The college football playoff debate matures beyond the trivial

17 03 2010

Many FBS programs like the University of Oregon use sell-out crowds during regular season football games to pay for all sports within an athletic department.

Before the inception of the Bowl Championship Series in 1998, the sport of college football was marred in controversy for the way it determined its national champion.  For nearly 60 years prior, college football had crowned its champion with arbitrary voting by sports writers in Associated Press polls.  Trivial “true champion” arguments that had fueled the sport for decades finally prompted the BCS organization to become a “savior” and assist college football in settling these disputes.

Fast forward 12 years later, the once savior BCS has become the bane of college football fans, drawing the ire of the president, senators, and is on the verge of being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice for potential antitrust violations.  Many would consider determining a true champion in college football to be silly, but with the threat of government oversight, college football isn’t so trivial now, is it?

To make matters worse for the BCS, in early January 2009, Joe Barton (R-Texas) introduced H.R. 390 (College Football Playoff Act of 2009); written to ban any NCAA Division I football game calling itself a “national championship” unless it is part of a fair and equitable playoff system.

The BCS has become the punching bag of modern American sports, but why so much hostility over Saturday afternoon entertainment?  The viewpoints for anti-BCS sentiment begin to differ.

At the bottom of the anti-BCS food chain it’s the average fan and college football coaches.  Many fans and coaches oppose the BCS and support a playoff for one simple reason:  The competitive spirit, or so eloquently put by many fans, “my school is better than your school.”  During the BCS era, there has been much controversy on exactly which two teams should be paired in the title game.

Stewart Mandel, senior writer for Sports Illustrated.com said, “As much as people criticize it (BCS), they forget for 60-something years there was no championship game in football.  It was completely arbitrary in terms of which teams met each other in the bowl games.”

Although the BCS gives fans the chance to see the top two ranked teams square-off when the previous system did not, fans claim it’s only slightly less arbitrary than it was before because it’s still based on a popularity contest.

In pre-BCS days, the college football national champion itself was decided by sports writers voting in the Associated Press poll.  In college football the top ranked teams did not play each other because of regional tie-ins that required conference champions to play in specific bowls.

For example, in 1991 the undefeated Washington Huskies of the Pacific 10 conference did not have an opportunity to play the undefeated Miami Hurricanes of the Big East conference because of these regional bowl tie-ins.  The Pac 10 champion was required to play in the Rose Bowl and the Big East champion was required to play in the Orange Bowl.  In the current BCS system, the top two ranked teams now play each other.

Senators Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) much higher on the anti-BCS food chain, differ dramatically in their disdain for the Bowl Championship Series.  The discourse shifts from entertainment to economic.

College football has grown steadily in popularity since its inception in the late 1800’s reaching an all-time high with the advent of the BCS.  The unprecedented popularity has garnered a much higher revenue stream than ever before.  However, the crusading senators take issue with is the caste system the BCS created.  The BCS business model has six automatic qualifying (AQ) conferences and five non-automatic qualifying (non-AQ) conferences for the bowl system.  The AQ’s receive a higher percentage of the BCS revenue pie than the non-AQ’s.

Barton doesn’t shy away from critics that say college football is too trivial for government oversight.  First, he believes that because college football is a multibillion-dollar industry, it qualifies as interstate commerce and thus, a legitimate candidate for congressional oversight.  Second, he feels that non-AQ conferences are victims of an inequitable revenue sharing business model.

In a letter to President Obama on Oct. 21, 2009, Hatch wrote, “During the past four seasons, privileged conferences (AQ’s) received more than $492 million, or 87.4 percent, of the total BCS revenue, whereas the non-privileged conferences (non-AQ’s), whose collective membership consists of nearly half of all the schools in the FBS, received less than $62 million or 12.6 percent. These are hardly trivial sums…”

With all the malcontent and damning evidence, do BCS proponents feel they have a leg to stand on?  You bet.

Although the percentage of revenue may be skewed in favor of AQ conferences, the fact remains that non-AQ conferences have tremendously benefitted from the BCS and have made more money than they would have in pre-BCS days.  Dave Frohnmayer, former chair of the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee called the changing of the revenue sharing model “preposterous.”  He made the analogy that a more equitable revenue sharing model for lesser-invested athletic programs is as ludicrous as the idea that schools that charge more in tuition should have a tuition sharing model for the lesser-invested schools.  “The bigger conferences are the ones that brought the money to the table in the first instance; they are called the equity conferences for a reason.”

Proponents further defend the BCS business model because they say the system is a proven, positive and an integral method for the economic and philanthropic vitality of a university.  Many institutions in the equity conferences have invested in high profile athletic departments with an emphasis on football to fund entire athletic departments as well as garner philanthropic funds that go to the academic enterprise of a university.

Academics play a big part in keeping the BCS system intact, as least from college presidents, trumping both the economic and entertainment sides of the BCS debate. Frohnmayer who was also the former president of the University of Oregon feels that a playoff would disrespect academic calendars and would be an “academic disaster.”

No matter where one falls in the debate, whether it is for economic, academic or entertainment reasons; there is no question that the Bowl Championship Series has made college football a truly national, far more popular and ostensibly lucrative sport than it was 12 years ago.  The problem is that by doing so, the curtain to the economic Wizard of Oz for college football has been revealed.  The reality is that for many, the sport will never go back to being unassumingly trivial.