Playoff Fans in the Cold as College Football Plots Its Future

INDIANAPOLIS — Freezing rain had turned the downtown sidewalks here into granite-hard slip-and-slide tracks. A downtown concert stage and beer garden sat vacant, a dance and light drone show was canceled, and getting a restaurant table — even a socially distant one — was no problem at all on Saturday night.

It seemed that Georgia and Alabama football fans, many of whom had driven from Atlanta and Birmingham to avoid exorbitant airline fares and to squirrel away money for tickets to Monday’s national championship game, had decided after driving through ice storms that it was wiser to stay in their hotel rooms and order in. (And why not, when a room at the TownePlace Suites was going for north of $900?)

The weather was dry by Sunday, but temperatures plummeted into the teens.

If the College Football Playoff title game is the pinnacle of the season, a time for legions of fans to wave the school flag — and offer a respite from another dreary pandemic winter — then this edition felt more like a price-gouging Siberian getaway.

So much so that it was easy to come back to this thought: Why not New Orleans? Or Miami? Or Phoenix? Or Los Angeles? Or Tampa? Or even Las Vegas?

There is no shortage of balmier January locales — and if you’re going to lean into winter, why not do it in a place like New York and while away a frigid weekend at a theater, in museums, out shopping or sipping cocktails under heat lamps in rooftop bars? (If you’re going to be soaked for a hotel room at least get something in the bargain.)

All of this is not to kvetch, but a way of explaining why the College Football Playoff is in its current state: a stale, four-team playoff with sinking TV ratings in which the system’s stewards — the same ones who thought putting a title game here was a swell idea — have been hamstrung from making changes by their own self-interests.

Ten conference commissioners and Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick, who make up the College Football Playoff management committee, have convened seven times since June — including for eight hours this weekend in Indianapolis — to hammer out a change to the format before the current contract expires after the 2025 season.

Of course, if there’s a venue that underscores bureaucratic inertia and leadership vacuums, there is no better place to hold a championship than Lucas Oil Stadium — a short walk from N.C.A.A. headquarters. Though the governing body does not oversee college football’s playoff, there have been calls for it to fix other matters in the sport: the transfer portal and rules governing the use of name, image and likeness, which allow players to profit from their fame.

Bill O’Brien, the Alabama offensive coordinator and former N.F.L. head coach, likened the transfer portal to “free agency, but without the rules.” And both head coaches in Monday’s game, Georgia’s Kirby Smart and Alabama’s Nick Saban, have joined the chorus calling for legislation to prevent universities from using proposals for students to profit from their athletic fame as recruiting inducements.

Mark Emmert, the N.C.A.A. president, has made that case to Congress, but even if that body was not occupied with weightier matters, legislators might well remember how Emmert and other college leaders spent years (and tens of millions in legal and lobbying fees) trying to thwart state legislation that would allow athletes the same moneymaking opportunities as any other students. When those laws went into effect last July, instead of trying to establish guardrails, the N.C.A.A. essentially shrugged and walked away.

Fans posing with large statues of football players at the fan experience on Saturday.Credit…AJ Mast for The New York Times

The hands-off-the-steering-wheel approach has led to a parade of players with professional ambitions opting out of bowl games or entering the transfer portal. And the coaching carousel’s tumult has only been accelerated by allowing recruits to sign in December rather than wait until February, which has encouraged schools to make coaching changes earlier, even by the season’s midway point.

All of this neatly manifested itself for Louisiana State, which lined up against Kansas State last week with only 39 scholarship players — which necessitated using a receiver at quarterback — and four coaches who remained from the regular season.

The predictable teeth-gnashing about the state of the game was given more grist with tepid television ratings.

Alabama’s convincing win over Cincinnati drew fewer viewers, just over 16 million, than for any other semifinal except Clemson’s win over Oklahoma in the 2015 season. And Georgia’s thumping of Michigan drew slightly more, 16.5 million, the lowest of any prime-time semifinal since the playoff began in the 2014 season. The combined viewership for the two games declined 14 percent from last year.

George Kliavkoff, the recently appointed Pac-12 Commissioner, said those numbers were more proof that the playoff is “a broken system.”

Fixing it will require a bigger system. But eight teams, or 12? Guaranteed berths for the five so-called power conferences: the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast, Pacific-12, Big Ten and Big 12? What about Notre Dame? Will there be a berth for teams outside the Power 5? How can the Rose Bowl — which drew as many viewers as Alabama and Cincinnati — be placated to move off its coveted New Year’s Day time slot? And how might a new N.C.A.A. constitution that has yet to take shape play into any changes?

When those questions are resolved — and with the additional games worth an additional $500 million each year, they will be resolved — there will be one constituency that is along for the ride: the players.

When the N.F.L. bumped its regular season to 17 games, it was required to bargain with the players to do so. In college football, a new system is likely to leave open the possibility that a champion will need to play 16 games, the latest extension of a season that has grown from 12 games over the last 30 years, raising questions about the players’ well-being. (Ivy League presidents have long resisted extending their season beyond 10 games because of health and safety concerns.)

Ramogi Huma, an advocate for college athletes, points to the absence of uniform concussion standards — like the ones the N.F.L. has adopted — as evidence of how little consideration is given to protecting players. This despite the dangers of brain injuries being brought to the fore by the suicide three years ago of Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski, who was shown in an autopsy to have extensive brain damage associated with head trauma.

“How many conference commissioners are rallying the troops to make sure health and safety concerns are addressed?” Huma said. “Zero.”

So as the playoff commission hunkered over the weekend, plotting but saying little, the ones at the center of the enterprise were left, metaphorically at least, alongside the fans who traveled here for the championship: out in the cold.

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