Friday, December 10, 2010

A Stopped Clock

It is said that even a stopped clock is right twice a day and so it is with the Bowl Championship Series as well. The fact that it worked out this year as the strong consensus number one and number two teams are playing in the national championship game doesn’t mean the BCS is a perfect system or even the right system. It’s just a jerry-rigged fix that gets it right once in awhile.

I’ve railed against the BCS in the past because of what it is and what it isn’t. My point is simple. Either go back to the way things used to be or go to a full-blown playoff. This middling approach causes middling results.

Maybe the BCS is the best that can be done. That’s because a playoff system, whatever merit it might have, is far more of a problem then most people believe, suggesting that the BCS is with us like a crazy aunt. The current bowl system, the real impediment to a playoff, is far more intertwined into the fabric of Division I college football than most people appreciate. It’s easy for the media to take an etch-a-sketch approach to damn near anything. You don’t like what the current picture looks like? Just shake and start over, simple as that.

Well, it’s not that simple.

According to a report on, at a recent IMG Intercollegiate Forum that featured a lengthy discussion among the athletic directors of the major conferences, a healthy debate ensued on the merits of the current BCS system. Lest anyone think that there isn’t a case to be made for the current system, they should listen to what Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany had to say.

Delany makes the obvious but important point that much of the debate starts from the premise that teams and fans alike are conditioned to think about playoffs. Indeed, playoffs are the fabric of virtually every sports league from 8-year old T-ball to the NFL. Thus, the natural inclination is that the only way to arrive at a true national champ is through a grinding system of post-season games that leads to a winner take all final.

It’s way too late to try to condition fans otherwise but Delany’s point, subtly made, is that no one stops to consider challenging the conventional wisdom of the underlying premise. You could dissect the playoffs in virtually any sport and find an unworthy champ. It’s often the case that teams with the best regular season record don’t end up winning it all for any number of reasons.

So it is a valid point to make that even a playoff system doesn’t necessarily do any more to guarantee the “right” team was crowned national champ. But the counter to it is that when it comes to NCAA football, where the disparity between conferences can be far more dramatic than the disparity between divisions in professional sports, there is a better chance that the theoretical “right” team will be the national champ after being tested through a playoff system.

But the far more salient point that Delany makes is to point out the difficulties inherent in a playoff system given the current bowl system and conference affiliations. Those who scoff at these as mere parochial concerns really do miss the larger issues.

As Delany notes, the automatic bowl bid conferences like the PAC 10 and Big 10 gave up some of their access to, for example, the Rose Bowl, traditionally the most lucrative bowl game of all, in order to serve the greater good which, in this case, means teams from lesser conferences like the Mountain West, which is sending TCU to the Rose Bowl this season against Wisconsin.

Whatever else you might think about TCU and the level of competition it plays, no one much argues that a Wisconsin vs. Stanford Rose Bowl would be a far more desirable match up from just about every angle. In the context of college sports, the sacrifice that the Big 10 and the PAC 10 made in order to allow the Wisconsin v. TCU game to happen instead is significantly underappreciated by the playoff advocates.

Stated differently, as Delany points out, a playoff system of virtually any configuration comes at the expense and financial sacrifice of the schools at the top for the benefit of the middling schools and conferences, like the Mountain West and the Big East, who give up virtually nothing.

It may all be just money, but it’s real money you’re taking out of one school’s or one conference’s pocket to put into the pockets of lesser schools or conferences. In a different context, say a tax increase for millionaires to provide more benefits for the poor, we’d rail against it as a socialistic redistribution of wealth. But since it’s football, this is all just fine.

Another point that Delany doesn’t much get into but is still worth noting is the premise that a playoff system creates even greater wealth for everyone. Yet I’ve not seen one model, one study, one proposal from one network that actually supports this premise.

The working assumption is that there is no limit on the money that the networks will spend for the rights to televise NCAA playoff football. That simply isn’t true. More to the point, whatever money the networks would spend would eventually impact what amount, if any, they’d be willing to pay for all of those minor bowl games featuring teams not good enough to make the playoffs.

And before you say good riddance to those bowl games, remember that these lesser teams are never going to give up those opportunities. If nothing else, it gives them more weeks of practice, giving them a head start on the next season.

If you don’t think, for example, that the Michigan Wolverines suffered some the past two seasons because they weren’t bowl eligible the previous year, you aren’t paying attention. That extra game and those extra practices are akin to an early start on spring football.

What really emerges from this entire debate is that the true advocates for the BCS, meaning those colleges with the most to lose economically through a more democratic playoff system, actually have a point. I suspect they understand that the BCS isn’t perfect or even very good. It’s as if they’re trying to scratch an itch knowing that the back scratcher isn’t quite long enough to reach the whole problem.

There are some that predict a regular playoff season within 5 years and they may be right. But every playoff proposal that someone has concocted has the same thing at its core: forcing the big schools to forego the potential millions that their current bowl affiliations tend to yield. That is why virtually every playoff proposal has been dead on arrival.

These big schools, be it Ohio State, USC, Oklahoma, or Alabama, have budgets they need to balance and that isn’t going to happen if their most lucrative sport, football, is put in a position of potentially foregoing millions just so that the occasional TCU or Boise State can run with the big boys for a few years.

No one seems to relish a return to the old days and the chance that there might be disputed national champs based on the vagaries of pollsters. Fine. But if a playoff system is going to happen, it won’t be until someone steps forward with a proposal that addresses the big schools fundamental interest. They aren’t going to go along until they are compensated for the sacrifices that are being asked to make. Since no one has come forward with that kind of proposal, we all better just get used to this do-loop of bitching every December about the stopped clock that is the BCS and get comfortable that at least every once in awhile it gets it right.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Amazing write-up! Could you follow-up on this specific matter?