I have heard it repeatedly on the sports talk shows: We are drowning in meaningless bowl games at the end of the college football season. Nobody attends most of these bowls. Some of the bowls even feature teams with records of five wins and seven losses. Blah, Blah, Blah. Part of this, I think, represents the need of talking heads to have something to say. A chattering class with nothing to chatter about soon leads to unemployment and the need to do something productive. But I believe that there is more to this than merely adding fluff to an already-fluffy job. There is an agenda, I think, and I wish to propose my explanation of it.
College football right now is basically a minor league for the National Football League. Major League Baseball must maintain a wide-ranging system of minor leagues in cities ranging in size from Oklahoma City to Salem, Oregon. Probably, some funds from the major league teams are expended upon maintaining those minor league teams, but it is hoped that crown attendance and perhaps some advertising on broadcasts of the games will generate funds to make the minors in some degree self-supporting. This situation does not exist in professional football. The college football teams are, as far as I know, financially independent of the NFL, while providing the pool of talent from which the professional teams will draw their new players as old players retire or are broken beyond repair.
Right now, the vast majority of the really good players coming out of high school go to a rather limited pool of colleges. You know all of the names: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, USC, Oregon, etc. Out of 128 colleges represented in Division I football I count 25 that would be considered legitimate contenders for a national championship, and since 1998 only eleven schools have claimed the eighteen titles. I think that it’s safe to say that the game is pretty well rigged for an aspiring high school athlete to be easily drawn to one of the football factories that those schools have become.
This makes things very cozy for a lot of people. The schools themselves earn vast amounts of money from their football programs, and after spending a few million on their coaches and a few million more on their facilities, they have an enormous amount of money left over since they do not have to pay their players. “Their compensation is their degree” we are told, but a great many of those degrees are as useless as a rubber blowtorch and everybody from the janitor to the college president knows it. If an independently-administered testing program was instituted to evaluate the basic knowledge of reading, writing, math and physical sciences and the results of those tests factored in in the process of declaring a national championship I strongly believe that the we would see a far different outcome.
And this is very cozy for the NFL teams. How many scouts must one team support to keep an eye on eleven, or twenty-five or thirty teams? A heck of a lot fewer than it takes to keep an eye on sixty four. If all of the four and five star recruits are to be found in ten or fifteen stadiums, that takes much of the hard work out of recruiting. We blow our horns and sing praises to the Ducks and Trojans and Gators and Tide, and then sit back to pick the low hanging fruit to populate our pro teams. What could be easier?
The multiplicity of the bowl games makes all of this much harder to do. This year marked the sixth year in a row that San Diego State worked its way into a bowl game. The effect that this has on SDSU’s recruiting efforts is striking. A kid in San Diego or perhaps the Los Angeles metroplex previously had to play for one of the big teams in the PAC 12, or perhaps meander out east to Alabama or Tennessee or Michigan in order to be seen by the scouts, and could only hope to play in front of family and friends if he was so fortunate as to be recruited by USC or UCLA. Alternately, he might go to Oregon or Washington or some other PAC 12 team if some visibility to family was valued, or venture to the more far-flung schools if visibility to scouts was higher on the agenda.
Now, the coaches of SDSU can say “Come to our school and you are very likely to be on local and regional television and play in a bowl game. The opportunity to be seen by scouts AND family is geometrically increased and the good high school player is now more likely to think about staying hope. “Nobody watches the little bowls” the talking heads say, but they are wrong. The scouts are watching those bowls and so are the high school kids who and wondering where they will go next year or the year after. So too, apparently, a host of ordinary college football fans like myself watching those games, since the networks would not be broadcasting them if people were not watching them.
Far from being insignificant, those small bowls are perhaps the most significant innovation in the recent history of college sports. The utter domination of college football by the Big Dozen or Two is threatened at it’s core by the exposure that a good player can get playing at his home college, and you can expect the people currently on top of the NCAA football dog pile to do everything that they can to keep it that way, and that includes their mascots in the media to trash the threat of the small bowls at every turn. I hope with all of my heart that they fail at this.