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ESPN could play an influential role in keeping 2021 Rose Bowl game in Pasadena

The Rose Bowl was last played outside of Pasadena in 1942 because of World War II.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

For the first time since World War II forced the Rose Bowl eastward to Durham, N.C., in 1942, serious consideration has been given this year to the game not being played at its rightful home in Pasadena. But, as of Tuesday night, the city and the Tournament of Roses had found fresh optimism.

ESPN, which each year exports the Rose Bowl from coast to coast, could be the reason the storied game stays in Pasadena in 2021.

The network is expected to announce a new presenting sponsor for the Rose Bowl as soon as Wednesday, one that replaces Northwestern Mutual. That $25-million-per-year deal, signed in 2015, has expired.

If the game were to be moved because of California’s stringent pandemic regulations, it would not be called the Rose Bowl, as that branding now stays in Pasadena. Certainly, that could be a significant issue for ESPN and its new presenting sponsor.

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The 2021 Rose Bowl is one of the College Football Playoff’s national semifinals, still scheduled for its traditional New Year’s Day afternoon kickoff time. As its rules are written, California would not allow for the game to be played with family members in attendance, a key detail that has put the game in question with the CFP management committee.

Tracking the high school football players from the 2021 recruiting class who are officially signing with USC or UCLA as the early signing period opens.

The Tournament of Roses has been in discussions with state officials, according to an individual familiar with the negotiations but not authorized to speak on them publicly. The argument for allowing families to attend is that the Rose Bowl has 95,000 seats with more than 50 suites, which should allow for proper social distancing. Thus far, the state does not seem to be budging.

That inaction did not stop CFP executive director Bill Hancock from releasing a statement Tuesday afternoon that indicated California did not have to make an exception for the Rose Bowl in order for the game to remain in Pasadena.

“At this moment, the College Football Playoff looks forward to playing one of the two semifinal playoff games at the Rose Bowl, as scheduled. (The other semifinal will take place at the Sugar Bowl),” Hancock said. “As we move forward with our planning, we continue to hope that the Rose Bowl’s appeal to government officials to allow the families of student-athletes to attend will be permitted, just as student-athlete families will be welcomed at the Sugar Bowl, the other New Years’ Six games and the Championship game in Miami.

“Given the vast space inside the Rose Bowl stadium, we are confident that if families were able to attend, they could do so in a safe and socially distant manner. For many families, this will be the last chance they have to see their sons play college football. We understand that under California’s COVID-19 protocols, fans in general will not be able to attend. We hope the small number of families who want to attend will not be prohibited from doing so.”

The Pac-12 announced that USC will play Oregon in the Pac-12 title game Friday because of positive coronavirus tests on Washington’s roster.

The possibility of the Rose Bowl not being played this year was first reported by Yahoo Sports last weekend.

Based on Tuesday’s latest CFP rankings, the matchup probably would emerge from a pool of Alabama, Notre Dame, Clemson and Ohio State. None of the schools is located west of the Mississippi River and would be asked to travel across the country during the worst wave of the pandemic to play in front of no fans.

Though the conferences involved would prefer to avoid that scenario and play at a location where families at a minimum could attend, ESPN, which reportedly pays $470 million annually to broadcast the CFP, could have more sway in determining whether the 2021 Rose Bowl takes place.

Still, this being 2020, until the game is actually played, there’s a chance it could be moved. In that case, 2021 could be the first year without a Rose Bowl since 1915. Over the last century, the game became known as the “Granddaddy of them all” as the country’s oldest and most treasured bowl game.

No matter what the CFP decides, the Tournament of Roses is going to lose tens of millions of dollars by not having fans. Still in question is whether it would be compensated from the TV revenue if the game is played elsewhere not by the Tournament of Roses’ choosing.

Alternative sites that have been under consideration include the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, for old time’s sake.

Alabama, Notre Dame, Clemson and Ohio State will enter championship weekend in position to make the College Football Playoff.

The 1942 game moved to Durham because of fears — just weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — of an another attack on the West Coast. The federal government prohibited large gatherings out west for the rest of the war.

Oregon State beat Duke 20-16 in front of 56,000 fans.

AT&T Stadium has hosted nearly 170,000 fans for six Cowboys home games this season — including 30,000 on Thanksgiving Day. By keeping the game in Pasadena, the CFP would be sacrificing any ticket revenue.


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