How was your weekend? Mine was a little odd for two reasons.
1. I attended a major college sporting event as a spectator, not a sports writer
2. The event featured two Big Ten teams with large fan bases, but the Big Ten contingent was heavily outnumbered by supporters of a school located closer to the venue
You probably figured out that I attended the NCAA men's basketball tournament East regional in Boston. It was a great four days, and a large group of us enjoyed the unseasonably warm temperatures and the entertaining basketball played at TD Garden. Good times.
Unlike most of the attendees, our group made our travel plans months ago and bought tickets to the Sweet 16 games. I was especially excited to go to Boston after Ohio State and Wisconsin both advanced to the regional, along with No. 1 seed Syracuse and Cincinnati.
I spend my October and November weekends covering sporting events that bring together two Big Ten fan bases, but I was interested to see how many Buckeyes and Badgers fans would make the trip to Boston. Boston is a 12- or 13-hour drive from Columbus, while the cheeseheads were looking at an 18- or 19-hour road trip from Madison. Flights from either state to Boston aren't too long, but with only a few days' notice, they're not cheap, either. Also, some of the Ohio State and Wisconsin fans had spent the previous week watching their teams play in Pittsburgh and Albuquerque, respectively.
While you could see a few sections of red in the arena Thursday night, both Big Ten fan bases were dwarfed by orange of the Syracuse faithful. Although I fully expected Syracuse fans to turn out in force -- its campus is in the northeast, its major alumni bases are closer to Boston and fans could be a bit more presumptuous because of the No. 1 seed -- the breakdown was a bit of a surprise. Ohio State had more fans than both Cincinnati or Wisconsin, but when many Syracuse fans cleared out of the arena following Thursday's first game, it was fairly empty in there. The atmosphere for the second Sweet 16 game wasn't nearly as electric.
The Orange army had an even larger presence during Saturday's regional final against Ohio State. We estimated the crowd at 75-80 percent Syracuse fans. It felt weird being at a major Ohio State sporting event at a neutral site where Buckeyes fans represented such a small portion of the crowd. The breakdown made the Buckeyes' 77-70 victory even more impressive, and the atmosphere at the game was off the charts.
So how does this relate to football?
On the flight home I thought about how the NCAA tournament, despite being a phenomenal event, makes it tough for fans to see their teams live. The short time span between rounds creates a strain for fans, especially during a tough economic time. Although football bowl attendance has fluctuated a bit recently, it has been fairly strong in 2010 and 2011. The advance planning factor has a lot to do with this.
A college football playoff is coming, which will appease most fans of the sport. The Big Ten and Pac-12 are proposing that semifinal playoff games be played on campus. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott told The New York Times that fans would be unlikely to travel to two neutral sites in a 10-day span, like they have to with the NCAA basketball tournament.
Although there would be more lead time between the league championship games and the national semifinals -- at least three weeks -- would droves of fans be willing to make another long trip the following week? Having the national semifinals at major bowl sites especially would increase the burden for Big Ten fans, most of whom live far from Louisiana, Florida, California and Arizona (as well as Texas, if the Cotton Bowl became part of the rotation).
If the semifinals were played on campus, the games would be played before sellout crowds in amazing atmospheres. Some die-hard fans from the visiting team would find their way into the stadiums. But the real benefit is that most of the winning team's fans could make one expensive trip -- to the national championship game -- rather than multiple trips that eat up paychecks. Just like they do now for the bowls, although with a little less lead time.
The NCAA tournament has its model, and for the most part, it works. But I'd hate to see a significant football game that lacked fans or an electric atmosphere. It's why the campus sites plan makes sense.