Is the Rose Bowl in jeopardy? Doubt looms over one of college football's greatest traditions

The Rose Bowl has long been regarded as the Granddaddy of Them All, the quintessential college football experience replete with an epic sunset, ornate parade and a rich tradition of being played annually since 1916.

But in a college football season that’s sputtering to a finish because of a global pandemic and significant spikes in COVID-19 cases, the fate of the Rose Bowl — or at least a conventional one playing in its namesake — appears to be in flux. And with the Rose Bowl slated to be one of the College Football Playoff semifinals this season, there are even more complications.

The Rose Bowl is fine if you ask the Rose Bowl brass. Executive director David Eads told Yahoo Sports this week that he’s “confident we’ll be able to host the Rose Bowl game in the Rose Bowl Stadium this season.”

Around college athletics, there’s not nearly as much confidence. Multiple sources told Yahoo Sports there are discussions and contingencies about alternative sites and plans for the Rose Bowl this season. According to sources, those options include playing the Rose Bowl in a different location — AT&T Stadium in the Dallas area is a popular suggestion.

The College Football Playoff could also move the semifinal game to another site and have the Rose Bowl host some semblance of a traditional game there. A new CFP semifinal location in a place like Indianapolis or Atlanta, in theory, could be more geographically friendly to schools that make the playoff.

There are a few central tension points for the Rose Bowl, most of which revolve around the virus spike in Southern California and the current stay-at-home order that is expected to last through Christmas. Already, three of the four bowl games scheduled in the state of California have been canceled.

"We are monitoring the circumstances, but we are still planning for the semifinals in the Rose Bowl," College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock told Yahoo Sports.

Joggers, walkers, bicyclists and kids play in front of the Rose Bowl while trying to social distance during the coronavirus pandemic on March 28. (Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)
Joggers, walkers, bicyclists and kids play in front of the Rose Bowl during the coronavirus pandemic on March 28. (Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

The decision for no fans or family members to be allowed in the Rose Bowl looms large, as it presents a standoff between the Rose Bowl’s tradition and the wishes of the schools and players to have families attend the game.

The Rose Bowl made clear they’ve asked for special permission for families to attend and so far have been denied. This looms as a key for them hosting the game in the eyes of college sports officials.

“They have obviously come out and said there will be no spectators,” an industry source said. “I understand there’s some complications that come with that if there’s truly zero people in the building. That’s the issue that’s being discussed.”

None of the teams ranked in the CFP’s top six are within 1,400 miles of the Rose Bowl. Hence, traveling that distance to an area handcuffed by regulations and not allowing family to watch the game would be a significant issue.

One high-ranking athletic official tied to a playoff-bound school put it this way: “The game in Pasadena has some questions. My hope is that the College Football Playoff management committee continues to talk about what options may be available. It would be tough on players’ parents not to have the ability to attend such an important part of their son’s college experience.”

Eads said that discussions about alternative sites and moving the game have not directly taken place with the Rose Bowl. “We have not had those conversations,” he said. “We understand that the CFP does have to plan contingencies. I’m not aware of who they are talking to and what that would look like.”

The Rose Bowl has been played outside the Rose Bowl before. The 1942 Rose Bowl was played at Duke’s Wallace Wade Stadium in North Carolina. Oregon State, which took a train cross country, beat Duke, 20-16. The game was played in the wake of the start of World War II when the federal government didn’t allow large public gatherings on the West Coast. (This took place less than a month after Pearl Harbor was attacked in December of 1941.)

Will that happen again? Right now, according to officials with the City of Pasadena, the game can be held. Those rules could change by kickoff, but the city has shown a willingness to play during the pandemic. (The Rose Bowl’s parade has already been canceled, which is a significant financial and psychological blow.)

The City of Pasadena has worked with UCLA and the Pac-12 to host two UCLA games in the Rose Bowl so far this season. A third is scheduled to take place on Saturday when UCLA hosts USC.

The week that UCLA was scheduled to play Utah, a game that ended up being canceled, there were a series of conversations and hypotheticals between Pasadena and UCLA about hosting that game and then replacing it with a game against Cal on a Sunday.

The complications of moving a game to Sunday with a new opponent can’t be understated and underscores how Pasadena was willing to work with UCLA and the Pac-12 to make that shotgun game happen. It’s reasonable to conclude that the city’s long ties to the Rose Bowl helped it be amenable to UCLA and the Pac-12, as the city recognizes the importance of the Rose Bowl.

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott declined comment on the Rose Bowl. Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren did the same.

There are financial particulars tied to any Rose Bowl decision that make any potential move fraught with complications. There’s obviously a contract to hold the CFP game at the Rose Bowl, the specifics of which are not publicly available but is thought to be worth millions of dollars. Having to break that contract hints at financial ramifications for any decision to pull the semifinals or move the game. There’s also no chance any major bowl would want to switch out with the Rose Bowl and become a semifinal this year, as 2021 and beyond promises full stands, millions in ticket revenue and the tourism boom inherent to thousands of visitors.

“In our discussions with the CFP, there’s been no discussion about flipping locations for another year or not having us as a semifinal site,” Eads said. “We’re planning for a semifinal game. And again, with the regulations that have been set forth by the state of California, participants would be safe and healthy. That’s been the focus of all of our efforts.”

He also added that he believes “most of America” will want to see the traditional Rose Bowl game, including the sun setting over the San Gabriel Mountains. Eads said it would “go a long ways toward helping the American psyche at a very dark time.”

But that desire goes directly in conflict with the wishes of athletic administrators at schools, the eventual desires of the players to have their families in the stands and geographic common sense.

There appears to be a standoff between tradition and the wishes of the participants. That means like everything else in 2020, the Rose Bowl will remain in flux until the moment it kicks off. Wherever that may be.

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