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The West Coast paradox

Left of the Rockies, NCAA football just isn't as popular

Posted: Tuesday August 30, 2005 1:56PM; Updated: Tuesday August 30, 2005 2:06PM
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Kellen Clemens
Kellen Clemens and the Ducks led the Pac-10 in attendance last season, but was it because of their team, or their city?
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Why isn't college football West Of the Rocky Mountains (or WORM) more popular, locally and nationally?

Is it because the nation's top-ranked team does not play WORM? No, that would be Southern California.

Is it because the defending national champ does not play WORM? Again, no, it's USC.

Is it because there's only one great team WORM? No. Utah finished 12-0 last season and Boise State had an 11-1 mark. I-AA Montana was 12-2, advancing to that division's national championship game.

Is it because the Heisman Trophy winner does not play there? No, that would be the Trojans' Matt Leinart (you see where this is going, but play along, hunh?).

Is it because the guy whom most observers consider to be the best player in college football does not play WORM? No, that's Reggie Bush.

Is it because the NFL never pays attention to anyone WORM? The top pick in the 2005 NFL Draft was quarterback Alex Smith of Utah.

Is it because no memorable moments occur WORM? No. Remember the play known simply as "The Play," between Cal and Stanford?

Is it because no great broadcasters live or attended college WORM? I give you Keith Jackson, who lives in SoCal and graduated from Washington State.

Is it because they never play entertaining games WORM? Did you see Cal-USC last year (the last two years, in fact?) or even BYU-Boise State?

Is it because no significant tactical development has ever come from WORM? Have you ever heard of the West Coast offense?

Is it because no significant records are ever broken WORM? Last year Hawaii's Timmy Chang became the NCAA's all-time career passing yardage leader.

Is it because the stadiums and atmosphere WORM lack charm? No, not that. I give you Tightwad Hill at Cal, Boise State's smurf turf, sail-gating at Washington, the USC-UCLA rivalry and Oregon's bicycle corral.

Is it because no significant games will be played WORM this season? The Rose Bowl, the "Granddaddy of 'em all," will decide the BCS national champion in January.

And yet, with all of those things going for it, there seems to be a continental divide between college football proper and that game out West (in fact, there is a Continental Divide between the two). College football is thought of as being roosted in places like Happy Valley and Death Valley, not the San Fernando Valley. We're more attuned to Camp Randall than the Idaho Vandals.

And, as someone who was raised in a Pac-10 town (Tempe, Ariz.) but now lives back East, I am not ready to blame all of this on East Coast bias, the folks here at Sports Illustrated in New York or at ESPN up in Bristol, Conn. I blame, more than anything, the nature of what constitutes a "college town."

Twenty-seven years ago, on Oct. 14, 1978, I sat with 71,137 fans at Sun Devil Stadium as Arizona State upset then-No. 1 USC, 20-7. The Trojans went on to win a share of the national title with a 12-1 record. At the time metropolitan Phoenix (Tempe is directly adjacent) had less than half the population it does today, and yet 70,000-plus crowds were the norm for the Sun Devils (they averaged 70,208 that year), even though Sun Devil Stadium had fewer seats then (70,491) than it does now (73,379). Last year, with a larger stadium, a metropolitan area ranked No. 5 in the nation (and growing every hour, it seems) and a team that finished 9-3, the Sun Devils averaged 62,641 fans, or 85 percent capacity.

But that's not a Sun Devil problem, it's a Pac-10 problem. Last year 18 schools filled their stadiums to 100 percent (or greater, somehow) of capacity: six were Big Ten schools, four were Big 12, three were ACC, two were SEC and one was Notre Dame.

The Pac-10 had two: Oregon (which finished 5-6) and Oregon State (7-5). The third-highest attendance, in terms of percent capacity, was Washington State, at 99.3 percent, despite the Cougars' 5-6 record.

What are the three smallest towns in the Pac-10? Pullman, Wash., Corvallis, Ore., and Eugene, Ore.

WORM college towns also happen to be the WORM's major metropolises: Los Angeles, Phoenix, the Bay Area, Seattle, Salt Lake City, San Diego and Las Vegas. What is there to do on a fall Saturday in South Bend or Tuscaloosa? Now, what is there to do on a fall Saturday in San Diego or San Francisco?

Is it any wonder that of all the BCS conference schools, Stanford had the lowest attendance percentage (42.04) last season? Or that of the 117 Division I-A schools, San Jose State had the worst attendance percentage (22.44)? This, despite the fact the Spartans hosted undefeated Boise State in one of their games. Now, true, that game began at 9 a.m. local time. Yes, you read that right. But that's only because ESPN, to its credit, wanted to let the nation see Boise State play in the afternoon. But if San Jose State were a real football school, its fans would have never stood for a 9 a.m. start.

It should come as no surprise, by the way, that two schools ranked in the top 14 in terms of attendance percentage last year were Idaho (No. 5, at 103 percent capacity) and Boise State (No. 14, at 101.66 percent). Granted, neither of their stadiums seats more than 31,000 (an end zone's worth of fans at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn.), but I think those filled seats have a lot more to do with the campuses being located in Moscow, Idaho, and Boise, Idaho, respectively, than with how good the teams were (the Vandals were 3-9).

Sure, it's a lot to ask Southern Cal to fill a Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that seats more than 90,000 for every home game. The Trojans only fill it to 93 percent capacity, about 85,000 fans per game. But the Trojans are defending national champs, have the nation's top two marquee offensive stars and play in the belly of the nation's second-largest city. You think the folks in Ann Arbor, Mich., or Lincoln, Neb., would have any trouble filling up the Coliseum?

No, and that's the point. Even though it seems to be a paradox, the verity of college football is: The smaller the town, the more filled the stadium.

That's not a Best-Case Scenario. That's not a Worst-Case Scenario. That's a West-Case Scenario.