On December 8, snow affected four NFL games, including blizzard conditions at the Lions-Eagles match in Philadelphia. The NFL punditry reveled in the awful weather. ESPN’s Ashley Fox wrote of the Eagles game, “It was a beautiful, iconic afternoon that no one who attended will forget.” Fox added, however, that similar conditions probably wouldn’t be welcome at the upcoming Super Bowl, scheduled for February 2 at an outdoor stadium in northern New Jersey.
Of course the NFL sees bad weather as a major selling point. Frank Supovitz, the league’s vice president in charge of the Super Bowl, called football-in-the-snow “really romantic” and a “rite of passage” for fans. In his mind, snow only makes the Super Bowl even bigger and better.
This presents a funny contrast with college football. The day before the Lions-Eagles snow game, Auburn and Missouri contested the SEC Championship in the temperate confines of Atlanta’s Georgia Dome. Nobody affiliated with the SEC seems to think that eight inches of snow and blizzard conditions would have made that game better or more memorable. Nor do I suspect Gus Malzahn would prefer the January 6 BCS National Championship Game be played in New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium instead of Pasadena’s Rose Bowl.
Football Is Not a Winter Sport
The romanticism associated with winter weather and professional football can largely be traced to December 31, 1967, when the Green Bay Packers hosted the Dallas Cowboys in one of the last pre-merger NFL Championship Games. The infamous “Ice Bowl” took place in temperatures that exceeded 50-below with the wind chill. The game became iconic when Green Bay staged a last-minute touchdown drive to win 21-17.
At a time when the NFL was starting to emerge as a major television sport—and finally reaching a level of public support that college football had already enjoyed for decades—the Ice Bowl proved to be an important milestone. But the game itself would have been a mere footnote if (1) it had not been a playoff game and (2) the outcome had not been in doubt until the final minute. Contra Ashley Fox’s argument, aside from perhaps the people in attendance, nobody will remember a week 14 NFL regular season game between two mediocre clubs. Or if they do, it will only be because of the terrible weather. Snow is a gimmick, not a feature.
The perceived romance of snow and football persists largely due to the NFL’s schedule inflation. As noted above, the Ice Bowl—a league championship game—was played on New Year’s Eve. In today’s NFL, New Year’s Eve only marks the end of the regular season. There’s five more weeks of playoffs and bye weeks before the Super Bowl hits on the first Sunday in February. Of course you’re more likely to see exciting games played in bad weather when you conduct playoffs in January.
College football has largely resisted the temptation to expand beyond its traditional fall confines. The advent of the BCS pushed key bowl games off of New Year’s Day into mid-January, but college football’s regular season isn’t any longer now than it was 50 or 60 years ago. Part of this is due to the connection between the football and academic calendars. But it’s also just a commonsense understanding that football is not a winter sport—that’s why Dr. Naismith invented basketball, after all.
Even with the demise of the BCS in favor of the two-round playoff next season (which will inevitably expand due to media carping), we’re unlikely to see a further “winterization” of college football. It’s hard to imagine playoff organizers, for instance, embracing an outdoor championship game in New Jersey or any other northern city. College football still believes in promoting a positive fan experience—unlike the NFL, which has banned tailgating at the New Jersey Super Bowl. And in spite of the media spin about romance and snow, fans—and players—are much more likely to enjoy a game where the weather is not the deciding factor.
North vs. South (and West)
The divergent views on weather also speak to the regional divide between professional and college football. Although college football originated in the elite colleges of the northeast, the sport’s popularity blossomed in the southern and western regions of the United States. It’s no accident that the SEC and Pac-12 are the dominant football conferences today. The most fertile recruiting grounds are in Florida, Texas and California. These states have large populations and, just as importantly, excellent fall weather.
The NFL, in contrast, started in the northeast and even today maintains its cultural identity north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Consider another milestone in NFL history—the league’s first playoff game in 1932. For the first dozen years of its existence, the NFL had no playoffs, but rather followed the college practice of declaring the team with the best regular-season record champion. When the Chicago Bears finished the season tied with a team from Portsmouth, Ohio, they held a mid-December playoff. The success of that game led the NFL to adopt a two-division, championship game format from thereon out.
Incidentally, that Chicago-Portsmouth game was played indoors at Chicago Stadium. Because the weather was deemed too cold to play outside. In the era before television could broadcast the “romance” of snow-covered fields to millions of viewers watching from their warm living rooms, no doubt the NFL powers thought playing an important game in lousy weather was just plain stupid.
It’s also noteworthy that in 1932, Portsmouth, Ohio, was the southernmost outpost of the eight-team NFL. That same season, the 23-member Southern Conference stretched from Maryland to Louisiana. The following year, 13 schools left the Southern Conference to found the SEC.
Certainly, a lot has changed since the Depression Era of football. The NFL is a global entertainment conglomerate with teams from coast-to-coast. Yet its leaders (and many of its fans) remain tethered to the league’s exclusively cold-weather, northern roots. Meanwhile, major college football has all but disappeared from the northeast while the SEC is on the verge of an eighth consecutive national championship.
If FSU defeats Auburn, it probably won’t be because of the weather in Pasadena.
Photo Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports