No Tailgating at College Football Championship Is Just One Difference From Bowls

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — There are many ways in which the College Football Playoff national championship game is different from other postseason events in the sport.

To start, the matchup scheduled Monday night between Georgia and Texas Christian has much less of the circus of activities and events for players and fans that generally surrounds bowl games.

The game itself is more businesslike, too, with the national championship providing more clear incentive for players to take the field than for the lower-tier bowl games that some players skip from fear of being injured ahead of the N.F.L. draft or the next college season.

And for fans at SoFi Stadium outside Los Angeles, the game-day experience comes without perhaps college football’s biggest staple: tailgating.

Especially in college towns, tailgating is arguably as much a part of the sport as the games, with fans setting up R.V.s and tents, playing music and eating food, and hanging out for hours before going into the stadium. Fans have complained about the lack of tailgating at the national championship game on social media, and even politicians joined in to joke that tailgating should be a legally protected right.

“I’m sad, you know, tailgating is such a big part of our culture down in the South for football,” said Danny Davis, who said he was a lifelong Georgia fan and traveled from Macon, Ga., to California for the game. “It’s our Saturday church together. We fellowship, get food and sing songs and talk about the glory, so it is a bummer.”

Tailgates and bowl game experiences that cater to the fans in attendance have always been a part of the fabric of college football. Their absence Monday underscores how heavily the College Football Playoff is focused on serving another audience: the millions of television viewers. The television rights for the playoff are expected to swell to about $695 million for the last two seasons of its existing television contract with ESPN. Then they are expected to fetch much more after the 2025 season, when the deal expires. The increases are tied to increasing the playoff field to 12 teams from four, which creates more TV friendly matchups that lead to a national title.

Yet the needs of television viewers have dampened moves by organizers to surround the games with hoopla for people experiencing the events in person, including fans and the teams themselves.

SoFi Stadium ahead of the national championship game.Credit…Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

At the Pinstripe Bowl, held annually at Yankee Stadium, players go to the New York Stock Exchange and ring the bell. Teams went to the San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld at the Holiday Bowl. Even in one of this season’s playoff semifinals, the Fiesta Bowl, T.C.U. went to an Arizona Cardinals game and had an extravagant steak dinner.

Conversely, Georgia and T.C.U. arrived a few days before their national championship matchup, and had few activities beyond directly preparing to compete.

“As far as the fan experience, it’s been very underwhelming,” Davis said. “Not really like it has been in the past.”

The ban on tailgating was in effect last year at the championship game in Indianapolis, but tailgating was tough because of cold temperatures in the 20s. On Monday in Southern California, fans similarly had to contend with rain.

“I’m a big fan of tailgating; I don’t understand all that went into the decision,” said Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey, whose league includes Georgia. “We have fans that go to 12 regular season games, conference championship game, semifinal game, and they tailgate. So we have to think differently about the opportunities at our college football championship.”

Tailgating is regularly allowed at SoFi Stadium, with rules and regulations that are similar to those at other stadiums. Still, the decision to not allow tailgating for fans this year came because “we have limited on-site parking at SoFi Stadium and want to ensure everyone has a safe and timely arrival for the game,” Bill Hancock, the executive director of the College Football Playoff, said in a statement.

Organizers also had a Playoff Fan Central open over the weekend at the Los Angeles Convention Center, with interactive games, a live sports talk show, and merchandise. But some fans said that area was much more of a challenge to find than it has been in past years.

“The fan fest, if you didn’t know how to do your research, most people are like, where are you going, what’s going on?” said Trudi Mixon, a Georgia fan who also attended last year’s national championship between Georgia and Alabama.

There was an official event marketed as a tailgate on Monday hosted by the College Football Playoff, named the Allstate Championship Tailgate. As fans packed into the event, huddling under tents to evade the rain and sing fight songs, missing were the R.V.s, trucks, oversized school flags and the smell of grilled food that permeates the air at a typical tailgate party.

The Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 31 was T.C.U.’s first bowl game since 2018 and the first bowl in person for Preston James, a 25-year T.C.U. fan and alumnus from Tulsa, Okla. James said he tailgates all of T.C.U.’s games with his family and friends, and that while it was still early to compare experiences, he enjoyed the Fiesta Bowl more because of the many events and activities ahead of the game.

“It was a lot nicer, I think, last week,” James said, “just the whole atmosphere itself.”

Before the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., some T.C.U. fans played cornhole.Credit…Norm Hall/Getty Images

James said that Monday’s event was a great atmosphere but was missing some key tailgate amenities, including his favorite brand of beer. All he could drink was beer from the official sponsor of the College Football Playoff.

“This all they got,” James said, pointing to a half-full Modelo Especial. “I’m not going to lie; I’d be a lot happier right now” if there were Miller Lite available, he said.

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