by John Furgele
First, congratulations to President-Elect Barack Obama, and here’s hoping that regardless of your politics, we can rally behind our new president. Things are tough in this country, but if the parking lot at my local mall is indicative of a recession, then we are not in one. But, we are facing some difficult times, and we need strong leadership for all parties to ensure future success.
Obama, like many college football fans wants a playoff to—8 teams—to determine a national champion. Most have come up with 8 to 16 teams in their own scenarios. Most say that the bowls can be used in the playoff games (nonsense) and that the top 8, 12 or 16 teams would qualify, and the non-qualifiers could play in the bowl games, sort of like how the NIT serves teams 66-96.
But, like most, Obama fails to recognize why an 8 team playoff system will not work, and it has nothing to do with the resistance of the college presidents or athletic directors to give up their multi-million dollar BCS bowls. Let’s review:
1) There are 11 Division 1 Conferences: There are 6 BCS conferences, plus Notre Dame totaling 66 schools. The six BCS conferences—which you know—are the Big East, Big 12, Big Ten (11 schools), Pac 10, SEC, ACC. But, there are five other non-BCS conferences, led by the Mountain West, WAC, Conference USA, Mid American, and Sun Belt. If you have a true playoff system, these schools would have to included, meaning that there would have to be at least an 12 team playoff, not a 8 team one. If there were 8, like Obama suggests, and the non-BCS conferences were excluded, they would file a class action suit, and they would likely win, because Congress or the Supreme Court would threaten to take away tax free exemptions, anti-trust and the like. Most think that taking the top eight teams on the BCS computer would satisfy, but that would just open up litigation for years, unless the BCS schools relented. Because of this threat, college football would likely adopt a 16 team playoff because they could give 11 automatic bids and then have room for five at-large teams. Is the third best Big 12 team better than the Mid American champion? In most cases, yes, but let me remind you, that the NCAA Basketball Tournament does not take the best 65 teams, so why would anyone expect college football to do the same? And, most do not want a 16 team, four game/four week playoff system.
2) The NCAA Does Not Run College Football: That’s the other misconception that most people have about college football. In the 1980s, if you watched a college football game with Keith Jackson and Frank Broyles, the scoreboard usually said “CFA Football,” not NCAA Football, that’s because the NCAA does not run the sport, the Bowl Championship Schools (BCS) does. The BCS basically set up a bowl system that handsomely rewards its 66 members. It took an threat by Congress to invite non-BCS schools to major bowl games, hence that’s why Boise State, Hawaii, and Utah have played in these bowls in season’s past. The NCAA runs Divisions 1-AA, II and III and that’s why those divisions have playoff systems. In order for Division I to have a playoff, the BCS would have to cede its control to the NCAA, which governs the sports and would best know how to set up a playoff system. That is easier said than done. There are four BCS bowls, plus the BCS Championship Game, meaning there are ten spots for 66 schools, perhaps nine if a non-BCS school qualifies for one. I’m nost sure that the big 66 want to give up the $140 million in BCS bowl guarantees.
If there was a NCAA playoff, the playoff money would have to split by all 120 Division I schools, not just 66. Then, there is the question of the 1-AA schools. They are Division I schools, they play Division 1 in every sport except football, where they broke off and formed their own Division 1-AA league complete with playoffs. There are 120 Division 1-AA football schools. If there was a playoff, would the monies be divided by 66, 120, or 246? It would not be divided by 66 (see above), but there would certainly be a fight over the number. The Division 1 schools would argue that since they play Division I, they should divide the money by 120, but the Division 1-AA schools would argue that since they are members of the NCAA, and members of Division 1, that they should also get a cut of the pie. This would then have to be handled by lawyers, courts, and more of the bureaucracy we live in, something that Obama knows very well.
The Division 1-AA schools might then want to join Division 1 to make sure that they got their slice of the pie, but do we really want to see Alabama playing Presbyterian, Albany or Cal Poly. Of course, this may lead to many Division 1-AA dropping to Division II, because the NCAA might require these now 1-AA schools to build 40,000 seat stadiums and meet very difficult requirements to move to Division 1. A 2,500 seat basketball arena might keep you in Division I, but that 8,000 seat football stadium might need millions of dollars in upgrades, something that most schools cannot afford.
In any event, a Division I playoff would probably lead to the disssolving of Division 1-AA. Division II would be happy as their division just became ultra competitive, but how does that work out for Villanova for example. The university is a major Division I basketball school (they won it all in 1985), but would they be allowed to play Division II football and Division 1 in everything else? We know that Villanova would not drop to Division II for all sports, so there is yet another dilemma. If there were a Division I playoff, maybe the Division 1 schools would throw a lump sum of cash to keep Division I-AA intact and more importantly, to keep them out of getting playoff revenues. That might avoid litigation and keep Division 1-AA, which plays some very good football, intact for the future. As you can see, the “just get a playoff” is not very easy. You don’t just have a baby, there are many. many steps in the process.
3) The Happiness of Bowls. The college presidents like the ideal of the bowl division that is Division 1 football. They like the fact that 64 teams get invites to bowls. They like the fact that the Shreveport, LA, which hosts the Independence Bowl, rolls out the welcome wagon, treats the two participating teams like royals the week prior to the game. They like the fact that the players do community service while in Shreveport such as visiting hopsitals, schools, construction sites. They like the fact that 32 teams can say that they finished their season with a victory. They like the fact that can sell “Insight Bowl Champions,” t-shirts and hats at season’s end. They like the fact that going to bowl games is a way to build a program, which remains the number one focus of all Division 1 football schools. Buffalo will never win a BCS title, but if they can be competitive in the MAC, play for conference titles and go to bowl games, then a program is built. They’re not competing for the same players as Ohio State, but if they have a program, the kids will pick Buffalo over Ohio, Tulsa and the other non-BCS schools. A playoff system might return to college football to the old days, where the Michigans would give scholarships to players to keep them away from the second tier schools, schools that they play in nonconference games. Think Toledo would have beaten Michigan in 1978?
Look at college basketball. It is now a win or you’re nothing situation. Duke might roll to a 32-4 season, but if they get beat before the Final Four, then their season is considered a waste, an unproductive one. The NCAA tournament, as good as it is, has ruined the ideal of college basketball and I bet if you secretly asked college presidents—many of whom have socialist tendencies—they might agree that basketball has gotten away from its intended pureness. Yes, for many schools, making the tournament is like winning it, and for others so is winning a game, making the Sweet 16, or like a George Mason run to the Final Four, the ultimate underdog story. But, how important is the college basketball regular season? Of course it is important, but perhaps a better way to say it is how watched is it. No regular season is watched and monitored than Division 1 college football, because of what is at stake every weekend.
And, there is also the drama of trying to qualify for bowl. How about the 6-5 team needing a win against its rival to make it to a bowl game? The 5-4 team that wins its sixth game to become bowl eligible? For big-time fans, this is not a big deal, but for those who really love college football, it is pretty cool. I’m not a fan of sending 6-6 teams to bowl games, so I like it when the 6-4 teams win number seven. For them, getting to a bowl game, even at 7-5 is a cause for celebration. A playoff system would keep bowl games, but they wouldn’t be celebrated like they are today. Do you think teams celebrate getting a bid to the NIT? That might become the case in college football, and you can bet that the college presidents don’t want to devlaue or diminish that. Laugh at Notre Dame, but if they improve from 3-9 to 7-5 and a bowl game appearance, that would be considered a good building block, and that is the ideal that the college presidents like about the bowl system currently in existence.
4) Summary. Of course, it will all come down to money. Right now, college football is making lots of it. I do think that they would make even more if they had a playoff, but I’m not an accountant, so I can’t be precise. The fans would love it and so would the media which would break down matchups like they do NFL games. Fox threw big money to take the BCS bowl games away from ABC, so even though there is not a playoff, showing prime time college football games must still be profitable for the networks. Now, if NBC stepped up and offered to triple the rights fees if the presidents opted for a playoff, who knows what the response would be? If the networks decided that they didn’t want to bid on the BCS bowls, that might force the presidents to re-think how college football determines its champion. But, because Americans like watching college football, that will never happen. In fact, the only ones who really lament that there is no playoff are the media; the fans don’t seem to mind the BCS system that much.
But, why does college football have to cave in to the “American system” of playoffs. European soccer leagues do not have playoffs, and the fans don’t seem to mind. But, Major League Soccer has playoffs, because that’s the American way. I heard Alexei Lalas complain that having playoffs rewards mediocre teams who click at the right time. Yes, we know that soccer is different, but in America we put up with the regular season to get to the playoffs, but in many cases, the playoffs ruin the regular season. In some ways, creating a college football playoff system may creat more problems than it solves and the college presidents know this.
That’s why the bowls are sticking around for the foreseeable future.