In early January, the Bay Area will see a glorious illusion. At least that’s the plan.
For one weekend, the mystical mission will be to transform San Jose’s downtown streets into the best college campus ever--because there will be no classes and exams, only the
fun stuff. That’s how the College Football Playoff National Championship weekend works.
This isn’t like the ancient times of, say, 30 or 40 years ago. Back then, people waited around for a football kickoff by . . . waiting around for a football kickoff. Maybe they would have a beer and a bratwurst at their tailgate. But the only “entertainment”
in the hours before the game was arguing about the starting quarterback or defensive strategy.
That was so last millennium.
“Back in the day, you’d just unlock the doors and let people in,” says Bill Hancock, executive director of the (CFP) National Championship, which comes to Levi’s® Stadium on January 7.
“You can’t do that anymore,” Hancock explains.
No. You really can’t. Fans who attend America’s major sports events are now accustomed to them being more than mere sporting events. They must be surrounded by fireworks and sizzle and Sting. Or someone like Sting.
We don’t know every single detail yet. But the Bay Area host committee recently rolled out the framework for the three days leading up to the Monday night kickoff at Levi’s Stadium.
The framework will give fans plenty of options. Within a few square blocks, those fans can (A) listen to famous songs performed by famous people who famously recorded them or (B) run a convention center obstacle course while (C) chugging a complimentary Dr Pepper and (C) taking selfies with Chick-fil-A mascots or (D) eating dangerously spicy food for a worthy cause and (E) otherwise interacting with 200,000 square feet of indoor interactive exhibits.
All of this will take place in a controlled area of downtown San Jose. Most of it is free. Now, the task is to get that message out to Northern California fans who might not have tickets to game but might still want to “touch the event,” as Hancock puts it.
The Bay Area should understand the concept. When Super Bowl 50 visited Northern California in 2016, ancillary activities
throughout the area drew hundreds of thousands of local residents who wanted to “touch” Peyton Manning or Cam Newton. Those residents didn’t get to literally do that (which Manning and Newton probably appreciated), but the free concerts and other gatherings drew massive crowds.
Expectations are that will happen again with the CFP National Championship weekend, if prior experience means anything. This will be the game’s first visit to California.
“I think the challenge here is that the West Coast is not traditionally a college-football-oriented place,” Laila Brock, the CFP’s Senior Director of Operations and Logistics says. “And so I think it’s really educating the local people about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and how they can become involved. It’s very evident already on our trips here that people are excited.”
Maybe the most interesting part of the planning is the way CFP and Bay Area 2019 organizers decided on San Jose as the site for many of these events.
While the Super Bowl spread-it-around strategy was somewhat effective, most of the big parties primarily took place in San Francisco. By contrast, the CFP hopes to link its brand more strongly with Silicon Valley and San Jose’s developing urban core.
The idea is to transform the heart of downtown into a “Championship Campus.” In addition to the other attractions, events will include an open-to-the-public free Media Day for the competing teams, a low-cost “Playoff Fan Central” exposition aimed at families and a pair of fundraisers benefitting the CFP Foundation’s “Extra Yard for Teachers” initiative – the “Taste Of The Championship” and the Extra Yard 5K.
The whole thing is supposed to have the feel of a homecoming weekend at your favorite school – assuming that your favorite school has big-name entertainment taking the stage every night and an ESPN set in the middle of the quad. Hancock, the CFP honcho, first became familiar with San Jose when he ran the NCAA basketball tournament and was impressed by the way city officials organized the infrastructure and management of first round and regional games at SAP Center.
But some of it is just plain good fortune. When the founders of San Jose in 1777 began laying out the pueblo’s original street grid, they did not account for a future “Championship Campus.” But as it turns out, those founders were futurists and possibly college football weekend savants. The city’s compact downtown, built around Cesar Chavez Plaza, is set up perfectly to handle the logistics of a CFP weekend.
For example, the concert stage for AT&T Playoff Playlist LIVE! at Discovery Meadow will be just steps from Playoff Fan Central attractions at the McEnery Convention Center . . . which is less than a mile from the Media Day at SAP Center . . . and only an easy stroll to San Pedro Square where pep rallies are scheduled. None of the events are more than a few blocks apart until the Game Day focus moves to Levi’s Stadium and Santa Clara.
“It’s the ‘walkability’ factor,” says Hancock.
Brock, who has worked for CFP since its birth five years ago, was not as familiar with the South Bay but has been soaking up information on her near-monthly visits to the area since it was announced as the game’s site. She points out that depending on which teams advance to the title game, many of the players have probably never been to California. Brock is fairly sure they’ll be pumped.
She also wants to integrate Silicon Valley technology into the weekend, perhaps with some Playoff Fan Central attractions that could incorporate a new whiz-bang tool—or maybe have a connection to one of the musical acts, which won’t be announced until this fall.
“I won’t give away any surprises,” Brock says. “But I will say this. We don’t want anything to be standard. We want it to be fun and exciting.”
And what are the images she takes away from the experience when it’s done?
“You know what?” Brock says. “I love watching the faces of people on the Championship Campus as they are enjoying themselves. But it’s also seeing the student-athletes’ faces when the ball is about to be kicked off.”