Lewis: Sugar Bowl sacrifices may pay off

Get ready to say goodbye to the BCS.

And while you’re at it, get ready to say goodbye to the Sugar Bowl as we’ve known it.

After this year, the 80th in the game’s history, the bowl will no longer have a say in who its teams are.

When the College Football Playoff plus the Sugar Bowl’s new arrangement with the SEC and Big 12 begin in 2014, those selections will be made by others.

But sometimes, you’ve got to submit to golden handcuffs.

Here’s why:

  • In one year out of three, the Sugar Bowl will be a playoff semifinal, including next season. And it will be in the best spot among the six top-tier bowls: prime time on Jan. 1 with the Rose Bowl as a lead-in.
  • In the other two years, the game will match the top two teams from the SEC and Big 12 who didn’t make the final four. Again, the game will be in prime time on New Year’s Day, and there won’t be a Northern Illinois in sight.
  • There’s an implicit understanding that the Sugar Bowl will have the inside track to a national championship game, probably after the 2015 season, although those will officially be awarded to “communities” as playoff executive director Bill Hancock puts it. Well, the “communities” of Glendale, Ariz.; Jacksonville, Fla.; San Antonio; and Tampa, Fla., are going to have a hard time beating out New Orleans for the game.
  • The new arrangement will run for 12 years, about three lifetimes in the rapidly changing world of college sports. So there’s the security factor to consider.

The tradeoff? The guys in the blue blazers will no longer have a reason to make “scouting” trips to the big late-season games.

“The ultimate thing they took away was our decision making,” Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan said. “But did we want to be premier game in this new system or not?

“There was no choice. We went for the gold.”

In other words, to remain the best game possible, the Sugar Bowl made the best deal possible.

And it came when the Sugar Bowl needed it most.

The past few years have not been kind.

Poor attendance (spoiled Florida fans staying away from last season’s games against Louisville), poor team selection (Virginia Tech over RG3 and Baylor? Really?), the taint of the Ohio State scandal (Hoolahan’s supposed “strong arming” the NCAA into letting the five suspended Buckeyes play is an urban myth) and over-the-top bad publicity (there’s no way charging the LSU band for seats to put the tubas in can turn out well) have made things testy at times around the bowl’s Superdome office.

“Low-hanging fruit,” one SEC official put it.

But the Sugar Bowl also had decades of credibility in its favor, most recently as part of the BCS.

For 16 years, the Sugar Bowl has been part of that much-maligned and oft misunderstood system.

And four times, the Superdome was the site of the national championship game, the past two as part of the double-hosting format that Hoolahan helped formulate.

Without the BCS, the Sugar Bowl as we know it doesn’t exist, now or going forward.

“That association has put us in position to be where will be in the future,” Hoolahan said. “The trust and respect for the quality of our work has helped us elevate our status to being the prime-time game on New Year’s Day.

“You can’t get higher than that.”

But that lofty status has come with a price beyond no longer getting to pick the participants.

Not only was the bid for landing what was then called the Champions Bowl, plus a seat at the playoff table, more costly than BCS membership, but the ticket guarantees from the participating teams have been significantly reduced.

That, plus the uncertainly about how many fans will travel for the semifinals when there’s a championship game awaiting the winner, makes marketing the game better locally a must.

For too long, the Sugar Bowl has counted on out-of-towners to provide a sellout.

Now the equation has changed. And in an area with little support for college sports except for teams wearing purple and gold, that can be a tough sell.

“Our budget is predicated on sellouts,” Hoolahan said. “Local support is critical for us going forward.

“We anticipate the first year with the semifinals being a hot ticket. But in other years, nobody knows how the system will work itself out.”

But that’s a story for next season.

For this one last year, the Sugar Bowl will be at least a semblance of its old self.

“We know we’re going to get great games every year going forward,” Hoolahan said. “Something tells me we’re going to get a pretty good one this time, too.”

How does South Carolina-Texas sound?