Is this how the demise of non-playoff bowls begins?
- Now that Stanford's Christian McCaffrey and LSU's Leonard Fournette have normalized the option of skipping bowl games, will other players skip them too? Will fans?
This article originally appeared on FoxSports.com.
In 2006, then-Oklahoma junior Adrian Peterson broke his collarbone in a mid-October game against Iowa State and missed the rest of the regular season. But the surefire first-rounder returned to play for the Sooners in the Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl against Boise State.
At the time, that seemed completely normal. Soon, though, it may be unthinkable that an elite draft prospect would risk further injury in a non-playoff bowl game.
The recent decisions by LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey to skip their teams’ bowls and begin prepping for the NFL draft have ignited a firestorm of debate. Whether you think they’re being smart or being selfish, the fact is, they did it.
And in doing so, they set a precedent that could have sweeping consequences for college football’s bowl system.
“One chunk of the iceberg,” a veteran college administrator said Monday, “has fallen into the ocean.”
Most agree that McCaffrey would not be making the same decision were Stanford in the College Football Playoff, or, like the Cardinal were a year ago, the Rose Bowl.
That he sees the 81-year-old Sun Bowl as, essentially, “not worth the risk” says a lot about the way many players and fans today view bowl games. They are not “meaningless exhibitions,” as some cynics characterize them. But nor are they necessarily as important to some as a big conference or rivalry game in November. McCaffrey’s decision acknowledges that reality.
“I’m a huge McCaffrey fan,” wrote retired Foster Farms Bowl founder and Stanford alum Gary Cavalli, “but this decision is extremely disappointing. The Sun Bowl is less than two weeks away. The NFL draft is in late April. In addition to letting down his teammates and coaches, he’s basically emasculated the Sun Bowl.”
To be clear, both players’ teammates have expressed support for their respective decisions. If they feel “let down” by the stars’ defections—as many critics have contended—they’re not showing it.
Nor will the Sun Bowl’s viewership or ticket sales be affected as profoundly as some might assume. If CBS’s only bowl game gets a low rating this year, it will be due more to the relative low-wattage brands of Stanford and North Carolina—as opposed to, say, USC and Florida State—than the absence of a former Heisman finalist.
The story here is the inevitable ripple effect Fournette’s and McCaffrey’s decisions will have on future players in similar positions. Two respected stars just normalized an option—turning pro before the season’s over—that would have seemed incomprehensible back in Peterson’s day.
Now, that option will at least be on the table for every high-round draft prospect and his family going forward. This year’s Sun and Citrus Bowls will be fine. But as with anything, there’s a cumulative effect.
The diminished status of most bowl games began years ago. The advent of the BCS and now the College Football Playoff turned once-revered events into consolation prizes for some participants. And both the explosion in the number of games (now 40) and the acceptance of 6–6 (and now 5–7) entrants devalued the entire system.
But arguably no one has done more to trivialize the non-championship bowls than the coaches who routinely leave for another job before they’re played. If the Las Vegas Bowl is not important enough for Houston’s coach to stick around for upon earning a better opportunity at Texas, we should hardly be surprised if NFL-bound players start taking the same approach.
The question is, where do the lines get redrawn?
It’s one thing for a running back—the sport’s most obvious wear-and-tear position—to shut it down. What happens if the star quarterback leaves town before the final game? Most teams don’t have a comparable backup.
And missing the Sun or Citrus bowls is one thing. How soon until a star leaves before a New Year’s Six bowl? Or … dare we say it … a playoff game?
Needless to say, that timetable will accelerate if both Fournette and McCaffrey see their names called early next spring.
And needless to say, that doesn’t bode well for the bowls.
A missing Fournette here or McCaffrey there doesn’t endanger those events. It’s more the message a further trend might start sending to fans. If job-hopping coaches don’t consider them important enough to stick around for, and NFL-bound players don’t care enough about them to participate, why should the public continue to care about them?
Is there a breaking point where a significant number of fans that previously would have traveled to their team’s bowl game stop attending? Or where non-affiliated fans stop tuning in on a weeknight in late December?
We’re still probably years away from finding out whether or not those exist. Consumer behaviors won’t change overnight, even if the number of early defectors skyrockets.
But we may one day look back at McCaffrey’s and Fournette’s decisions as a key moment in college football’s transformation from bowl era to playoff era.