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BUCKING TRADITION : Rose Bowl, Planted in the Past, No Longer the Flower of Football

December 29, 1988|RANDY HARVEY | Times Staff Writer

Suggesting that some things cannot be adequately defined with words, Gertrude Stein said that a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. Perhaps the same could be said of the Rose Bowl game, which rarely needs an introduction. The Rose Bowl game is the Rose Bowl game, etc.

The Tournament of Roses Committee, headquartered in Pasadena, has the numbers to make this case, having hired an independent marketing company to conduct a nationwide survey 2 years ago.

Of the 604 persons interviewed in four regions, 97% said that they were aware of the Rose Bowl game. That, presumably, would place it in the same company with the Bible and Coca-Cola.

Most of those who didn't know the Rose Bowl from the Rosetta stone responded that they had recently moved to the United States from another land. Perhaps that includes other planets considering that the game is televised in 26 foreign countries.

But in case aliens read sports pages, the Rose Bowl, as defined by the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, is the "oldest and most famous of the bowl games." It will celebrate its 75th anniversary Jan. 2, when USC meets Michigan.

Beano Cook is culturally literate, although that isn't a prerequisite for his current role as an ESPN college football analyst. He wouldn't necessarily argue with anything written above this line. He believes, however, that the Rose Bowl game, like Cal's Roy Riegels ('29 Rose Bowl), is headed in the wrong direction.

"It may be the granddaddy of them all," he said recently in a telephone interview from his Pittsburgh home, "but it's showing its age."

Cook also has numbers. His are derived from television ratings, which, for better or worse, have become one means, along with marketing surveys, by which we measure our nation's pulse.

First, a little history. Of the 10 highest-rated college bowl games of all time, 9 are Rose Bowls. At the top of the list is the 1956 game between UCLA and Michigan State, which was watched by 41.1% of all people in the United States who had television sets at the time.

Highest-rated among other bowls is the 1971 Cotton Bowl game between Texas and Notre Dame at 33.3, but that is no better than tied for fifth on the all-time list with the 1959 Rose Bowl game between California and Iowa.

These numbers indicate that the Rose Bowl's place in college football history is secure. More recent television ratings, however, reveal that the game no longer is as significant in the modern era.

Not only has the Rose Bowl failed to deliver a rating of 30 something in more than a decade, its officials now would be satisfied with a 20 something. Indeed, such a rating this season would inspire them to do back flips down Colorado Blvd.

The game's rating in 1986 was 22.7, but it fell to 17.7 in 1987 and 16.5 in 1988. Even Rose Bowl officials, for reasons we will address later, predict that the 1989 game will have no higher than a 15 rating.

There are numerous reasons for the decline. When you put them all together, it comes out like this:

Not so long ago, only one team from each the Pacific 10 and the Big Ten conferences was allowed to play in a bowl game. At the same time, Notre Dame, a Midwestern power and college football's biggest box-office draw, didn't play in bowl games.

Of the nation's television sets, 22% are in the Midwest and 15% on the West Coast. Many of them presumably belong to football fans.

As there were only four games on New Year's Day, and none of the other three were on at the same time as the Rose Bowl, it figured that a large number of people watching football games that day would tune in to see the team from the Pac-10 play the team from the Big Ten. The Rose Bowl thrived in a marketplace that was less than competitive.

Contrast that to this Jan. 2. Instead of four televised games, there will be seven. USC will not be the only West Coast team involved; UCLA will play in the Cotton Bowl. Michigan will not be the only Midwestern team involved; Notre Dame will play in the Fiesta Bowl.

To make matters worse for the Rose Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl is on television at roughly the same time. It's difficult enough to go head-to-head against Notre Dame on any day. Even during the disastrous Gerry Faust years, the Irish were a popular television team.

"There are as many people out there who like to see us lose as win," Notre Dame spokesman Roger Valdiserri said.

But it hardly seems like a fair fight this season because unbeaten Notre Dame is ranked No. 1 and playing another unbeaten team, No. 3 West Virginia, in a game that could decide the national championship.

And the winner, conventional wisdom dictates, will be . . . NBC.

For years, NBC officials boasted of their association with the tradition-rich Rose Bowl. But they took a hard look this year at the figures and decided that they could no longer afford to invest $11 million a year, give or take a couple of hundred thousand, just so that Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen could wax rhapsodically about "the granddaddy of them all."

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