Football fans' day is thrown for a loss

Bowls: Too many games on too many days has mashed the couch potato family tradition of New Year's Day college football viewing.

January 01, 2002|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

Bowl games were born a century ago, before New Year's became fixed in collective memory as a day of dips and chips and families gathered around a warm TV. More recently, the college football games morphed into a marathon for bleary-eyed couch potatoes clutching the remote in one hand and notes on the office pool in the other.

Nowadays, the bowl anointed as the one played for the national championship may not even usher in the new year. Witness the 2002 Rose Bowl, between Nebraska and top-ranked Miami, to be played on Thursday night.

Decades ago, people did not follow college athletics with such fervor, and many watched bowl games to root for their own or a relative's alma mater.

"It was more of an `insider' phenomenon," says Jay Coakley, professor of sociology at the University of Colorado. "But now bowls have been hyped to the point that they're part of the sports bar culture."

Moreover, he says, the games offer a dandy excuse for loved ones to gather with little emotional toll: "New Year's Day allows people to spend time with each other without talking about serious family business. It allows us to talk about the call on third-and-four, rather than our difficulties with parent-child relationships."

That may explain the games' popularity today. A generation ago, viewers' motivation was different. Then, the one-day bowl blitz on Jan. 1 provided a getaway from the usual TV fare. The hour-after-hour-after-hour of football was ideal for male bonding, a kind of Currier-and-Ives machismo that is recalled fondly by those like Mike Oriard, professor of American Literature and Culture at Oregon State University.

"As a kid [growing up] in the 1950s, I remember watching New Year's bowl games with my dad," says Oriard. "It was expected; it was routine. We'd gather in the den with chips and soda pop, and watch football 'til we dropped."

Oriard went on to play for Notre Dame, where he captained the Irish team that lost to national champion Texas in the 1970 Cotton Bowl. "I was deeply ingrained in that American ritual," he says of New Year's Day. But now, with the bowl games spread out, and an endless menu of sports on TV, the end-of-year bowls have lost their luster, says Oriard.

"With games bumped back to Jan. 2 and 3, the bowls have not been a part of my household for some time," he says. "And I have two sons."

He's not alone. The New Year's bowl phenomenon "is more nostalgic than reality," says Don Johnson, editor of Aethlon, the Journal of Sports Literature. "We're just about `spectacled out' as a culture. So much football is available on TV now that, by January, I'm tired of it."

While he may tune in to some of the six bowl games today, says Johnson, he won't be transfixed. "I'll wander in and out of the room, to check the scores," he says. "I'm not glued to the set. By New Year's, I just don't have the stamina."

No turkey today

Televised sports have long been associated with gambling, be it office pools or family bets, says Bob Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University. "That puts a little bit of voltage into watching the bowls," he says. "Also, these games are lubricated by the consumption of beer.

"On New Year's Day, the central culinary event is not a home-cooked turkey, but food that comes from a bag and drink that comes from a can."

Consumption and marketing have long been the cornerstone of bowl games, which were founded to attract tourists and the dollars in their pockets. In California, civic leaders floated the Rose Bowl in 1902 as a way to draw chilly easterners to their sunny climes on New Year's Day. More than 8,000 people paid as much as $2 apiece to shoehorn into Pasadena's Tournament Park (1,000 seats) in 90-degree heat and watch Michigan stomp Stanford, 49-0.

Later, the Great Depression gave rise to the Sugar, Orange and Cotton bowls as Southern cities sought to lure crowds and fill their own coffers. The games struggled early on. Five thousand fans saw Bucknell's 26-0 victory over homestanding Miami in the first Orange Bowl, played Jan. 1, 1935. The Sugar Bowl debuted that same day, in New Orleans. Two years later, riding the coattails of Texas' centennial celebration of 1936, Dallas christened the Cotton Bowl.

Broadcast coverage sparked interest in bowls nationwide. "People huddled around their radios, in the '30s, to hear the Rose Bowl, long before there was TV," says Oriard. Newsreels carried the bowl hype even further, teasing folks into theaters in midwinter "to dream of parades, pretty girls and tropical locations."

"For those in places like New York and Chicago, it was quirky, exotic, stranger-than-fiction escapism," says Oriard.

America took note. The next few decades saw a bonanza of bowl games, many of them one-time events created to promote places and products, says John Watterson, author of College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy. "Every locality tried to cash in, and many bowls never made it."

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