Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The BCS Makes Its Case, And It's Not A Good One

The 2010-2011 Bowl season is now in the bag and we have a BCS Champion, though not an NCAA Champion.  The good news is that Auburn is probably the best team in the country and probably deserves the title.  Though I can't imagine there's anyone outside of Alabama not wondering what Stanford or TCU might do against the Tigers.  

It’s hard to blame the advertisers, school administrators, venues, corporate sponsors or bowl organizers for trying to make a buck while also figuring out a better way to determine a football national champion than we used to have.  And the BCS is better than its predecessor.  What I blame them for is settling for a system that neither maximizes how much money they could make, nor determines a champion in the best way possible.

A playoff would unquestionably be the fairest way to determine a champion.  We see it in every other sport and every other level of college football, and while the best team may not always win a tournament, a tournament winner is always the unquestioned champion.  No campaigning, no geographical or conference bias, no voting, everyone got a fair shot…the last man standing wins. 

The great irony behind the BCS’ motto, “Every game counts,” which also serves as their Twitter and Facebook handle, is that in reality, only one game counts.  But this is only one of the many glaring holes in the pro-BCS argument.  

On their official website are a number of links to articles and statements in which BCS administrators and those making the most money from its existence argue for its continued existence.  These defenses of the BCS are the same ones that we often hear on television and radio, but none of them is actually a good reason to sit pat with what we’ve been dealt. 

So let’s put all the cards out on the table and see what we actually have.  BCS vs. Playoff, once and for all.  Each of these pro-BCS arguments is taken directly from their website or from articles linked from their website. 

BCS:A 16-team playoff would include guaranteed spots for each of the 11 Division I conferences.   This means that Alabama, Georgia Tech, Ohio State, Oregon and the like would be included.  Also, you would include Central Michigan from the Mid-America Conference and Troy from the Sun Belt.  How much interest would there be in that first round game between Troy and Alabama and likewise, the 2-15 pairing of Central Michigan and Texas?” –Butch Henry, from a BCS’ homepage link to an article published in January 2010 in the Aiken Standard.

Playoff: Exactly.  Each of the power conferences would still get their best horse in the race.  And then the next five best teams would be invited as well.  As for the amount of interest in a Troy vs. Alabama first round game, I’d say it would be considerably higher than a BYU-UTEP New Mexico Bowl.  Or a N. Illinois-Fresno St. Humanitarian Bowl.  Or an Ohio-Troy New Orleans Bowl.  Or a Southern Miss-Louisville Beef O’Brady’s Bowl.  Or than probably any of the 30 non-BCS games, and perhaps more than the Connecticut-Oklahoma Sugar Bowl.

BCS: “There will be no bowls if a playoff system is initiated. Only 16 teams would play postseason. Do you think the Southeastern Conference, which has 10 teams playing in bowl games this year, will support for one second a system in which only two or three teams go to playoffs? How many coaches get fired for not making the playoffs when just two or three get to play? We have more than 60 teams going to bowl games this year. No one will agree to a system that only 16 get to go.” – Henry

Playoff: So make a secondary tournament (like basketball’s NIT) or host bowls for the next 44 teams after the Tournament field is named.  That way we get a legitimate national champion, most of the corporate sponsors still get their names on second tier games, 60+ schools get honored with some postseason play and all those bowl venue communities still cash in. 

BCS: Bowls provide an opportunity for half the schools competing to finish the season as a champion.  A tournament would make 15 out of 16 kids finish as a loser. 

Playoff: True.  If the goal of the bowl system really is to provide a sense of accomplishment to the players, then fine…keep it.  But don’t sell tickets, naming rights, or advertising and play the games behind closed doors.  After all, it’s the kids that matter, not the Title, and not the cash, right?

BCS:An ESPN The Magazine poll in August showed that when players were asked whether they would rather have a college football career with three bowl trips or one playoff trip, 77 percent favored the bowls and only 23 percent wanted a playoff.” – Bill Hancock, Bowl Championship Series executive director on BCSFootball.org

Playoff: If you asked, “Would you rather have a college football career with two bowl trips and a playoff trip or three bowl trips,” my guess is that the majority would prefer at least one title shot along with a free vacation or two. 

BCS: “Division I-AA, II and III playoffs lose money and must be supported by surplus revenues from the Final Four.” - Henry

Playoff: So does pretty much every bowl but the biggest 10, and they are all supported by the big ones.  Additionally, the amount of national interest in Division I-A is so much higher that the interest in the other divisions, that this parallel doesn’t hold up. 

BCS: “Playoff games would have to be played on college campus sites to ensure a crowd for rounds one through three.” [Paraphrasing:]  “Otherwise, crowd support in early round games would be a concern because teams wouldn’t know where they’re playing until only 6 days before the next round.  The Sugar Bowl teams are given 17,500 tickets to sell and would likely swallow many of them.  Basketball tourney teams are given just 750 tickets in the regional rounds and often struggle to sell them.  Attendance would be a huge problem.” – Henry

Playoff: The bowls are currently played at neutral locations, so that part of the argument is moot.  While one week to get fans to mobilize is tougher than one month, I can’t imagine this would truly be a concern in almost all cases.  Additionally, it is reasonable to expect an increase in attendance by more neutral local fans because the games become relevant to all fans, not just fans of the two schools competing.  Boston College and Nevada played 2 miles from my home last night.  Tickets were on Craigslist for as little as $35.  $50 on the 50-yard line.  I am a huge college football fan and it never occurred to me to go to the game.  Had it been a playoff game, even with the same two underwhelming teams, I would certainly have gone and they would have certainly sold out.  Additionally, the other Division I tournament similar in profile, men’s basketball, is played on neutral sites to massive crowds, sometimes five-times more than normal regular season games or more.  And they only get a week’s notice for those games as well. 

As for the tickets allotted, bowl teams have to buy those 17,500-or-so tickets and the schools take a bath almost every time.  Regardless, I imagine most schools would gladly make that investment to make sure they can get in the building every student and alumnus or alumna who wants to be there.

Furthermore, what would be wrong with schools hosting playoff games?  Basically every other sport does it to no negative consequences.  Don’t top seeds deserve home-field advantage?  Won’t it protect the favorites from the small conference winners who perhaps aren’t on par?  So the road fans would only have 6 days to plan travel, but again, that’s how it is with nearly every other sport and anyway, the higher seed’s fans should get the advantage.  Yes, the stadiums may be smaller in some cases and thus revenue would shrink in those cases, but it would also feel less sterile and corporate and would allow (at least half the teams each week) to attend normal classes.  No neutral site reverie like the bowls provide and no corporate media orgies all week (or two), but isn’t this about the football and the kids, anyway?  And besides, couldn’t all those parties and events be held in college towns just as easily as they could be held outside AT&T Park?

BCS: “Playoffs and plus-one systems sound great to the fan because it gives them a better viewing experience. But college athletics should be viewed more like minor league baseball, a breeding ground for potential pros, not a league in and of itself.” – Krystina Lucido from a link on the BCS’ homepage to an article published in December 2010 in the Press Box Online.

Playoff: This is college athletics, not minor league professional athletics.  If we should not view it as “a league in and of itself,” then why is there a BCS at all?  Why aren’t all games considered scrimmages?  Of course there should be a fairly-determined champion and the viewing experience of the fans (students and alumni, especially) is completely relevant. 

BCS: “Playoffs in December would disrupt the exam process.” – Henry

Playoff: Division I-AA, II and III teams seem to have figured this out.  And the BCS causes conflict for academics, as well.  For instance, Auburn and Oregon played the National Championship game on January 10, 2011 and were in town for the game a week earlier…while classes had already begun for the Spring Semester. 

BCS: “The average size of players in Divisions I-AA, II and III are far less than those in Division I-A. Their recovery time is far quicker than the size and strength of players in the largest class. Alabama has already played 13 games. What would be left of its team to play four more games over the next four weeks?” – Henry

Playoff: All players would be at the same disadvantage, so there would be no advantage gained by anyone but those teams strong enough to rest stars.  And is a D-IA player’s recovery time really that much longer?  They are bigger on average, yes, but they’re also more athletic and stronger on average as well.  NFL players are bigger, stronger and more athletic that D-IA players, and they play 16 games plus as many as four postseason games.  Should we get rid of the NFL playoffs and just vote for the Super Bowl competitors after Week 11?

BCS:Even a four-team playoff adds two games to a 12 or 13-game season.  Fourteen games for a student athlete is way too much; this is like a professional schedule” – Mark Even on Bleacher Report

Playoff: Putting the semifinals on January 1 would be best for keeping the New Year’s festival feel.  So the Quarterfinals would be the week before Christmas.  The First Round would be around December 10-15.  Each round could easily be separated by more than a week to allow extra rest.  Currently college football’s regular season generally wraps up by the end of November.  This provides two weeks or more of down time before the playoffs start.  Additionally, schools could cut their regular seasons down to 11 or 12 games, rather than 12 or 13.  Finally, only 8 teams would play more than 1 postseason game.  Four would play more than two.  Two teams would play more than 3.  They are able to handle this at other levels; there is no reason to think they couldn’t do it at D-IA. 

BCS: “A bowl game…is a reward for a team that has had a successful season.

Playoff: So is a playoff game.  And by successful, do you really mean 7-6?  23 bowls teams were 7-6 or worse in 2010-2011.  8 finished under .500.  It’s one thing for the Seahawks to make the postseason with a sub-.500 record because they won their division.  It would have been another if the Cowboys had been invited because they would have sold a lot of tickets. 

BCS: [Paraphrasing] It would be unfair to take the bowl-swag and per diem money away from athletes. - Henry

Playoff: [Washing vomit out of my mouth after reading that argument] Um, I guess they can still get (illegal) benefits from corporate sponsors for playing in playoff games and, obviously, they would still get per diem.

BCS: “Teams spend five to seven days at the bowl site prior to the game. Practice and meetings take up half the day, and players are free to go to the beach or hit the tourist spots/social gatherings up until a day or so before the game. Then, the coaches put in place the normal game procedures.  If there is a playoff, the players know the coaches will fly the team to the game site on Friday, play the game on Saturday and fly home immediately afterwards.” - Henry

BCS: "Add a playoff and the [AT&T Cotton Bowl] Classic experience becomes nothing more than a short business trip. The Cotton Bowl prides itself on creating life-long memories for the student athletes." - Rick Baker, AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic president on BCSFootball.org

Playoff: So the players will spend more time at home and in class, and the teams spend less money on lodgings.  They are not entitled to trips to the beach or tourist spots.  They can do that on their own time and there is no reason that schools should fund it.  Bowl trip festivities seem to blatantly break NCAA rules against improper benefits given to athletes.  Are other non-athletes afforded the same trips? As for memories, I think the winning team would still look back fondly on the game while the losing team would still blame the refs. 

BCS: "[Some] claim the bowls will survive a playoff, but a playoff would put an end to the Maaco Las Vegas Bowl.” - Tina Kunzer-Murphy, Football Bowl Association chairman and Maaco Las Vegas Bowl executive director on BCSFootball.org

Playoff: Perhaps, but it would also be the beginning of a legitimate NCAA Division IA football championship, which is the point, isn’t it?  The Las Vegas Bowl could continue to choose non-tournament teams if they so chose.  Granted, there would be little interest in that game perhaps, but there already is little interest in it.

BCS: “Almost all bowls donate a portion of the local profits to area charity. There is no charity when the NCAA takes over. There is no incentive for a locality to support the local playing of a game other than tourism.” – Henry

Playoff: No charities besides the non-profit universities that would reap huge financial windfalls, right?  As Henry writes, they don’t all donate to charity anyway, so don’t paint them all with a saintly brush.  A lot of money would be lost by venue-area businesses but the point is to choose a national champion in the fairest way possible, not to pimp our finest athletes out to the highest bidder.  The amount of money brought in the participating schools and their local communities would be huge in relation to what they make now, so the point is basically moot. 

BCS: “Bowl games have a great following on television. This past year, the Alamo Bowl between Missouri and Northwestern had higher ratings on ESPN than Duke-North Carolina basketball.” - Henry

Playoff: I’m guessing that Duke-North Carolina game wasn’t a postseason game, or that stat would have been different.  Football is far more popular than basketball; ratings for regular season college football games routinely out-do ratings for regular season college basketball games.  But NCAA Tourney basketball games routinely out-do bowl games.   That same 2008-2009 Alamo Bowl between Missouri and Northwestern got a 4.60 national television rating.  It was the 8th highest rated bowl of that year.  The average bowl game (34 games total) that year drew a 3.99.  The average NCAA basketball tournament game (65 games total) in the same year drew a 5.71.  And keep in mind that the Alamo Bowl (like nearly all bowls) was played on either a holiday, a weeknight in primetime or on a weekend.  Almost half of those 65 basketball games were played on a weekday or before primetime.  And they still outperformed the bowls by an average of 143%

BCS: "January 1 has become internationally known as America's New Year Celebration, and a salute to tradition and a love of pageantry that has thrived in Pasadena since 1902. Without a bowl system and structure in place, college football loses its unique appeal and storied traditions. In its place a corporate sporting environment of a playoff would destroy the experience for all those involved: athletes, host communities and fans alike." -Scott McKibben, Tournament of Roses, Rose Bowl Game executive director on BCSFootball.org

Playoff: The loss of January 1 as a College Football Holiday would be too bad.  And there is something to a pageantry of the January 1 Bowls that would be lost, the Rose Bowl in particular.  However, the BBVA Compass Bowl pitted a 7-5 team against a 6-6 team on January 8, 2011.  The godaddy.com Bowl pitted a 6-6 team and a 9-4 team on January 6, 2011.  It seems to me that the sanctity of January 1 is long gone already.  And are we really arguing that a playoff would create more of a corporate structure than a system of corporate-sponsored bowls?  Also, I’m pretty sure that January 1 is everyone’s New Year Celebration, not just America’s.

BCS: “A large amount of the attendees to these games are students. A playoff series, played in multiple areas, is not conducive to the audience. Students can't travel that much and universities cannot supply that much transportation.” – Lucido

Playoff: This is a good point, but I fall back on the fact that the other divisions of football all do it and play in front of sold out (though smaller) stadiums.  If games were played at home-sites, this would be less of a problem, and again, there would be far more casual local fan interest. 

BCS: Won’t the 17th team complain (probably rightfully) that they deserve a seat at the table just like the 3rd team does now, or the 69th team will in basketball this year?

Playoff: Yes they will, but it’s a lot harder to argue that point when you are barely good enough to be on the national title radar at 17th than when you are 3rd and possibly undefeated.

BCS: The four BCS Bowl venues would never allow a playoff to happen because they currently get to host two games every four years.  With a playoff, even if they kept their name on the playoff games, they’d only get one game per year.

Playoff: Why are non-school, non-conference, and non-NCAA officials making these decisions in the first place?  Also, this could easily be fixed by having a 3rd place game the day before the National Championship game and that third place game could rotate among the big four each year.

BCS: If teams want to make the National Championship game, they should take care of business on the field and make sure they make the top two. 

Playoff: Like TCU going 12-0, Stanford (losing only at #2 Oregon), Wisconsin (losing only at #9 Michigan State), Ohio State (losing only at #5 Wisconsin), Boise State (losing only at #15 Nevada in overtime), or Michigan State (losing only at then #18 Iowa) going 11-1?

BCS: Putting aside all the other bowls, in most years since the BCS worked and got the two best teams in the championship game

Playoff: Except the times that it hasn’t worked.  And again, just because the two best teams faced off for the title, doesn’t mean the third (or others) best teams didn’t also deserve a shot.  It seems that every season we all say, “This is the year that finally proves how terrible this system is,” and yet the next year seems to always make a new and even stronger argument for tearing the system down.

BCS: “College football is the one sport where the regular season counts.” - Henry

Playoff: That’s a bit of a stretch, but it is perfectly accurate to say that it is the one sport where the postseason doesn’t count.

Put plainly, there is simply no good reason for universities to remain in the BCS system.  It clearly does not determine a champion in the best way possible and it doesn’t make them the most money possible.  Austin Murphy and Dan Wetzel wrote a cover story for Sports Illustrated that pointed out the massive amounts of money that universities pay out in order to cover their bowl trips.  From unsold tickets to travel to hotels to meals to media campaigns and events, schools break their banks to get into bowls that don’t wind up earning them any money or get them any closer to a national title.  But bowl organizers reap fortunes from the games, even paying annual salaries over $1 million just for a few days of events.  Their stark picture of the bowl system and the BCS clearly shows that it is the bowl committees making all the money, not the universities or conferences.  And while they are entitled to their entrepreneurial ventures, that simply has nothing to do with football, with schools or with kids. 

And I’ve not even gotten into the ridiculously unfair conference tie-ins that placed unranked Connecticut in a BCS bowl and forced #10 Boise State to play before Christmas.  Nor did I get into the recruiting power that smaller conference schools would gain, thus leveling the playing field, and making it unnecessary for schools to destroy smaller conferences and rivalries by jumping ship in chasing football money.

The bowl organizers say it would ruin them to have a playoff.  Perhaps.  But it should be the schools getting rich, not the party planners.  And while ultimately, college football is extraordinarily popular even with this corrupt and broken system, if you had a car that everyone liked the look of but it didn’t run properly, you’d go get it fixed.  

No comments: