Hate the BCS? Let senior SI.com writer Stewart Mandel explain why.

9 03 2010

Stewart Mandel, senior writer for SI.com gave his insight into the complex world of the BCS in a telephone interview on Feb. 12, 2010. (SI.com logo complies under fair use within United States copyright laws.)

There is a lot of noise surrounding the Bowl Championship Series these days and Stewart Mandel, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated (SI.com) who has covered college football since 1999, brings clarity and pragmatism to an otherwise convoluted debate.

The way college football determines a champion has been under fire from fans, as well as Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) who has written letters to President Obama and the US Justice Department citing anti-trust issues against the BCS.  Senator Joe Barton (R-Texas) is trying to legislate a playoff with the HR 390 bill that he sponsored.

The BCS came into existence in 1998 when controversy after controversy around determining a true champion in college football had finally reached a boiling point.  Critics say that the current BCS is nothing more than a “popularity contest,” picking who voters believe to be the two best teams in America.  Mandel defended, “As much as people criticize it, 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.”

No sport, collegiate or professional, has increased in popularity more than college football has in the past 10 years.  “There is no question in my mind that the sport has increased tremendously in popularity since the BCS… more than any other sport in the last 10 years,” Mandel said.  It has graduated from a faction of regional competitions, to a more unified national competition with a system pairing a nationally ranked number one team versus a number two team title game matchup.  “If you were an LSU fan before, you didn’t have much incentive to care about an Ohio State game because they were going to the Rose Bowl regardless.  Now, there is always a chance your team will meet them in the title game or big bowl game.”

It’s easy to see why the entertainment aspect attracts fans and the competitive nature of sports attracts coaches who yearn for a playoff.  However, the plot thickens when the discussion moves beyond the superficial and towards the financial.

College football has become the trump card of college sports.  Much or all of the revenue generated by an athletic department in the modern era is generated more often by regular season football home games than any postseason matchup, “that is especially true, the larger you get,” Mandel said.  He believes that the Texas and Ohio States of the world, packing 100,000 people into their stadiums every other week, need those meaningful regular season games to fund entire athletic departments that may have 20-22 other teams losing money or breaking even at best.

For BCS proponents like university presidents and athletic directors, the notion of a playoff could be a financial doomsday recipe.  However, Mandel contends, “I don’t necessarily believe that a playoff would have these drastic consequences for the regular season…  but that IS why they are so concerned.  So much is riding on the college football regular season.”

Although the business model that the BCS provides has become more ostensible for the universities in major conferences as time has progressed, Senators Hatch and Barton do not agree with that business model.  Hatch said at a BCS hearing, “Put simply, Section 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act prohibits contracts, combinations, or conspiracies to limit competition. I’ve said before that I don’t believe a plainer description of the BCS exists.”  Essentially, Hatch feels the system is rigged in a guile way by the major conferences because they let the smaller conferences feel part of the process by giving them the smaller leftover scraps from the monetary feeding frenzy known as the BCS.  Hatch thinks that smaller conferences do not get an equitable share and cannot compete to their market value because of the powers that control the system, thus violating the Sherman Antitrust Act.

Whether the BCS is violating the Sherman Antitrust Act or not, Mandel doesn’t give much credence to the current legislative push as he says many have come before it over the decades.  “To say they’re going to make it a legislative priority of the federal government to make sure college football has a playoff, is all just a lot of big talk as far as I’m concerned.”

The debate surrounding the college football postseason has many angles and no easy answers; but is a playoff the best solution? Mandel feels that a playoff in any sport is the best way to determine a true champion, but with the caveat, “College football would be a much different sport than it is now and I don’t believe people have truly thought about the consequences.”

Leaving economics aside, fans take for granted the dramatic regular season: a week-in and week-out slugfest where every game matters until the very end.