, essentially, the Pac-12 is trying to sell equity in a failing television network and a package of media rights that can’t be renegotiated til 2024.
Gee, where can I sign up?
Seriously, the conference blew it by setting up the Pac-12 Network as an independent entity, solely owned by the member schools, without a heavyweight partner to add some clout. That's the main reason why the Pac-12 has fewer than 20 million subscribers, while the Big Ten and SEC—with ESPN and Fox as partners—have around 60 million.
And while the Pac-12’s $3 billion contract with ESPN and Fox looked good at the time, locking in for 12 years has proven to be a costly mistake. Twelve years is an eternity in the media world, and the Big Ten wisely took advantage of a rising rights fee market by signing a six-year deal for almost as much money ($2.6 billion) last year.
The problem now, of course, is that Pac-12 schools are getting much lower distributions than their counterparts in other leagues. That gap will widen over the next five years, until the current TV contracts expire.
So while private equity investment may help the lagging bottom line temporarily, it can't change the Pac-12’s lack of leverage with distributors.
And it also can’t change the fact that unless the conference improves its performance on the football field and on the basketball court, its media rights may not be all that desirable to the TV networks five years from now.