Has the bloom gone off the Rose Bowl?
What used to be the New Year's Day college football bowl game isn't even the game from 2 to 5:30 p.m.
The annual matchup between the Big Ten and Pacific 10 champions has lost more than a third of its ratings appeal since 1983. Tuesday's game matching No. 8 Washington and No. 17 Iowa could see the ratings hit an all-time low.
Keith Jackson, who will call the game for ABC, cites increased competition-especially from NBC's Sunkist Fiesta Bowl-for the ratings drop.
"The Rose Bowl sat for so many years without a challenge, and finally the Fiesta Bowl dared to schedule themselves against the Rose Bowl (in 1989) and everyone discovered it is not that invincible," Jackson said. "I remember having many conversations with ABC Sports executives trying to get them to schedule the Sugar Bowl against the Rose Bowl. They wouldn't do it, but there was never any reason why they shouldn't have."
Tempe, Ariz.'s Fiesta Bowl, born in 1971 and shifted to New Year's Day in time for the 1982 game, decided the national championship in 1987 and 1989. As the highest-paying bowl without a conference affiliation, it has been able to attract high-profile teams such as Nebraska, Miami (Fla.), Notre Dame, Penn State, USC and UCLA.
But this year's game was diminished after Notre Dame and Virginia chose other bowls after Arizona voters' rejection of a paid state holiday honoring civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. The game had to settle for No. 18 Louisville (9-1-11) and unranked Alabama (7-4).
Meanwhile, the Rose Bowl's ratings have gone through an almost continual decrease since 1983. That year, UCLA's 24-14 victory over Michigan drew a 24.5 rating and was seen in approximately 20.4 million households, making it the highest-rated bowl game. The Rose Bowl hasn't come close to matching those numbers since.
Ratings dropped in each of the next two years before experiencing a slight increase in 1986. However, the rise proved to be temporary, with the 1987 and 1988 games receiving 17.7 and 16.5 ratings, respectively.
NBC, which began broadcasting the Rose Bowl on radio in 1927 and had been televising it since 1952, dropped the game in July, 1988, even though there were two years left on its contract.
"The bottom line was we were suffering significant losses on the Rose Bowl," then-NBC Sports president Arthur Watson said at the time. "How much? Several millions, and I'm talking about more than $2 million or $3 million per year." Undaunted, ABC picked up the game, agreeing to pay out more than $100 million for the rights to televise the game for nine years.
But the ratings slide has continued. Last year's rating was 14.6, with the game being seen in 13.4 million households.
Bob Griese, Jackson's broadcast partner, argues that the game has not lost any of its luster.
"The Rose Bowl is the Rose Bowl," Griese said. "I don't think it matters who plays, you'll get a lot of people tuning in just because of the tradition. If you don't see the Rose Bowl and parade, you're just not starting the year off correctly."
According to Jackson, the game's ties with the Big Ten and Pacific 10 conferences guarantee it a measure of ratings success.
"The Rose Bowl will always do pretty well in the ratings as long as the Big Ten association is there because you have so many population centers tied to the Big Ten, plus Los Angeles," Jackson said. "It won't always be first, but it will never be last."
But the tie-in has hurt the game as well. Viewers undoubtedly have been turned away by the Pacific 10's dominance: 17 wins in the 21 games since 1970. The game also has not affected the outcome of the national championship since 1980. And the last time a Rose Bowl win crowned an undisputed national champion was in 1973. (USC's victories in 1975 and 1979 did earn the Trojans shares of the mythical title.)
Jackson believes there's a reason for those events: Pacific 10 and Big Ten teams have a built-in disadvantage when competing for a national championship.
"Independents will win the national championship nine out of 10 years because they don't play in snake pits and don't go to places where they don't like each other from six generations ago," Jackson said. "Conferences have old memories. They cause things to happen that you would not expect.
"Washington State (with teams that were 3-7-1 and 7-4) knocked the Huskies out of the Rose Bowl in 1982 and 1983. Who would have thought you'd have to have the kind of heroics for USC to beat UCLA this year, or it would be a 10-10 tie last year?"
The Pacific 10 and Big Ten tie, first signed in 1946 for the 1947 game, will continue through 1997.
"I see no indication, nor have I heard any feeling or sensed anything but that the relationship will continue," Jackson said.