Want someone to blame for the BCS? Blame ESPN

22 03 2010

Back in 2001, Mike Bellotti, then head football coach of the University of Oregon likened the Bowl Championship Series to cancer after being snubbed from the championship game.  Nearly a decade later with his new position as Oregon athletic director, he is “probably now more comfortable with the BCS and the traditional bowl system.”  How times change.  How can a man who was once a furor of the BCS become an unlikely ambassador?

Simple.  The big economic picture.

There is no chance you could get 70,000 people to pack a stadium and watch a student take a test for four hours.  What you would find are 80,000 people willing to pay $12 dollars towards an I Love My Ducks shirt that would otherwise never give that same $12 dollars philanthropically to the university.

As much as we’d all like to pretend that college football is an unassumingly fun and exhilarating Saturday afternoon where we can root for our favorite teams, it’s not.  At the end of the day, college football is an entertainment business that a university owns the rights to and one that academia has discovered pays the bills in recent years.  It’s revenue that pays for new academic buildings, technology and more support staff.

Moving past the academic integrity debate whether institutions should use entertainment to fund the academic enterprise of a university, pragmatically it’s not going to change.  If we can all accept it’s not going to change, only then we can fully embrace why the BCS is so important to academic institutions.

The BCS is a business model that has proven thus far to be successful if you’re in one of the “big boy” conferences such as the ACC, Big East, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 10, and the SEC.  You get the majority of revenue which has increased tenfold since the pre-BCS days.  The revenue typically goes to fund the rest of your athletic department on intramurals that lose money, or in some cases, entire academic buildings.  Frankly, as much as the smaller conferences complain, they’ve received more money and exposure than they would have pre-BCS days.  Overall, the BCS system is very lucrative to anyone involved in it, large or small.  Could it be even more lucrative?  No question.

The NCAA men’s basketball playoff of 64 teams makes around $545 million dollars a year while the BCS only makes around $150 million per year.  Although there are a little less than half of Division I (FBS) football teams than Division I  basketball teams, one can only surmise with college football’s resoundingly popularity over college basketball, it could easily make at least $100 million more per year if not match the amount entirely.  But then again, these figures are all theory.

Can fans or politicians convince college presidents and athletic directors to change their business plan?  Probably not, and that’s the problem.  Talking heads can’t effect change, only real money, not theoretical money.  The powers that be in college football have found a business model that is extremely successful and rocking the boat with the elusive unicorn playoff money isn’t going to happen until the need for more arrives or there is proven business model on the table.  Unless universities are actually forced into a playoff by lawmakers or are forced into a more equitable BCS business model for the smaller conferences is here to stay.  Presidents can use the academic argument to skirt the issue, but we all know it’s code for, “they’re comfortable with the business model the BCS offers so stop asking us.”  If it was all about academics, college presidents would have never allowed the 12th game to be added to the regular season back in 2005.

It makes sense for lawmakers to want to take on the BCS.  Going beyond basic pandering to your constituency, the system is truly inequitable economically.  Smaller conferences make less money than the bigger “brand name” conferences which try to keep the little guy down.  Politicians want to stick up for the little guy.  That said, isn’t that capitalism?  Don’t already established, popular brands like Pizza Hut, Domino’s and Papa John’s Pizza want to keep the smaller pizza companies from getting large enough to compete with them?  Of course they do.  If you want to call the BCS antitrust, then call capitalism antitrust.

If smaller conferences were smart, they’d squash this whole playoff notion anyway.  Frankly, we all love seeing the Cinderella story of many teams going up against the juggernaut-powerhouse teams and winning.  In a one game scenario like the current bowl game system, the small guy winning can be done as it has already been proven time and again.  You put an underdog team against three of the big boy teams in a row and soon we can see how the depth of recruiting four star players against the depth of five star players has for the Cinderella story in a multi-game playoff system.

College football is a great sport and without question, a better one than the pre-BCS days.  Would it be a better sport with a playoff?  Moving beyond the economics and politics, it probably would.  If fans of college football truly want to see a change to a playoff, essentially they will have to lobby the media outlets and have those entities formulate credible business plans that college presidents and athletic directors can sink their teeth into.  There has to be tangible evidence and guaranteed contracts on the table for the collegiate brass to want to change their minds.  So the real question becomes, “Can we lobby ESPN to be the savior of college football?”