Why Harvard-Yale football is more than just a game

  • The Harvard-Yale game on CNBC Saturday is about much more than football.
  • The game brings together possibly the largest gathering of the world's richest and most powerful people.
  • And the game also stands for the otherwise extinct ideal of the combination of real academics with real athletics.

Deshawn Salter #31 of the Yale Bulldogs is tackled by Jordan Hill #55 of the Harvard Crimson in the first quarter of a game at Harvard Stadium on November 19, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.
Adam Glanzman | Getty Images
Deshawn Salter #31 of the Yale Bulldogs is tackled by Jordan Hill #55 of the Harvard Crimson in the first quarter of a game at Harvard Stadium on November 19, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.

Question: Where can you find the largest group of the richest, best-educated and best-connected people on Earth all gathered in one place?

Is it the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland?


Is it the floor of the U.S. Senate?

Try again.

Would you believe the answer is a college football game? Maybe you will when I tell you precisely which game I'm talking about: Harvard vs. Yale.

On Saturday at 12:30 p.m. ET, the Crimsons and the Bulldogs will meet in the 134th playing of "The Game" at the Yale Bowl live on CNBC. More than 61,000 people in the stands and tailgating outside will represent a unique collection of the world's political, business and financial elite.

Even in this modern era, The Game, (yes, they insist on calling it that, complete with the capital letters), is still one of the key social events of the year in the Northeast. Neither school even bothers to have homecoming football weekends, and simply expects alumni to come to the Harvard-Yale contest every year, home or away.

Just to prove the importance of the event, it's a safe bet to say that most of the people at the Yale Bowl will not know the win-loss records of either team or even the names of either team's players. Most will be there to hobnob with old friends and classmates, who just happen to also be America's richest and most powerful people. It's cool when you can hit two birds with one stone like that.

While all of this may seem like a crazy old tradition, it's important to remember that what we now call the Ivy League really is a sports league after all. It was formed by the elite Eastern universities who wanted to make sure the modern-day college football mania did not corrupt the educational and social goals of those schools.

The leaders of those schools believed they could preserve the integrity of sports and academia by eliminating athletic scholarships, banning postseason/bowl game participation, and instituting strict academic admission standards that all members would have to follow.

While the eight Ivies have been playing football since 1869, the league and those rules were not officially formed until 1956. The other major football programs in America did not follow suit, and a clear dichotomy began to emerge.

It took a few years, but Ivy football games, once major events held at sold-out venues like the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium, became secondary contests compared with the big-time battles among college football powerhouses like Notre Dame, Michigan and Stanford. Those schools clearly made more concessions to athletics, despite their reputations as great universities as well.

In other words, the Ivies added to their overall luster by subtraction. In this case, it was subtracting the "big time" element of their football and other athletic programs. Take a look at the endowments and the admission rates for each of the eight institutions, and decide for yourself if they made the right decision.

However, even that downgrade from the ranks of the top 25 college football rankings has not been able to extinguish the red-hot importance of an event like the Harvard-Yale contest. If anything, the influence of the two schools' alumni is growing. Harvard and Yale claim four of the last five U.S. presidents as alums, when only three of the previous 10 were either a Crimson or Bulldog. Call it diploma power inequality.

Another benefit is the players on the football team are true student-athletes in a way that so many other major universities cannot say. Meanwhile, the talent level is nothing to be ashamed of, as virtually every Ivy school has at least one graduate playing in the NFL.

With that in mind, let's remember that this is still a football game. The athletes playing Saturday have a little more at stake, as Yale can grab its first outright Ivy League title since 1980 with a win. A Harvard victory would likely hand a share of the title to Columbia and/or Dartmouth.

The Bulldogs are favored by 16 points.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.