The bowl games, for the SEC and everyone else, face profound challenges

Mercedes Superdome

I know, I know: We have to start the college football season before we can worry about how it will end. Of course we have to wrestle with the start of the season and the logistics of playing games safely before we can handle the back end of the season in December.

By Matt Zemek

This means the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta. This also means the College Football Playoff, its own separate challenge. Yet, those are four games (one SEC title game and three playoff games).

The really big logistical challenge at the back end of the season: the bowl games. There are almost 40 of them in total, and nearly a dozen for the SEC to worry about.

Will SEC fans be willing to travel to Memphis and Jacksonville and Orlando and Tampa — and other places — for various bowl games? When they get there, will there be the same allure and sense of freedom one would normally associate with a fun tourist experience or a fun holiday week(end) connected to a big game?

Our task here is not to answer these questions for you; you have to answer them for yourself. We’re not going to lecture you or scold you; only you can know whether your local community, or the place you might travel to for a bowl game, is safe. We can, however, point out some obvious details which have to be kept in mind. The most obvious detail of all is that in late December, flu season will be underway. It figures to be a very complicated time in America, and there will be plenty of questions about whether “normal/seasonal flu” or the coronavirus is in evidence for various citizens.

Notice above that I said late December of 2020 “figures to be” a complicated time. I did not say it is GUARANTEED to be a complicated time.

Why? Because if we are intellectually honest in saying right now that we don’t know what the future holds — for college football or anything else in our lives — that means being willing to say that nothing (or close to nothing) is guaranteed. That includes being uncertain about the coming winter being a public health disaster.

It might not be a disaster. It might be a lot safer than we currently think.

Kentucky fanBut: If it isn’t all that safe, you deserve to know the truth… and if the truth is inconvenient, how are bowl games going to be played?

One obvious difference between bowl games and regular-season games is that bowl games involve two teams traveling to a game site, as opposed to only one (with the exception of neutral-site regular-season games such as GeorgiaFlorida and the one-off events such as the scheduled USC-Alabama game in Texas on Sept. 5). Most bowls are located in cities which are generally attractive to holiday tourists. In cases where a family of four or a couple can reasonably drive to the game site, this might not be a problem. The bowls could focus on geographical proximity this December to an even greater extent than in the past, and make that a selling point in having a game with a socially distanced crowd. Yet, if that becomes a hard task to execute, the bowls — and all of us observing this situation from home — have to wonder if they should operate this year.

Keep in mind: Bowl games hand out swag to players. They have luncheons and charity functions and other public, front-facing events designed to promote not only the game itself, but the bowl organization’s connection to the local community. Stringing those events together and doing them safely will be a challenge.

CheerleaderI’m not going to sit here and say this can’t be done. I am going to point out that each public event a bowl normally stages under ordinary circumstances will add a layer of complexity to that bowl’s operations this year. Do the bowls want the headache? If they do, will they be ready for it?

It could be that the bowls will scrap all or most of their normal public events in the two to three days preceding their football game. They will play the game because ESPN paid them money and should get huge ratings for the games if they do go off. A lot of the lower-tier bowl games don’t have many fans in the stands as it is; those bowls exist not as ticket-selling attractions or tourist destinations, but as sources of TV inventory. Maybe that is how the bowls will continue in 2020 and January of 2021.

Yet, we shouldn’t take it for granted that the logistics will all fall into place. Keep your eye on the ball — and the bowls — as we contemplate this most unusual college football season, in the SEC and elsewhere.

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