The Rose Bowl's eternal fight for status actually matters
An alignment of incentives between bowl executives and the rest of us.
Twenty-three years ago, a Pasadena city councilman wondered aloud about bulldozing the Rose Bowl.
The stadium was too big for its own good, with few acts that could fill 90,000 seats. A lack of luxury seating made wooing the NFL a long shot. The Rose Bowl had UCLA football, but without a bigger fish, it was natural to worry about the venue’s future. The Orange Bowl in Miami was a cautionary tale. That building once housed the Dolphins, Hurricanes, and an eponymous bowl game. The Dolphins left. The bowl game left. A few years later, The U followed suit. The Orange Bowl stadium no longer exists.
In 2001, Pasadenans worried that their old jewel was on the same trajectory. All it would take, they figured, was UCLA deciding to play football elsewhere:
"That's a death blow," Rose Bowl Operating Company President Porfirio Frausto said of a possible Bruin move. "Not only for the economics of the city, but to me, where do you get another major college? That would put a couple nails in the coffin."
Adds Councilman Bill Crowfoot: "It would be a major disaster for our stadium. That's the soul of the stadium going out the front door. That stadium was built for collegiate football. That is its history. That's what it's best suited to do.
"If UCLA leaves, and we don't do anything like, get an NFL team, then maybe we ought to just bulldoze the thing and build a golf course. It would be a disaster for our self-image as a city, and the preservation of stadium."
The Rose Bowl added some luxury suites in the 2000s, hopeful that it could land the NFL. The league went to Inglewood instead, but the Rose Bowl’s main tenant stuck around: UCLA lacked the space or willpower to build something more optimal. The Rose Bowl, as a stadium and a game within it, lives.
But the fear that it wouldn’t was real. When Rose Bowl executives went 12 rounds last year with the College Football Playoff over the terms of the event’s expansion, that fear was at the root of the fight. The Rose Bowl wanted to guarantee the game would hold its traditional time slot on New Year’s Day, no matter how it slotted into the bracket. The Playoff didn’t want to promise that without a media-rights contract that went beyond the next two years. The Rose Bowl likes holding its game on January 1, the same day as the Rose Parade through Pasadena. But decoupling them was a better choice than the unthinkable option of not being a key part of the expanded Playoff, so the Rose Bowl gave in. Soon, the kickoff date and time will be subject to the needs and whims of the rest of the sport.
In the most obvious way, that’s how it should be. Why should one little holding company in a rich town in Southern California dictate the logistics of an entire sport, and not even a very Western one at that?
In a vacuum, it shouldn’t. But if you’re worried about the erosion of college football’s traditions and regionality, you might reach an uncomfortable conclusion: The people who run the Rose Bowl, as far up their own asses as they might be, are on the right side of history. If the fight is between a bowl game with a grandiose self-image and an organization whose goal is to transform the sport for the television dollar, shouldn’t more of us be rooting for the bowl game? Especially when it’s this bowl game?