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Column: Rose Bowl is a special venue and UCLA football is making it a depressing place

A view of the Rose Bowl during UCLA’s game against Oklahoma on Saturday.
A view of the Rose Bowl during UCLA’s game against Oklahoma on Saturday.
(Arash Markazi / Los Angeles Times)

There are two different Rose Bowls.

There’s the Rose Bowl that is the home of “The Granddaddy of Them All” every New Year’s Day and there’s the Rose Bowl that is the home of UCLA football team six times per year in the fall.

One is famous for the most magical setting in college football, the other is currently infamous for being arguably the most depressing.

The only similarities between the two are the steel and reinforced concrete that makes up the 97-year old stadium.

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It’s like visiting an Olympic venue nine months after the games are over and imagining what it must have been like when it was full and hosting a meaningful competition people cared about.

UCLA can’t stop quarterback Jalen Hurts and Oklahoma in a 48-14 loss at the Rose Bowl, dropping the Bruins to 0-3. The No. 5 Sooners improve to 3-0.

Many Oklahoma fans felt that way as they returned to the stadium for the first time since the 2018 Rose Bowl game when their team lost to Georgia in a classic double-overtime game in front of a sellout crowd of nearly 93,000 with a spot in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game at stake.

“It’s definitely a comedown,” said Oklahoma fan and WWE hall of famer Jim Ross, who attended the 2003 and 2018 Rose Bowl games Oklahoma participated in. “I’ve never seen the Rose Bowl like this. This is a special stadium. I’m really surprised by what I’m seeing. All the empty seats and all the Oklahoma fans. There’s definitely more Oklahoma fans here than UCLA fans.”

Last week San Diego State defeated UCLA, 23-14, for the first time in front of an announced crowd of 36,951, which was the school’s smallest crowd for a home opener in more than 40 years and the fourth-smallest for a UCLA home game at the Rose Bowl.

Saturday’s game against No. 5 Oklahoma attracted an announced crowd of 52,578 despite the school distributing over 75,000 tickets. Not only were there more than 20,000 no-shows but most in attendance were cheering for the Sooners while many others were there because they got free tickets and left the blowout early.

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In an effort to attract more UCLA fans to come out and watch a winless Bruins football team, the school’s athletics department reached out to all the season-ticket holders who attended that dreadful home opener and offered four complimentary tickets to Saturday’s game against Oklahoma, which they said were “valued at $280.”

It was the equivalent of a restaurant offering its customers gift certificates after they had suffered food poisoning.

“Hey, we know our restaurant is bad and makes you sick but bring your friends, maybe they’ll have the stomach for it.”

Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts sprints with the ball in front of a plethora of open seats at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.
Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts sprints with the ball in front of a plethora of open seats at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.
(Getty Images)

The problem isn’t ticket prices for UCLA fans, it’s the product on the field. Giving away tickets doesn’t address the issue, it simply shines a spotlight on it.

UCLA did nothing more than admit to its season-ticket holders what they already knew – UCLA football tickets are worthless.

Even at the low, low price of “free,” UCLA couldn’t fill the seats at the Rose Bowl to watch a top five Oklahoma team competing for a national championship and Jalen Hurts, the early favorite to win the Heisman Trophy.

The free tickets might have been worth $280 before the season started but by the time Saturday rolled around, 50-yard line tickets were available on the secondary market for $25, with many going unsold by kickoff. Many of the cheap tickets were scooped up by Oklahoma fans wanting to watch their Sooners play for the price of seeing a minor league game. Similarly placed tickets at Memorial Stadium for Oklahoma’s game against Texas Tech at the end of the month are selling for $200 on the secondary market.

Arizona State beats No. 18 Michigan State 10-7 after the Spartans’ game-tying field goal is negated; Stanford loses 45-27 at No. 17 Central Florida.

When Sports Illustrated recently ranked the best college football stadiums in the country, the top of the list read, “1. Rose Bowl, UCLA.” There is no need to include UCLA unless the Bruins are actually playing in the Rose Bowl game. As majestic as the Rose Bowl is every January, it’s the butt of jokes almost every fall when it’s the home of UCLA football. The last time the Bruins played in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day was 1999 and the last time they actually won the Rose Bowl game was 1986.

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That’s the biggest issue with the UCLA football program. It isn’t the ticket prices. The school was actually selling season tickets for less than $150. The season-ticket holders who were offered free tickets would gladly pay more to watch a contending team. The issue is the team they’re supporting hasn’t been relevant in 20 years. Worse yet, UCLA has actually regressed under Chip Kelly, who got a five-year, $23.3-million contract to lead UCLA to a 3-9 season last year and potentially another 3-9 season this year if he’s lucky.

The Rose Bowl is a special place but it has lacked a special tenant for the past 20 years in the fall. Winning is the only thing that moves the needle in Los Angeles. This isn’t a city where gimmicks like free tickets or other giveaways are going to attract fans. They want to see a good product on the field and they’re not going to waste their time or money on anything less.

UCLA should know that by now and will need to do more than give away more free tickets to fans who attended both of the Bruins’ losses to San Diego State and Oklahoma. They’ve suffered enough and deserve better than that.


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