Army-Navy: College Football As It Should Be
I was the last person out of the press box after the Army-Navy Game last year, finally making my way downstairs around 10 pm. It’s not that I was the hardest worker there; far from it. I was just the slowest, and I would pay for my lack of efficiency.
It was the first time I had covered Army-Navy in Philadelphia, and without a crowd to follow, I didn’t really know my way around the stadium. When I got off of the elevator in the lobby, I made a right when I should have turned left. I walked through the wrong exit and into one of the gated parking lots adjacent to the building.
The doors locked behind me as I stepped outside. I gingerly shuffled across the slippery, slush-covered sidewalk, cursing myself under my highly-visible breath for choosing the wrong pair of shoes to wear on such a wintry day. The closer I got to the fence that separated the parking lot from 11th Street, the more I realized that I had a problem. The gate to the street was locked. There was no way out. There was no way back inside. I was trapped.
Fortunately, I wasn’t alone in my predicament. About 20 minutes later, a gentleman in a black overcoat arrived on the other side of the fence, pacing back and forth along the locked entrance to the parking lot. He had attended the game with some clients and left afterward to entertain them at a few local establishments, only to return to find that Lot J was secured with his Audi parked inside. Luckily for the both of us, there was a sign posted on the outside of the fence— one that I would never have seen from inside— with a phone number for a security company that could unlock the gate. He called that number, and the person on the other end told him that someone was on their way and would be there… eventually.
The two of us, then, had plenty of time to kill. Once we established how cold we were, our conversation turned to the day’s matchup. He asked me what I thought about it. I told him that as a Naval Academy graduate it was heartbreaking, but as an objective media observer, it was one of the most riveting games that I had ever seen. He enthusiastically agreed and went on to list everything he loved about that day: the snow, the uniforms, the intense atmosphere, the hard-nosed style of play of each team. This was his first Army-Navy experience, but he vowed that it would not be his last.
After 90 minutes or so, the flashing yellow lights on top of a white Jeep signaled the arrival of our savior from the security company. He unlocked the gate without saying a word to either of the two idiots that forced him to leave his warm home at midnight. We thanked him and said our goodbyes. I shuffled my way back to my rental car, too afraid to lift my feet to walk; partly because of the slick ground, and partly because I could no longer feel them. The car had been covered by a thick layer of snow, and once I finished removing it all, I sat down in the driver’s seat and started the engine. Once my right foot warmed up enough that I could feel the pedals, I began the long drive back to Baltimore.
I've found myself thinking back to this experience often the closer we get to this year's Army-Navy Game. While I do so in part because of my lingering embarrassment for locking myself in a frozen parking lot, I mostly think about the conversation that I had while I waited to be rescued.
I grew up around Army-Navy. It has been part of my life as a child, as a midshipman, and later as a member of the media covering the game. To me, there is no sporting event like it, but my history makes me biased. Everyone thinks their team's rivalry is the greatest, and you know what? Everyone is right. If Wabash-DePauw means the world to you, why would you care about the Iron Bowl? The latter might be between better teams, but there are matchups between good teams that happen every week. That doesn’t have to do with the rivalry. The internet is teeming with “college football’s best rivalries” lists, and they are all garbage. It isn't something that can be quantified.
Army-Navy is different. It’s more relatable than the others. These aren’t regional universities lining up against each other; they’re national institutions. One doesn’t even need to have a connection to either school to have a rooting interest. The game is a proxy for inter-service rivalries that touch millions of Americans; if not themselves, then someone they grew up with. That makes it popular even among people that aren’t otherwise interested in college football. Army-Navy is a piece of Americana.
Of course, if you’re the kind of person who follows Navy football enough to make your way to this site, then you’ve heard all of that already. I know that I have. At this point, it’s almost cliche to mention it, which is why I keep coming back to the exchange that I had with my partner-in-cold last year. He had no connection to Army-Navy at all. He wasn’t an alumnus of either school. He didn’t have any military veterans in his family with whom he was close (I asked). He didn’t show up that day hoping that a particular team would win. He was just a local who finally wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and once he did, he was hooked.
He isn’t alone.
Last year marked the third consecutive year that television ratings for the game increased. The 5.9 overnight rating was the game’s highest in 23 years, and the 8.4 million viewers were the most since the 1992 contest. There were 681 credentials issued last year, and the press box was a who’s who of college football media. CBS does an extended pregame on two channels, and College GameDay now makes Army-Navy their season finale— somewhat incredible considering that ESPN doesn’t own the broadcast rights to the game. This Friday, USA Today will dedicate a whopping ten-page spread to Army-Navy pregame coverage.
Army-Navy has always been popular, but that popularity has surged in recent years. Why?
Moving the game back to its own weekend certainly helped. Navy’s 14-game winning streak might have had something to do with it, too. The longer it lasted, the more people wanted to tune in to see if that would be the year that Army finally won; sort of like watching the Belmont Stakes when there hadn’t been a triple crown winner for years. Then again, the game has been played on the second weekend of December for almost a decade now, and Army snapped their long losing streak two years ago. These things don’t explain why the game is setting marks for viewership that haven’t been reached in 25 years. They don’t explain the media circus. There has to be something more profound.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the spike in Army-Navy’s popularity corresponds with the introduction of the College Football Playoff.
The last thirty years have seen incredible changes in college football. The Supreme Court determined that NCAA rules on television broadcast rights were a violation of anti-trust laws in 1984. The decision meant that the primary revenue generator for major college athletics would shift from ticket sales to media rights. Ever since then, schools have been figuring out how to maximize the value of those rights, leading to conference realignment, the BCS, and eventually the Playoff.
While schools were making more money, it came at a price. Conference expansion has forced the end of rivalry games like Oklahoma-Nebraska and Pitt-Penn State. The BCS effectively killed New Year’s Day as the culminating national festival of the college football season. The Playoff has become the overriding focus of the entire sport. Playoff expansion seems almost inevitable, which will only increase its emphasis and change the game even more. I don’t think everyone is comfortable with that.
Moving from a two-team BCS Championship to a four-team and eventually eight-team playoff might make it seem like college football is getting more inclusive, but in reality, the opposite is true. As the playoff continues to gain influence, the difference between the game’s haves and have-nots becomes even more pronounced. College football had always been unique among American sports in that its postseason was an afterthought compared to its regular season. Each Saturday is a season unto itself; a chance to claim a year’s worth of bragging rights over someone. The Playoff has altered that chemistry. Fans lose interest in teams and games that they know will have no bearing on the Playoff.
That’s where Army-Navy comes in. The Army-Navy Game gives college football fans a chance to experience the feeling that they have lost elsewhere, where every game was a singular event rather than a cog in a machine. We watch sports for the drama, and nothing delivers drama like two teams with the sense of urgency that comes with knowing that what happens that day will be carried with you for the rest of your life. Fans that once dismissed Army-Navy as no longer relevant have rediscovered what the game is all about. Like my friend in the parking lot, they’re hooked.
We shouldn’t be naive, of course. Army and Navy aren’t immune to the same money-hunting forces that are shaping the rest of college football. As important as football is to the mission of both schools, they both must maneuver to keep their programs relevant in the big picture as much as possible. Even as they do so, though, USMA and USNA have found ways to keep the Army-Navy Game as the crown jewel of their seasons and a treasured fixture on the college football calendar.
Army-Navy might not be for the national championship, but the best parts of college football rarely are.