After three years of declines, attendance figures for NFL football games have climbed for the second consecutive season. Hand-wringing over high ticket prices and the watch-from-home appeal brought by high definition televisions have given way to high fives for league executives as they watch both attendance and television ratings surge.
But such numbers leave NCAA officials scratching their heads. The demand for football is at all-time high levels, yet many of the college game’s grandest stages are attracting their smallest crowds in decades. The Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2 reported attendance of just 54,178, the fewest spectators to take in that historic contest since 1939—this despite the participation of powerhouse program Florida in the game. In fact, Florida managed to sell only 7,000 of its 17,500 allotted tickets. Similarly, the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl drew a crowd of 48,612, its second smallest since 1960. And the Capital One Bowl’s attendance of 59,712 was its fourth worst turnout since ABC began televising the game in the late 1980s.
The reason for the slump? Many analysts point to the sheer number of bowl games, which has ballooned to 35. Others blame an antiquated system of marketing and selling tickets through allotments to participating schools. But the most heavily blamed reason for waning interest in postseason college football is the absence of a tournament.
In June, the NCAA announced it would replace the Bowl Championship Series with a four-team playoff in the 2014-15 season. That may spike interest in the three games of that tournament but will likely render other bowl games all the more irrelevant. This season, the Meineke Car Care Bowl, Belk Bowl, and Little Caesars Pizza Bowl each drew at least 18,000 fewer fans than a year ago. Achieving such declines with so popular a game is no small feat. And with no wider restructuring in sight, most bowls seem destined to be un-super for years to come.
For 17 years, middle linebacker Ray Lewis was the face of the Baltimore Ravens. In retirement, the future Hall-of-Famer will carry on as the face of Baltimore, where he is beloved not only for leading record-setting defenses but also for serving the community in ways far beyond public charity.
Lewis famously once intervened in a youth drug deal he spotted while driving to the team hotel. He berated the dealer and then invited him to a workout for police officers that Lewis facilitated at the Ravens’ practice facility. The dealer showed up with friends in tow and began a process of turning his life around.
That kind of interaction is not uncommon for Lewis, who often provides counsel to community members, fellow players, or whomever asks. Chief among the recipients of that counsel are Lewis’ children, the primary factor in his decision to give up the game. “I knew I couldn’t split my time anymore. When God calls, He calls. And He’s calling. More importantly, He calls me to be a father.”
But Lewis’ legacy will be tarnished forever in the minds of some national observers. An incident in an Atlanta club on the night after the Super Bowl in 2000 left two people dead from stab wounds and Lewis facing two murder charges. He pled to misdemeanor obstruction and paid a $250,000 NFL fine, but Lewis never missed a game over the incident.
Some choose to remember him for that unflattering moment. Opposing fans routinely lob the charge of “Murderer!” Baltimore knows better. The city that loves him will mourn the loss of Lewis from the field but celebrate his ongoing presence in their community. —M.B.