Americans love tradition.
Every year on holidays and special occasions, we do the same things as the year before. On Thanksgiving, we watch the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions every year, even when they are terrible. On New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, we watch college football. And every year in March, we spend the second or third weekend watching the beginning of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
And that love of tradition is why college sports (football and basketball, at least) still exist as a major part of American society. We identify with our school’s teams because they represent a part of us—and post-graduation, we continue that link because our love for our alma maters remains ingrained.
So why were 2011 bowls at their lowest ratings in the BCS era? And why are college basketball’s attendance numbers at a five year low while simultaneously getting lower ratings for an upset of the nation’s top-ranked team than the New Mexico Bowl?
Because there are structural issues in both sports that lead to their declining popularity, as well as—in the case of basketball—gameplay issues that make games tedious.
In 1992, there were 18 bowl games. In 2002, there were 28. In 2012, there will have been 35.
That means seventy teams will play in bowl games. There are 124 teams in Division IA football (now known as FBS), which means that 56 percent of teams get to the “postseason.”
To put that in perspective, it would mean eighteen teams in the NFL playoffs, and seventeen in the MLB playoffs. Iowa State, which finished NINTH (out of 10 teams) in the Big 12, got a bowl bid, lost, and will finish 6-7.
It’s difficult to maintain interest in that many games. Instead of rewarding the best teams with an opportunity to play one final game, we now reward every team that finishes .500 or better. And as a result, fans are not just not watching the bowls from the middle of December, they’re also not watching many of the BCS bowls in the numbers they used to.
Remember that tradition nonsense that for years was used to justify the presence of the bowl system instead of a playoff? That the bowl games are a tradition that college football needs?
Well, how’s this for tradition: from 1937 until 2007, the Cotton Bowl was played on January 1 every year except for eleven—and 10 of those were because January 1 was a Sunday and the NFL gets Sunday. But since 2008, the date of the game has jumped around: it’s been on the January 2 twice, January 4, January 6 and January 7.
College basketball suffers from this as well.
When the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, it became one of America’s premier sporting events. And part of that appeal was the upset potential in the first round of schools basically no one had heard of going against the big boys of college basketball. Instead, the gradual expansion to 65 and now 68 (and probably inevitably to 96) has led to mockery and criticism.
March Madness is no longer the untouchable paragon of sports postseasons.
Major college football (primarily the SEC) can have a professional feel to it, depending on the matchup. But the lower down the totem pole the teams come from, the sloppier the game.
Kickers miss kicks that NFL fans are accustomed to making, receivers are left wide open, tackles are missed constantly and putting games like BYU vs. San Diego State on national television exposes some of those issues.
College basketball has its own problems.
The games are only 40 minutes long and are divided into halves instead of quarters, which means the games are shorter than they are in the NBA. But college basketball’s shot clock is also 35 seconds, which means not only are there fewer total possessions in the college game (which means less scoring), there are also fewer possessions per minute (which means even less scoring).
All of this leads to outcomes like Georgetown’s 37-36 victory over Tennessee this season.