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In last week’s Sports Illustrated, Austin Murphy and Dan Wetzel, who coauthored Death to the BCS, wrote an article outlining the reasons why college football still doesn’t have a playoff system to choose its national champion, instead relying on “an inexact, capricious, widely despised system that is propped up and defended, in the main, by the people who profit from it.” What follows is an explanation of where bowl money goes, which is used as a justification for dismantling the BCS ranking system.
Wetzel’s argument has merit, but there are several flaws in it. His response to the idea that a postseason would devalue the regular season (like in the MLB, where essentially every game before August 1 doesn’t matter) is to ask why Boise State dropped two spots after beating Hawaii 42-7. First off, his argument is incorrect. Boise State has not been ranked #2 since at least Week 8. They fell one spot between Week 9 and Week 10, switching places with TCU, and that probably has something to do with TCU beat #5 Utah by an even more impressive 47-7. Boise State, meanwhile, hasn’t played a ranked team since #24 Oregon State on September 25. Their highest-ranked opponent was #10 Virginia Tech in their season opener. #1 Oregon, meanwhile, beat a Top-10 team, #9 Stanford, as recently as October 2. And Stanford has gone up in rank since that loss, now sitting at #6. The last of the undefeated teams, Auburn, probably has a case that they should be #1, but they probably don’t care. Auburn has already beaten three ranked teams, including #6 LSU on October 23, and still has two to go, including Alabama. If they win out, they may take over the #1 spot.
So, Mr. Wexler, if you’re going to talk about the overvalued importance of the regular season, get your facts straight first. But to make a larger point, what makes college football unique is that it’s not just that every one of a team’s regular season games is meaningful. Every game is important. You never know when a conference rival’s victory will impact your victory. That promotes conference unity. And with only 12 or 13 games a season, devaluing them is a bad idea. People will stop going if they know that as long their team makes the postseason, they still have a shot.
Turning college football into a smaller version of the NFL, with a postseason and unimportant regular season games, is a bad idea. To make it too close to the pros is to risk unfair comparison. Look at the WNBA. They play exactly the same as the men, except the shooting isn’t as accurate, the passing isn’t as crisp, and the dunking isn’t there… at all. So no one follows it. Women’s hockey, meanwhile, has avoided this by eliminating checking, which fundamentally changes the way they play the game. The product women’s hockey puts out is different enough that people get a unique experience watching it. If you create a postseason, you’re going to invite comparison with the NFL, where college football can’t hope to win. You’re also going to encounter the same problems fans hate about the end of the NFL season. If a team is 11-1 and has clinched its division, the team will rest its starters. You think fans will be a little irate if the Buckeyes rest Terrelle Pryor against the Wolverines? How about Mark Ingram not running through the Swamp? Devaluing the regular season hurts the fans, whose entertainment is the bottom-line goal of sports.
Murphy and Drexel also talk a lot about Bowl organizers and athletic directors, all of whom seem to profit from the Bowl system. Individual teams, however, take a bath, because they’re forced to buy up large quantities of face-value tickets, which they then have trouble selling. Bowl victors also usually split their winnings with the rest of the conference (all bowl victories are pooled). There’s anecdotal evidence that college football programs are rarely profitable because of equipment, recruitment and travel costs, to name a few reasons. But how will creating a postseason correct this problem? Drexel’s only evidence is a 2005 testimony to Congress, where Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said he thought a playoff system would triple or quadruple revenue. OK, great. But absent from this article is any more evidence. Why does Delany think this? Have studies been done? Have surveys of fans been taken? Who’s to say that, given a a playoff system with a hierarchy similar to the bowl system’s (a semi-final vs. a quarterfinal, the Sugar Bowl vs. the Outback Bowl), people would be less inclined to attend? If your team is the Big East champion, is anyone going to come to see you get beat by the SEC champion? At least with bowl games there are corporate sponsors, meaning a decent amount of advertising to draw television attendance. There’s a good chance Capital One isn’t going to sponsor the preliminary game of a four-round playoff system.
So why not regulate profit distribution instead of dismantling the whole system in favor of one that might not be better? If these bowl organizers are getting rich off the system, threatening to dismantle it might be good enough to get them to the negotiating table. What if bowl organizers could only take a small percentage of the bowl’s revenue? What if teams were given a share of the profits, not just the prize money? And if a game draws more television viewers than normal, why not give a share of the advertising revenue to each team? As for the athletic directors and coaches, how about setting a limit on bowl bonuses? Or what if the NCAA handed out all bowl bonuses instead of individual teams? It might seem authoritarian, but can anyone say this wouldn’t cause a problem? Eliminating the bowl system might eliminate bowl bonuses, but it might create a complicated tier system where coaches and athletic directors get more depending on how far into the playoffs they can get. Then you’ll have even more complicated contact negotiations, and stuff that really ought to stay behind the scenes will go public.
Murphy and Wetzel argue against the BCS, which they say is based on “a series of mathematically unsound computer formulas and often confused and ill-informed poll voters,” because teams have to eat the cost of unsold tickets, then give their bowl winnings to the conference. Well, why can’t the NCAA limit or eliminate those practices? Why not force bowls to cut back the number of tickets they force teams to buy, or offer a discounted buy-back on unsold tickets, so teams can recover a little? On the other hand, why not prohibit conference pooling? It makes no sense that, should they win the champion ship, Auburn should get less money because LSU bombed at the Cotton Bowl. And why should Boston College be entitled to any of Virginia Tech’s Orange Bowl winnings? Better regulation of bowl revenue and distribution could go just as far to improve college football as a playoff system, where corporate sponsorship may disappear for the unimportant and potentially under-watched preliminary games, could.
The writers of this article are bringing up a lot of problems, but they’re not offering a lot of answers. What will this playoff look like? How will teams be bracketed? Any playoff system would have to rely on strength of conference to decide who plays who. And if that’s the case, aren’t you just using the same system (Auburn and Oregon are above TCU and Oregon because the SEC and PAC-10 are traditionally stronger conferences than the MWC or WAC), just with a new coat of paint? If so, why bother killing the current system? You might fix a pothole by dismantling the BCS, but in so doing you might just as quickly dig a new one. The cars will still blow out their tires, plus now you’ve spent a lot of time and money on repairs. Why bother? Why not just regulate the ways in which the current Bowl system falls short?
The final reason to keep the BCS is that a playoff system would most likely regulate the schedule. Playoff games would have to be played at the same time and on the same day so that every team would get the same amount of rest. You know, just like the NFL. But what makes Bowl season great is that for about a month, when everyone is huddling in their dark and cold homes, at just about any time on just about any day you can turn the t.v. on and find bushy-eyed youngsters in sunny stadiums playing great football. After a hard day’s work, there’s nothing like sitting down and catching a random bowl, even if it’s the Emerald Bowl. Why strip the fans of all that randomly enjoyable entertainment? The BCS has flaws, absolutely. But let’s fix those flaws, not just throw the whole system out. Clamp down on unscrupulous practices like overblown bonuses, forced ticket sales to universities, and conference pooling. Force these bowl organizers to give back some of the money they’re making. Make the bowl season as pure as college football is (or ought to be). Then we can have a month of games where great football is played and universities reap the benefits of their seasons. Everybody wins.