Bowl season as we know it has few traditions left. New Year’s Day isn’t what it used to be, and even the Rose Bowl long ago opened its pearly gates to teams outside the Big Ten and the Pac-12.
One of the few enduring traditions of bowl season past was the Las Vegas Bowl. Dating all the way back to the pre-historic era of 2001, the Las Vegas Bowl has always pitted the Pac-12 against the Mountain West. In fact, this arrangement was so old that when it was born it pitted teams from the Pac-10 and the WAC.
The matchup has lasted that long because it works. Though Vegas is in the middle of the desert, it’s roughly at the epicenter of Pac-12 and Mountain West country — basically a day’s drive or a cheap flight from almost everyone in the two leagues. And because it’s Vegas, everyone’s happy to go. It’s the unofficial kickoff to bowl season — always in the middle of the afternoon of the first Saturday of bowl season, the college football fan’s reward for a day’s worth of Christmas shopping.
In an age of declining attendance, the Las Vegas Bowl has held steady around 40,000 annual spectators annually. And it’s a symbolically important game, too. Only five games pitted Power 5 and Group of 5 opponents in 2018 (the Boston College vs. Boise State Heart of Dallas Bowl was cancelled), and the Las Vegas Bowl has always been one of them.
The reason I’m saying all these nice things is because the Las Vegas Bowl as we knew it is about to die.
According to Stadium’s Brett McMurphy, the bowl will move from UNLV’s Sam Boyd Stadium to the Raiders’ new palace upon its opening in 2020, and with an upgrade in venue will come in an upgrade in matchup. Out goes the Mountain West, in comes the SEC or the Big Ten.
College football’s two richest conferences have teamed up in recent years to pool their tie-ins, and now this will get them to one of the premier non-New Year’s Six destinations, at the expense of a premier Group of 5 destination. (For the record, the WAC/MW is a combined 10-7 in the Las Vegas Bowl against the Pac-10/12 since the tie-in began in 2001, including a 31-20 Fresno State win over Arizona State in 2018.)
And, sure, it’ll be a win-win for the Las Vegas Bowl itself. Over the course of the 6-year contract, the Big Ten and the SEC will each come to Vegas three times. Television and fans will love it. The first SEC vs. Pac-12 game will be the first non-playoff bowl game between the two leagues since the 1989 Freedom Bowl. And the Mountain West isn’t going home empty-handed, either. The league will still get a matchup against the Pac-12, in a to-be-created bowl game at the new NFL stadium in Los Angeles.
But it’s a loss for the little guy in college football, another loss of one of the few bowl traditions left in college football, and another example of the rich getting richer at the expense of everyone else.
Other bowl changes to come starting in 2020, according to McMurphy:
- Holiday Bowl: With the Big Ten moving to Las Vegas, the Pac-12 will now play the ACC.
- Belk Bowl: Will work in conjunction with the Las Vegas Bowl; if a Big Ten team is in Vegas, an SEC team will go to Charlotte and vice versa. The ACC will reamin the opponent.
- Gator Bowl: Big Ten will relinquish its tie-in, becoming strictly ACC vs. SEC.
- Outback Bowl: ACC team will play an SEC team if the Big Ten is in the Orange Bowl.
- Music City Bowl: ACC will relinquish its tie-in, becoming strictly SEC vs. Big Ten.
- Arizona Bowl: Mountain West will play MAC instead of Sun Belt.
- Myrtle Beach Bowl: Newly-created ESPN-owned game will rotate between Conference USA, MAC and Sun Belt.