College Football Playoff expansion finally overcomes its Rose Bowl sunset problem

In nearly two decades as a reporter trying to explain why college football had such a convoluted, inefficient and financially foolish championship system — countless investigations, news stories, columns and even two books — nothing defied reader belief like the power of a Southern California sunset jamming things up.

It was true though, no matter how seemingly untrue it sounded.

On Thursday, the sun has set on that sunset — not to mention all the other often petty and political hurdles that kept this sport from staging a real playoff. One day after the Rose Bowl conceded and signed off on playoff expansion, the sport announced it would expand to 12 teams for the 2024 season.

“This is a great day for college football,” said Mark Keenum, president of Mississippi State and the chair of the College Football Playoff Board of Managers.

It is. The 12-team playoff will feature byes for the top four seeds and then first-round games at the home sites of seeds 5-8. After that, it’s bowl sites (more on that mistake later). It is expected to increase regular-season television ratings, interest and revenue. It’s going to be huge and extremely profitable.

And yet, for too long, it felt like it could never happen, and one of the chief reasons was the stubborn Rose Bowl game, played annually in Pasadena on New Year’s Day since 1916.

For many decades it served as a postseason promotional tool and a brilliant television property — those golden hues from California beamed into the midwinter homes of the Midwest and Northeast. In spectacular visual fashion, the game was timed just so that the sun set late in the third quarter, the light beaming off the San Gabriel Mountains.

It was great. It still is great.

Except it's still just a sunset and as college football went national and became big business, fans began demanding teams from different parts of the country play each other to determine a champion, rather than just being voted upon, and the Rose Bowl went from classic and quaint to obstructionist.

The Rose Bowl wanted no part of modern times. It didn’t want to change its traditional Big Ten-Pac-12 matchup. It didn’t want to be upstaged by a title game. It wanted to forever wallow in 1958.

It certainly didn’t want to give up an immensely valuable exclusive television window on New Year’s Day afternoon. (Last year’s 16.3 million viewership for a game featuring two out-of-the-championship-hunt teams was the rough equivalent of the 16.4 million who watched an actual semifinal featuring Alabama and Cincinnati.)

PASADENA, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 01: A general view of the stadium as the sun sets as the Oregon Ducks play the Wisconsin Badgers during the fourth quarter in the Rose Bowl game presented by Northwestern Mutual at Rose Bowl on January 01, 2020 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Michael Heiman/2020 Getty Images)
The Rose Bowl has long held onto its New Year's Day time slot in order to ensure a setting sun during the third quarter. (Michael Heiman/2020 Getty Images)

A lot of it was understandable. The Rose Bowl game brought in $91.9 million in revenue, according to its most recent tax filings. Its executive director, David Eads, made $457,877 in total compensation in 2020. This is big business.

The game was so set in its ways, it balked at moving its exclusive television window forward an hour, preventing two non-Rose Bowl semifinals on New Year's Day. The reason the Rose Bowl balked? The sunset. It had to occur at the end of the third quarter. That was it. And that was final.

The result was the current College Football Playoff had to work around the Rose, forcing it to stage games on New Year’s Eve in numerous years, a far less preferable and far less valuable time slot for everyone.

It was absurd. So absurd that no matter how many times it was written, few believed it. How could a sunset hold up a sport?

Well, the Rose Bowl made a lot of money for itself and for its historic partners: the Big Ten and the Pac-12. As such, even into modern times, its interests were furiously protected by powerful Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany (who upon retirement became, of course, a paid consultant to the Rose Bowl).

Even post-Delany, the commissioners who wanted to expand to a real, 12-team playoff struggled with the Rose Bowl conundrum. Finally their bosses, a collection of university presidents, demanded it get done, and fast. Not expanding in 2024, and thus waiting until 2026, would cost about half a billion, at least.

The commissioners quickly ironed out the silly in-fighting that had illogically stalled expansion, yet were still stuck with the Rose Bowl. The contract ran through Jan. 1, 2026, and if the Rose Bowl wasn’t willing to alter it, then early expansion was blocked.

An ultimatum was given to the Rose, which naturally pushed back, asking for concessions in future negotiations. It leaned on sepia-toned nostalgia.

“Jan. 1 is an important part of the Tournament of Roses New Year’s celebration,” Laura Farber, the chair of the Rose Bowl management committee told last month, trying to downplay the obstructionist label. “We believe that fans will expect to see that [same time window] and want to see that.

“You start out with the Rose Parade, and on the same day you have the Rose Bowl Game to celebrate the start of the New Year. It’s not only tradition, it’s part of the brand, and who we are, and what has been built since 1903.”

Out of patience, the powers that be finally got real and told the Rose Bowl to pound some California sand.

Agree to the deal or risk not being included in the future — there is, remember, a new $6 billion stadium down the road in Los Angeles that is perfectly capable of hosting football games, including the national championship next month.

Out of options, the Rose Bowl finally relented late Wednesday. It approved expansion and kept its status in the rotation of bowl sites that will host the quarter and semifinals.

It should be a warning shot for the College Football Playoff folks and inspire them to ditch third-party bowl sites, stop outsourcing their most valuable product and simply do what the NFL does and play all games before the championship game on campuses.

Bowls are there to serve themselves, not the sport. Their inclusion is an act of cronyism and a lack of imagination.

At this point, though, on a historic Thursday, there is too much to be pleased about to dwell on what could be better.

The 12-team playoff is coming soon and a single sunset — no matter how beautiful it is — can’t stop it.