Sports Field Management - November, 2012

FEATURES

Ross Kurcab's Field Notes: Artificial Competition, Artificial Champions

I don't like artificial things; I like authenticity. Call me old-fashioned, but as the jingle says, "Ain't nothing like the real thing, baby." There was once a time not too long ago where fake and artificial things were considered tacky. Fake jewelry, fake politicians, fake television and fake people were taboo. Artificial meant never as good.

This year, there will be fully 35 bowl games involving 70 teams (out of 119 nationally). We have accepted an artificial way to determine the "national champion" in one of our most popular sports. In 2014, they will slap some lipstick on a four-team playoff pig and call it legit. Imagine if professional football announced that they were planning to change their playoff system in favor of the current BCS system. Fans would be outraged!

College football games are too often played in less-than-perfect venues just to create some artificial buzz. The November 2010 matchup between Big 10 rivals Northwestern and Illinois illustrates this approach to the game. To create some buzz, they decided to play at the historic Wrigley Field in Chicago. This iconic ballpark is wonderful for its intended purpose - baseball. The football field layout for this venue didn't really fit. There were only a few feet from the back of one end zone to a padded, hard, outfield wall. They actually hung the goalpost from the wall like a basketball hoop. Luckily, someone pointed out that this was unsafe shortly before the game, and special rules were instituted that had all offensive possessions heading away from the end zone in question to avoid the dangers. It was a desperate move in a crowded sports marketplace.

There are at least two bowl games played in a baseball venue every year. The first two to three weeks of the regular season seems to be played mostly at neutral sites in college football. I am seeing sodded-out areas to eliminate conflicts caused by painted logos. Sodding out a painted logo to quickly eliminate it does not do justice to field safety and playability. Players want consistency in a field. They can adjust to almost any conditions, as long as they can anticipate the footing and there are no surprises (like a sodded logo spot). Why not just project these logos like they do with the yellow first down lines?

Is it about the game, or more about market shares, ratings and sponsorship platforms? The business of college football has swallowed up the game of college football. I've never liked how sponsorship has taken over teams and bowl games. It used to be the Rose Bowl, the Cotton Bowl, the Orange Bowl, etc. There were only about eight bowl games. Now it's the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. Sports apparel companies buy teams, and then dress them in intentionally ugly uniforms just to get some recognition.

Because we tolerate artificial importance, we get three weeks of exhibition games in bowls we don't know the name of. The lucky teams have just been through four to six weeks of downtime. Some think they should be playing in a more prestigious bowl and aren't motivated. The result is often a lousy game.

I'd rather light a candle than curse the darkness, so here is my solution: Be authentic, institute a playoff. Sixteen teams, seeded 1-16 would participate. Seeds 1-8 would be the conference champions of the eight major D-1 conferences. The other eight teams, seeded 9-16, would be determined using the current ranking systems. These at-large berths would be the next best eight teams, regardless of conference. This would be a four-week playoff. Eliminate the nonconference games, and the two teams playing in the true national championship game would have played 13 games total. Have the first two rounds played home and away at the higher seed's home field. The two final four games and the true national championship game would be played at neutral sites and moved around the country year to year like the Super Bowl. Start the playoff the first Saturday of December, with games every Saturday until the championship is played on New Year's Day.

Not perfect, but a much better way to determine a real champion. It would be huge!

Do you think the NCAA basketball brackets are popular? Wait until we have a college football bracket. It would eliminate the biggest joke in sports, except for maybe the two-minute warning - think about it. It would give every school a chance.

Regular season games would be just as important, if not more important than with the current system, which is more akin to a beauty contest than a sporting championship. Keep the bowl games if you like, just use the non-playoff teams, although I doubt many would watch when they have a genuine option that counts for something.

Following are a few more ideas for the upcoming bowl season in regards to the playing fields. Eliminate the giant sponsor logos and set size limits. Overdone field painting makes many bowl game fields look like a pretty woman wearing too much makeup. Paint the sideline and end line borders white, not team colors. This is a functional part of the field, not a decorative part like team logos. Players know they are safe inside the fat, white line. Keep pregame and halftime entertainment packages reasonable. Too many people and equipment damage the field. Rehearsals on game week often interfere and limit field preparations.

The current system is a relic. It cheapens the words champion and championship. More is not better - better is better! Player safety and performance must be our top priority in the coming sports safety awareness era. Some traditions will have to be eliminated or changed in this effort. Make it about the game. Be authentic.

Ross Kurcab, who holds a bachelor's degree in landscape horticulture/turfgrass management from Colorado State University, has 26 years of turf management experience and is the first Certified Sports Field Manager. You can reach him at ross@sportsfieldmanage .