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

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.”

When NBC requested a reduction in rights fees, Rose Bowl officials took their business to ABC. The result was a 9-year contract that will start at about $11 million and eventually increase to $11.5 million.

NBC countered by moving one of its other New Year’s Day properties, the Fiesta Bowl, into the same time slot as the Rose Bowl and hoped for the best. That’s what it got when Notre Dame beat USC, setting up a potential title game in the Fiesta Bowl and relegating the Rose Bowl to consolation status.

Some television industry insiders predict that the Fiesta Bowl will have twice as many viewers as the Rose Bowl, winning in the ratings by as much as 20 to 10. An NBC official, who didn’t want to be identified, wasn’t so smug, saying that he thought the result would be closer to 18-12.

“The only people watching the Rose Bowl will be the players’ relatives,” Cook said. “No, I’m exaggerating. Close friends will watch, too. The only way I’ll know the Rose Bowl score is if they roll it up on the screen during the Fiesta Bowl.”

Yet, the Rose Bowl’s executive director, Jack French, remains optimistic.

“If I had a national-championship type game, I would try to find a prime-time spot for it,” he said. “I wouldn’t try to go against the Rose Bowl. That doesn’t pay.

“My personal opinion is that there will be 30 ratings points available at that time of the day, and it will come close to being an even split between our game and theirs.”

Not many people are willing to buy that, foremost among them advertisers. When ABC executives won the Rose Bowl rights, it was widely reported that they believed advertisers would pay as much as $275,000 per 30-second commercial. But, according to television industry insiders, ABC since has dropped its asking price considerably and is prepared to supply its bookkeepers with plenty of red ink pens.

Meantime, insiders said, NBC was able to raise its Fiesta Bowl advertising rates per 30-second commercial from $100,000 to more than $175,000 after Notre Dame beat USC.

French said that ABC backed down too soon.

“I’d be feeling a little shaky, too, if I were ABC,” he said. “I think they lost faith in the product. But I think they’ll find that they’re going to get a split.”

If French is wrong, and NBC wins with the Fiesta Bowl, it will be the fourth time in the last 6 years that the Rose Bowl has not been the highest- rated bowl game.

But it’s difficult enough for the Rose Bowl to get one national championship contender, much less two because of its commitments to the Pac-10 and Big Ten champions. No Rose Bowl winner has become the national champion since USC in 1979.

Both conferences have had periods of domination. In recent years, it has been the Pac-10.

“The reason they had that earthquake under the Rose Bowl a few weeks ago is because Mother Nature said, ‘No more Big Ten teams,’ ” Cook said. “If this was 25 years ago, I wouldn’t say that. But the Big Ten is nothing now. They would have a better game if they would throw it open to other teams.”

Rose Bowl officials have heard that criticism so often in recent years that they included a question about their teams on the 1986 survey. Rose Bowl spokesman Bill Flinn said that, after studying the results, they were even more committed than before to the two conferences.

Of those surveyed who regularly watch the Rose Bowl, 92% said one of the reasons is because of the quality teams. To the question of whether they would rather see a game matching two of the top five teams every year instead of the Pac-10 and Big 10 champions, 35% responded positively, 3% negatively, and 62% said that it would make no difference.

ABC’s willingness to enter into a long-term contract served as another endorsement of the Rose Bowl.

“I’m sure ABC is a little squeamish about this (season),” said Donn Bernstein, a former ABC spokesman who now works for a New York public relations company. “But by it’s very nature, ABC is not going to enter a deal unless it has studied all the angles. They’re betting on the Rose Bowl in the long run.”

That’s a bet for tradition.