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Palm Beach Post (Florida)
College football's bowl season should start low and build as we count down to the sport's official holiday — New Year's Day.
A crescendo if you will, like we have in every other sport, the anticipation building until it peaks with two games, four teams — the top four teams — rushing onto the field to determine who plays for the national championship.
Bowls like the New Mexico and Auto Nation can start things off in mid-December, before moving to the Camping World, Music City and others after Christmas and culminating with the College Football Playoff semifinals on New Year's Day.
But that's a perfect world, one in which the ACC wields as much clout as the SEC; one in which Central Florida has an equal chance of competing for a national championship as, say, Clemson or Michigan or even West Virginia.
Instead, what we have is the college football playoffs at the mercy of four leagues and two bowls, which result in the semifinals being played Dec. 29 as they are this year (Alabama vs. Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, Clemson vs. Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl), and 11 bowls coming between those two games and national championship game Jan. 7 in Santa Clara.
The playoffs have become hostage to the self-interests of a group that put themselves above the sport, namely the Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC and Big 12. These four conferences and their bowl affiliates — Rose and Sugar — have made sure their interests are satisfied first.
The reason we had playoffs being held on New Year's Eve, as we did three years ago, and the last Saturday of the year, as we do now, is because those four leagues and two bowls put their greed first and refuse to move off their New Year's Day slots — the Rose at 5 p.m. followed by the Sugar in prime time.
Because of this, two of every three years we will have the awkward schedule of the semifinals being dropped in the middle of the final week of the bowl season.
The reason: ESPN pays $80 million to televise each bowl or $40 million to each conference. The ACC, meanwhile, receives $27.5 million from ESPN for the rights to the Orange Bowl.
The playoff peaked in its first year. The Rose and Sugar bowls of course got to host the semifinals first. The games were a hit with more than 28 million people turning in to see Florida State play Oregon (Rose) and Ohio State against Alabama (Sugar). Of course, those were held on New Year's Day.
But the CFP found out the next year what happens when the Rose and Sugar bowls hold all the clout and the playoffs are moved off New Year's Day. The 2015 playoffs (Orange and Cotton bowls) were played on New Year's Eve and the ratings plummeted.
The Orange Bowl, which paired Clemson and Oklahoma, drew a 9.1 rating, a 38.5 percent drop from the previous season's Rose Bowl, which meant nearly half as many viewers — 15.6 million compared to 28.2 million.
The second semifinal — Michigan State against Alabama in the Cotton Bowl — had a 9.6 rating compared with 15.2 for the previous year's Sugar Bowl. Viewership for that game fell to 18.5 million from 28.3 million.
Those sobering numbers forced one change. No longer will the semifinals compete with the parties and the ball dropping in Times Square. So, instead of being played on New Year's Eve, they will be held the previous Saturday, which still allows the Rose and Sugar to maintain their New Year's Day slots.
That year, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott told Sports Illustrated: "If our interest was solely how do you maximize eyeballs and attention around the semi games, undoubtedly we'd have said the semi games every year are going to be 5:00 and 8:30 on New Year's Day."
In other words: Our interest is to preserve the sanctity of our bowl (Rose) and to line our conference's pockets and the playoff be damned."
Those contracts between the Rose and Sugar bowls and ESPN for the games to be played at 5 p.m. and in prime time, respectively, on New Year's Day, run through 2026.
So, get used to several more years of the two bowls receiving the prime spot for their semifinal games and the Orange, Cotton, Peach and Fiesta having to settle for games wedged into the middle of the final week of bowl season.
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