Tonight, the South Florida Bulls and the Marshall Thundering Herd will face off in the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl, one of the most-named bowl games in this year’s rotation (only behind, in our opinion, the Cheribundi Tart Cherry Boca Raton Bowl and the Makers Wanted Elk Grove Bahamas Bowl).
While many will focus on the silliness of the name, and fewer will focus on the actual matchup between two good-but-not-great Group of Five teams, I want to take a moment to lament what we have lost.
This year’s Gasparilla Bowl will take place in Raymond James Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This is a shift, as for the previous 10 seasons, this bowl — also known as the MagicJack Bowl, the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl, The Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl, and then simply the St. Petersburg Bowl — took place at Major League Baseball’s worst stadium, the unloved and definitely-not-designed for football Tropicana Field.
Full disclosure: I have never been to Tropicana Field, and I do not intend to go. I have only experienced it the way most of us have: tuning in to a mid-December bowl game and wondering why everything looks so bad.
Again, the stadium was designed for baseball. I feel I need to reiterate that, because it wouldn’t seem clear from looking at it. It’s a sad, weird barn built in the late 1980s to attempt to lure the Chicago White Sox to Florida; the team stayed in Chicago, but both cities managed to miss out on the first wave of cities deciding “hey, what if we make stadiums look nice?”
The turf is terrible; through decades of advancements in artificial turf, it’s still managed to look like the AstroDome in the ‘70s. The lighting is harsh and the roof casts a permanent overcast pall to the place.
It was terrible, and it was one of the watermarks of the last decade of bowl season for me. The ugliest bowl game; as true a sign that Christmas is coming as half my outdoor lights going out.
College — and for that matter, pro — sports are forever professionalizing, evolving from their weird and shitty roots into purpose-built stadiums, brand-managed images, and analytics-driven management. In many ways this is a good thing. They’re putting a better product on the field.
We’re losing something, though, when we lose the weirdest and shittiest parts of our sports. Teams playing in stadiums deeply ill-suited for their sports. Logos that look like they were drawn on the back of a bar napkin. Games that don’t have any real purpose being played. For most of my childhood, my image of the city of Montreal - a beautiful, historic city with loads of culture - was their weird bad stadium with a blue plastic roof and discordant echoey horn sounds. I grew up banging wooden seats to make noise in a mostly-empty stadium with a funny smell I wouldn’t place until my first week of college.
Someday soon we’ll have an 8-team playoff, then a 16-team playoff, and maybe they’ll do away with the whole mess of a bowl system. All the games will be played in palaces like Mercedes-Benz Stadium or Cowboys Stadium. They’ll look good on television.
And we’ll forget that this sport, more than any, isn’t supposed to make any sense. It’s supposed to be big and messy and shoehorned into places it doesn’t belong. It’s supposed to take five months to resolve nothing conclusively. It’s supposed to allow a few dozen teams to end their season on a half-hearted high note. It’s supposed to end with two mediocre teams facing off in front of six hundred people in a McMansion’s half-finished basement under fluorescent lighting on a Thursday in December.
Tonight’s game may well suck, but it’ll suck less, and we’re poorer for that.