The Bowl Championship Series exhibited several glaring shortcomings this year. A couple of them will be on display right here in the East Valley today when Utah plays Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl.
Now before you go thinking that somehow this column wound up in the wrong section, bear with me. I am not going to rant about the BCS. I will leave that to the sports folks. This column is about tourism, civic boosterism, economic impact — and allegations of fixed chariot races.
The college bowl system sprung up mostly for economic reasons. It was never designed to determine a national champion of college football. And economic reasons are why the bowl games are still with us.
The roots of the bowl system go back to 1890 when the folks who settled in Pasadena, Calif., decided to celebrate their warm winter weather by holding a festival, complete with a parade.
This wasn’t just fun for the locals. This was designed to show off their fair city to folks in colder climates.
Southern California then was much like the Valley today in that its economy depended on population growth. Newspaper coverage of this festival, which became known as the Tournament of Roses, was an excellent way to stimulate demand.
For the 1903 event, the folks in Pasadena invited the powerhouse University of Michigan football team to play Stanford. It was a disaster. Michigan took a 49-0 lead, and Stanford quit in the third quarter. Football was dropped.
Taking advantage of the popularity of the novel "Ben Hur," the Tournament of Roses staged chariot races instead. But the novelty began to wear off, and there were suspicions that some of the races might be fixed.
In 1916, college football returned. The Tournament of Roses built a football stadium in time for the 1923 game. Even though the stadium originally was horseshoe-shaped, it was tagged the Rose Bowl. Thus we have bowl games instead of horseshoe games.
Other postseason college football games were played, but none really took root until 1932. Boosters in Miami saw how much publicity the Tournament of Roses generated. They decided to copy Pasadena’s model with a Palm Festival. This became the Orange Bowl Festival, which claims to be south Florida’s largest single tourist event.
More Sunbelt cities soon got in on the act, with New Orleans, Dallas and El Paso, Texas, adding football games as parts of festivals that were primarily civic marketing tools.
Our Fiesta Bowl’s inception had more to do with football — and perceived injustice. The Fiesta Bowl was started after Arizona State University was snubbed a couple of times by bowls in the late 1960s. But even as first proposed by ASU President G. Homer Durham, football was a centerpiece for a festival.
And the Fiesta Bowl is more than just a football game. More than 50 events each year are connected with the Fiesta Bowl, including a New Year’s Eve block party, a parade, a battle of the bands and a tennis tournament.
The estimated economic impact from the 2003 Fiesta Bowl was $175 million. The block party and the game show off our area to a national TV audience. Can GPEC buy a better ad?
While bowl games long capped off the college football season, they didn’t figure heavily in who won the mythical national championship. Until the mid-1960s, the final polls of writers and coaches — the most widely accepted measure of who finished No. 1 — were taken before the bowls were played.
The desire to settle who was No. 1 on the field really gained momentum in the 1970s when the NCAA started staging multigame football playoffs for smaller schools.
But the bowls stood in the way of a playoff for major schools. As a compromise, a system was devised to pit the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked teams in a major bowl each year. The site rotates among four major bowls. The system works great as long as there are two teams everyone agrees should play for the title. Which is almost never.
This year, five teams went unbeaten. One of them is Utah, which will not be playing for the national title. The Utes get to play in a top-tier bowl, but because of the way this is set up, they play Big East champ Pittsburgh. The consensus is Pittsburgh has no business in a top-tier bowl.
The locales, such as ours, where the bowls are held, have a vested economic interest in the status quo and a fear of change. Would a semifinal playoff game in the Valley draw thousands of fans from distant schools? Or would they save their money for the possible final? Could you build a festival around a quarterfinal game?
Until a greater economic interest prevails — such as a network or a corporation putting up a gazillion bucks for a tournament — the bowls will be with us.
You see, the problem with the bowls is not that they are broken.
The problem is, they work as designed.