How College Football Is Like Golf

Lou VozzaAnalyst IOctober 13, 2009

It's hard to imagine two sports more different in their fundamental nature than college football and golf, yet they share much in common. 

From around 1890 until well into the 1950s, college football and golf, along with baseball and boxing, were the most popular sports in America. Of the big four, golf and football shared a very important characteristic: both were primarily amateur sports. 

Professional golf developed very slowly and didn't fully marginalize the amateur game until the 1950s. Similarly, for decades the NFL was college football's poor, ugly stepchild. It wasn't until the advent of widespread televised sports in the 1960s that the NFL superseded the popularity of the college game. 

Because of their historic amateur roots, both golf and college football are by their very nature less commercialized than professional leagues, which from the outset were set up as symmetrical, rational, money generating enterprises. 

For example, most of college football's important "franchises" are located in tiny population centers like Norman, Austin, South Bend, Columbus, and Tuscaloosa. Professional football teams, on the other hand, were placed where they could produce the most profit, i.e. New York, Chicago, Boston, etc. 

Similarly in golf, many pf the older golf courses where major championships are held are located in out of the way places like Augusta, Pebble Beach, and Pinehurst.

Bobby Jones' Masters tournament remains a bastion of the amateur golf tradition—the concession stands still sell sandwiches for a buck. More importantly, the organizers of the tournament refuse most television advertising, a principle that costs them millions upon millions of dollars every year. 

The idea of an official champion golfer of the year didn't occur to anyone until 1948, when the PGA instituted the "PGA Player of the Year" award (Ben Hogan won three of the first four). The title is still determined at the end of the year by a polite vote by the members of the PGA Tour. 

Similarly, college football had a 50-odd year history as a national sport that never bothered to determine a national champion. Like golf, where it was enough to be known as the "Masters Champion" or the "U.S. Open Champion," it was enough in football to be known as the "Rose Bowl Champion" or the "Orange Bowl Champion."

It wasn't until the late 1930s that a few sportswriters got the idea to hold a vote to declare the "best" team in the nation. What was initially a marketing gimmick to promote newspaper sales slowly grew into the national obsession that continues to this day. 

In recent years, both college football and golf have made attempts to align their systems with modern professional leagues, but both find it difficult to extricate their sport from its traditions.  

Three years ago, the PGA Tour instituted a playoff system that takes place at golf courses very close to Boston, New York, and Chicago. But the Fedex Cup hasn't come close to finding acceptance as a legitimate replacement for the Player of the Year award, which will continue to be based on a vote. 

In 1998, college football instituted the BCS system, a two team playoff, in a futile attempt to answer the question: "Who's Really Number One?"

It is clear to anyone who considers the situation carefully that this controversy can only be fully resolved with a college basketball style mega-playoff. This would by necessity include at least 24 teams and require jettisoning a great majority of college football's time honored customs, including bowl games and regional rivalries. 

What does the future hold for these two sports? If the past is any guide, they will eventually resemble their private enterprise competitors as closely as as possible. 

Traditionalists stand as much chance of protecting them as they do of protecting small town dime stores from WalMart's slashing march to the sea. The remaining unique organic charm of both sports will sooner or later be completely homogenized into our greedy aggrandizing corporate monoculture.