How the College Football Playoff Conquered New Year’s Eve
A moment, please, before we delve into the future, to let us recognize the dear-departed Bluebonnet Bowl, a middling and largely meaningless contest played in Houston, Texas, during the New Year’s Eves of my childhood. In a way, the Bluebonnet Bowl was a lifeline; it was something to watch for a sports-crazy kid other than the slowly calcifying presence of Dick Clark, and for that, I am grateful.
But OK, with that out of the way, I am willing to declare what we are all thinking, which is that holding the College Football Playoff games on New Year’s Eve is an utterly terrible idea. It is the New Coke of programming decisions; it is the brainstorm of executives who make it their job to tinker with that which wasn’t broken in the first place. “ESPN wants to dominate New Year’s Eve,” wrote Richard Sandomir in The New York Times, likening this to the NFL’s symbiosis with Thanksgiving and the NBA’s takeover of Christmas Day.
There is only one problem with this brainstorm: College football has already traditionally dominated a holiday. And that holiday is New Year’s Day. For decades, this was a lovely symbiosis, beginning in the early morning with the Rose Parade in Pasadena and carrying through the Sugar Bowl in the evening. And you want to know what’s most amazing about this New Year’s Day tradition? It was the very defense that bowl executives and television executives utilized in order to prop up the bowl system itself; it was one of the primary arguments against the playoff creep that began with the bowl coalition and became the BCS and eventually morphed into an actual playoff.
Back in 1987, the Fiesta Bowl between Penn State and Miami was moved from January 1 to January 2, in order to capture its own full day of hype and anticipation. From then on, it became commonplace to move big games off New Year’s Day; eventually, New Year’s Day became something less than it once was, a day of Outback and Citrus Bowls, a day of consolation rather than culmination.
And then last year happened, with the College Football Playoff semifinals taking place on New Year’s Day. And you know what? It was great. It felt like a return to what New Year’s Day is supposed to be. No one outside of a boardroom had a problem with it. No one thought, You know what would be even better than college football regaining its hegemony over New Year’s Day? College football happening during a New Year’s Eve party, thereby resulting in hundreds of thousands of low-level marital disputes over whether or not to keep the goddamned television on a 13-13 Michigan State-Alabama game in the fourth quarter or turn to some rockin’ eve Jonas Brothers horseshit.
“We really do think we’re going to change the paradigm of New Year’s Eve,” said College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock, keeping up with a long tradition of saying whatever delusional crap his corporate overlords want him to say. For some idiotic reason, this appears to be what the College Football Playoff wants: Seven of the next 10 playoff semifinals will be held on New Year’s Eve. Ilan Ben-Hanan, ESPN’s vice president of college sports programming, told Sports Illustrated‘s Richard Deitsch this summer that the network tried to convince the playoff to move to January 2 this year since that date fell on a Saturday, but the CFP refused, because that would have made far too much sense.
So here they are, attempting to futz with tradition in a sport that clung to tradition as the very reason for not implementing a playoff in the first place. It’s the sort of catch-22 that might drive you to drink, if it weren’t already New Year’s Eve and if this weren’t college football, the most beautifully dysfunctional of all the major American sports. No longer is college football a salve for the hangover; now it is a central part of our collective drunkenness. Which makes sense, I guess, given that the powers-that-be in this sport have always focused on dizzy logic, on self-important proclamations that seem way dumber in retrospect. I have no doubt that someday, this one will, too.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb