The bowl system

Traveling well

Teams, fans, sites would be losers with playoff

December 28, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO — SAN FRANCISCO-- --If you had been in Union Square downtown here yesterday morning, you would never wonder again why the college football bowl system will live forever and why a playoff will never be born.

The Emerald Bowl's joint pep rally was held, and surrounding the giant Christmas tree in the middle of the square were the coaches, players, bands, cheerleaders, mascots and a few hundred alumni and fans of Maryland and Oregon State. They were loud, they were excited, they were a rippling sea of red and white and orange and black, and a bunch of them (presumably excluding the players and coaches, who later in the day had to prepare for tonight's game) were ready to spend a lot of money.

Oh, there were also a couple of mascots affiliated not with either team, but with the title sponsors. One was a giant can, which seemed ridiculous, until you saw its partner, the giant nut.

It would be stretching it to say San Fran is consumed by this lower-tier game matching middle-of-the-road big-conference teams. (One of those teams is 6-6, but let's not go there.) But by all appearances, everybody participating in this game was loving the experience, and those who came to town for it loved it even more.

The Atlantic Coast Conference fans tear up their holiday plans on the fly to get here. Supporters of the Pacific-10 teams put together caravans - on Wednesday, an SUV with Oregon plates pulled up to a downtown hotel, and fans in school colors piled out and started unloading their stuff ... and unloading, and unloading, and unloading.

Say what you want about how illogical, unjust and unsatisfying the Bowl Championship Series is and how irrelevant every game other than the title game is. But you'll never get the powers-that-be in college football - and especially not those who run the bowls and benefit from them - to give up what they're getting in this city and many others.

The Emerald Bowl folks do a great job milking this game for all it's worth, matching opponents and tapping reliable fan bases who, as they say, "travel well." In its sixth year, the game is a consistent sellout - at a unique venue, AT&T Park - a ratings winner and a license to print money. San Francisco itself, of course, is a built-in draw, better than nearly all but the BCS game sites themselves.

"Economic impact" figures, especially coming from chambers of commerce with vested interests, should always be taken with a grain of salt - but last year's game, according to the city's convention and visitors bureau, generated more than $18 million. This year's payouts are $825,000 to the winner and $750,000 to the loser, enough for most major schools to come out in the black.

It's a win-win all around. Fans love it. Schools love it. Cities get a boost. The rah-rah atmosphere becomes infectious.

A playoff would mess with that in a big way. For one, a lot of the bowls would, for practical purposes, disappear. This one likely would. The rest would be subject to the seedings and game results - unpredictable, unplannable, harder to get those schools that "travel well." The impact on the mini-corporations (not so mini, actually) operating these games, whether they go or stay, would be devastating.

And 6-6 teams, and 8-4 ones like Oregon State, don't get the "reward" that caps their season. Another shock to the system. The choice between going bowling, even after a mediocre season, and staying home in deference to the eight or 12 or 16 championship invitees would be a no-brainer.

The Terps and Beavers didn't look as if they had anything to apologize for yesterday as they soaked up the attention and energy of the approaching game.

Coincidentally, one of the hosts of yesterday's joint team luncheon asked Maryland offensive lineman Andrew Crummey why he wasn't in favor of a playoff. Crummey talked about how many games it would add to a contender's season - with an eight-team field, the finalists could play 16 games. "That's an NFL season," he said, "and I don't know how you can justify that and call us student-athletes."

His response drew hearty applause. But he was preaching to the proverbial choir. The water in the bowl system pool feels too good to climb out of it and dip a toe in the playoff pool.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Listen to David Steele on Tuesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

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