SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — College football always seems to be trading one controversy for another.
For years, it was the fact that the national championship was decided in the polls and not on the field. Then, with the advent of the BCS, it was that not enough deserving teams were part of the mix, that there was no playoff format.
So the College Football Playoff was born. And yet here we are, just two years in, and not only is there a clamor for the CFP to expand from four teams to eight, but the time and date of the CFP semifinals has come under withering fire.
And maybe, the head of the CFP suggests, “Star Wars” may be to blame.
The first round of semifinals were of course on New Year’s Day 2015 in the Sugar and Rose bowls. Both games drew robust 15-plus ratings, in step with college football’s standing as America’s second-most popular sport behind the NFL.
But once all the applause died down, people started to realize that the CFP semifinals were going to be on New Year’s Eve two out of three years — or except when they are in the Sugar and Rose.
CFP officials boasted how fans would gravitate to their TV sets and not just to watch Kathy Griffin and Anderson Cooper share uncomfortable moments in Times Square. That couples would kiss at midnight with one eye on each other and another on the field.
Turns out some watched, but not nearly as many. TV ratings for this season’s semifinals in the Orange and Cotton bowls were down a combined 36 percent. What was a graceful swan just a year ago became a brick with wings.
ESPN suggested moving the semis to Jan. 2, a Saturday, but the CFP’s hubris steamed ahead like Derrick Henry sniffing the goal line. They wanted to establish a new New Year’s Eve college football tradition — or at least a tradition that will be in play two of every three years.
The heat is now about to be turned on the CFP folks full-blast. According to a report from Broadcasting & Cable magazine, ESPN is negotiating $20 million worth of “make goods” with advertisers who bought into this season’s semifinals expecting last season’s ratings. Just imagine how fun it’s going to be for ESPN to sell those spots for next New Year’s Eve’s semifinals in the Peach and Fiesta bowls.
Fool me once, same on you. Fool me twice, well, PUNT!
Apparently, the CFP isn’t about to do that. CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock was sticking to his guns here Friday, saying the playoffs are going to stay the course with New Year’s Eve — until the 2017 season, when they go back to the Sugar and Rose on New Year’s Day.
“This will take some time to get used to,” Hancock said. “The numbers were down this year. We don’t know why. We don’t know whether it was the day, the non-competitive games, whether some of the excitement faded after the first year. We’re going to have to take our time to figure all that out. But one year does not make a trend.”
Hancock suggested that all the hubbub over the premiere of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” may have siphoned off some of the viewers for the playoff, the suggestion being that folks were more eager to go see a movie that debuted two weeksearlier than stay at home and watch playoff football.
Whether it was Kylo Ren or the ghost of Dick Clark who took a lightsaber to the CFP’s ratings, logic would suggest changes should be afoot. You can bet ESPN is screaming for them behind closed doors.
With no one expecting the Rose Bowl to be willing to move from its traditional Jan. 1 afternoon slot, one possibility being floated is sandwiching the CFP semis around the Rose on New Year’s Day, roughly at noon and 7:30 p.m.
That would be fine when the Sugar Bowl has a semifinal. Otherwise, what do you do with the Sugar Bowl, send it off packing to New Year’s Eve night and hope there isn’t another “Star Wars” sequel about to open?
It isn’t fair to make the Sugar Bowl take a bullet for the rest of the CFP. These decisions are being made by the conference commissioners — and Notre Dame, always Notre Dame. They shouldn’t make the Sugar Bowl, arguably the bowl with the second-most tradition behind the Rose, give up its choice time slot.
Hancock, thankfully, doesn’t consider that an option.
“The playoff was built on the traditions of college football, including the Rose Bowl,” he said. “The SEC and the Big 12 said, ‘We’d like to have our own tradition New Year’s night’ (in the Sugar Bowl). We all understood that.”
This year, New Year’s Eve falls on Saturday, a traditional college football day of the week.
Perhaps that will make a difference. But if not the empire — ESPN — is eventually sure to strike back in a big way.