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Playoff Fans within the Cold as College Football Plots Its Future

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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 lightweight drone show was canceled, and getting a restaurant table — even a socially distant one — was no problem in any respect on Saturday night.

It seemed that Georgia and Alabama football fans, lots 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 remain of their hotel rooms and order in. (And why not, when a room on the TownePlace Suites was going for north of $900?)

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

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

A lot in order that it was easy to return back to this thought: Why not Recent Orleans? Or Miami? Or Phoenix? Or Los Angeles? Or Tampa? And even Las Vegas?

There isn’t a shortage of balmier January locales — and for those who’re going to lean into winter, why not do it in a spot like Recent York and while away a frigid weekend at a theater, in museums, out shopping or sipping cocktails under heat lamps in rooftop bars? (In the event you’re going to be soaked for a hotel room a minimum of get something in the cut price.)

All of this will not be 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 rankings through which the system’s stewards — the identical ones who thought putting a title game here was a swell idea — have been hamstrung from making changes by their very 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 12 hours this weekend in Indianapolis — to hammer out a change to the format before the present contract expires after the 2025 season.

“Have you ever ever seen the movie ‘Groundhog Day’?” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said after one other negotiating session ended Monday and not using a resolution.

In fact, if there’s a venue that underscores bureaucratic inertia and leadership vacuums, there isn’t any higher place to carry a championship than Lucas Oil Stadium — a brief walk from N.C.A.A. headquarters. Though the governing body doesn’t oversee college football’s playoff, there have been calls for it to repair other matters in the game: the transfer portal and rules governing the usage of name, image and likeness, which permit players to cash in on 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 foundations.” And each head coaches in Monday’s game, Georgia’s Kirby Smart and Alabama’s Nick Saban, have joined the chorus calling for laws to stop universities from using proposals for college kids to cash in on their athletic fame as recruiting inducements.

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

The hands-off-the-steering-wheel approach has led to a parade of players with skilled 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 up December fairly than wait until February, which has encouraged schools to make coaching changes earlier, even by the season’s midway point.

All of this, together with coronavirus cases, neatly manifested itself for Louisiana State, which lined up against Kansas State last week with only 36 scholarship players — which necessitated using a receiver at quarterback — and 4 coaches who remained from the regular season.

The predictable teeth-gnashing in regards to the state of the sport was given more grist with tepid television rankings.

Alabama’s convincing win over Cincinnati drew fewer viewers, just over 16 million, than for another semifinal except Clemson’s win over Oklahoma within the 2015 season. And Georgia’s thumping of Michigan drew barely more, 16.5 million, the bottom of any prime-time semifinal for the reason that playoff began within the 2014 season. The combined viewership for the 2 games declined 14 percent from last 12 months.

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

Fixing it should require an even 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 maneuver off its coveted Recent 12 months’s Day time slot? And the way might a recent N.C.A.A. structure that has yet to take shape play into any changes?

When those questions are resolved — and with the extra games value an extra $500 million every year, they might be resolved — there might be one constituency that’s 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 accomplish that. In college football, a recent system is prone to leave open the likelihood that a champion might want to play 17 games, the most recent extension of a season that has grown from 12 games during the last 30 years, raising questions on the players’ well-being. (Ivy League presidents have long resisted extending their season beyond 10 games due to health and safety concerns.)

Ramogi Huma, an advocate for faculty athletes, points to the absence of uniform concussion standards — just like the ones the N.F.L. has adopted — as evidence of how little consideration is given to protecting players. This despite the hazards of brain injuries being delivered to the fore by the suicide 4 years ago of Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski, who was shown in an autopsy to have extensive brain damage related to head trauma.

“What number of conference commissioners are rallying the troops to be certain health and safety concerns are addressed?” Huma said. “Zero.”

So because the playoff commission hunkered over the weekend, plotting but saying little, those at the middle of the enterprise were left, metaphorically a minimum of, alongside the fans who traveled here for the championship: out within the cold.

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