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Bowls Become Endangered Species; Pac-12 Players Threaten Walkout; Booker Nails NCAA

With all the uncertainty surrounding the 2020 college football season, folks are beginning to wonder about the post-season.

I’ve advocated cancelling the season because of the COVID pandemic, but if one is played and completed, there is no doubt a College Football Playoff will be held. There’s simply too much money at stake.

So the Rose and Sugar Bowls, host of this year’s playoff semi-finals, would seem a safe bet, and perhaps the rest of the “New Year’s Six” (Sugar, Peach, Cotton and Orange).

But how about the other 35 bowl games?

Will teams be willing to put their players at risk one more time? Will they be willing to spend 4-5 days in a strange city? Will players be willing to put their health on the line, especially those preparing for a pro career? Will any fans show up?

It’s quite possible the answer to all those questions is, “no.”

The first COVID bowl casualty—with some help from the local NFL franchise—was announced last Friday, and it hit close to home for me. The Redbox Bowl, played at Levi’s Stadium for the past six years, announced that it was being cancelled for 2020.

I was co-founder of the game and its executive director for 15 years in previous iterations as the Diamond Walnut, Emerald, Kraft Fight Hunger and Foster Farms Bowls.

In its heyday, the bowl was one of the highest-rated games on television and enjoyed four sellouts, including Cal-Miami, UCLA-Florida State, USC-Boston College (in Pete Carroll’s last game as a college coach), and Nevada-Boston College (when Colin Kaepernick and company brought the entire state of Nevada to San Francisco).

When the playoff was established, bowls all over the country had to find ways to (try to) remain relevant. In 2012, with Levi’s Stadium under construction and the 49ers headed to the Super Bowl, we announced our game would move to Levi’s in 2014 and bring in a top

Big Ten team to play the Pac-12.

By the time 2014 rolled around, however, Jim Harbaugh was gone, the 49ers had imploded, the stadium had opened to mixed reviews, and the team had aggressively pursued other major events for its shiny new venue, attracting the Pac-12 Championship, lots of concerts, soccer and hockey exhibitions, and the CFP national championship game.

With their own franchise in a rebuilding mode, and these high-profile events competing for their attention, the 49ers gave low priority to the bowl. Meanwhile, the Pac-12’s decision to move the game from ESPN to Fox—with precious little promotion and a soap opera lead-in—proved disastrous. The Big Ten sent a parade of mostly 6-6 teams, which resulted in lots of empty seats.

About six months ago, the 49ers very quietly decided “not to renew the current agreement” with the bowl. The search for a new venue was underway when COVID hit.

The bowl hopes to return in 2021, but it will be a daunting challenge to find a new venue, secure a sponsor, and attract two conference partners.

Indeed, the entire post-season lineup—other than the CFP Semi-final games and New Year’s Six bowls—is also experiencing chest pains.

“I imagine the top bowls will want to try and still do it, but you’ve got to wonder if the schools will be willing to play,” says Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick. “You made it through the regular season, and now you’re going to add another event that adds complexity and cost.”

Undoubtedly, a majority of top players would opt out of bowls to avoid risk of injury or illness, as Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and many others have done in recent years.

And unless a vaccine is created and distributed widely by December, fans will be hesitant to travel to another city, book hotel rooms, and sit in large stadiums to attend bowl games.

Eligibility is yet another factor. With most Power Five teams playing only within their conferences this year, there will be few opportunities for teams to get bowl eligible by padding their records against Little Sisters of the Poor and other cupcakes.

Certainly not a promising set of circumstances.

#WeAreUnited: A group of Pac-12 players published an article in the Players’ Tribune Friday, threatening to opt out of the 2020 season unless a list of demands were met. Thirteen players signed the letter (one from Stanford, three from Cal) and they purported to represent hundreds of others from around the league.

The demands address health precautions related to COVID, racial injustice, and compensation for athletes. Specifically, the group wants player approved health and safety standards, a permanent task force and Black College Athlete Summit to address racial injustice in college sports and society; half of sport revenues distributed to players; medical insurance for six years after college; and support for low-income black athletes and community initiatives.

I was also pleased to see a demand to reduce Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott’s $5.3 million compensation and the excessive salaries of coaches and other administrators in order to protect existing sports. The players specifically cited the reinstatement of 11 sports recently cut by Stanford.

Bravo! Let’s hope at least some of these demands are met by Scott and company.

Here is the link to the full Player’s Tribune article:

Booker vs. NCAA: New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, the former Stanford tight end, has taken no prisoners with his denunciation of the inept and hypocritical NCAA during the recent Senate Hearings on NIL (Name, Image and Likeness) compensation for college athletes.

Booker says, “the NCAA continues to fight tooth and nail” to make sure athletes “are unable to share in the $15 billion industry that colleges sports have become.”

You’ll recall that when California passed the NIL legislation sponsored by Berkeley State Senator Nancy Skinner, NCAA President Mark Emmert immediately—and absurdly—threatened to ban California schools from NCAA championships.

After 20 other states joined California, Emmert backed down, forming a “working group” and then ultimately agreeing to permit NIL compensation with specific rules to be determined by individual conferences.

But now the NCAA has attempted to regain control, insisting in its latest proposal that the national organization control all NIL compensation and proposing that athletes can only sign sponsorship or endorsement deals with companies that have an existing relationship with their schools.

Whereupon Booker—and others—denounced Emmert’s latest face-saving power grab.

Booker concluded: “Why can’t we move forward on this name, image and likeness? Why can’t the NCAA put into their rules and regulations things that protect college athletes, giving them fairness and stop this decades-long exploitation?”

Why indeed!

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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