Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Bowl Blackmail

The BCS always reminds me of the national healthcare crisis; everyone knows something's wrong, but no one has a plan everyone can agree on.

Which makes no sense. College basketball has a great playoff system, which not only provides an undisputed national champion, but also generates so much interest, it actually cuts into the nation's work productivity. And college football is way more popular than its little cousin, college basketball. Even college Divisions 1-AA, II and III have a playoff system. So what's the haps with big-time college football?

As usual, it starts and ends with money. Bowl games generate mondo money for the sponsors and the city sites. As Franz Beard wrote on "The bowls exist to sell hotel rooms, dinner at restaurants and tickets to tourist attractions in the cities where games are played. The payout to college football is miniscule in comparison to the amount of loot that college football fans spend in bowl cities. The economic impact of the bowls is a big deal for the power conferences but there isn't the shared revenue effect of the NCAA basketball tournament, which actually puts far more cold hard cash in the hands of the schools that need it than the bowls ever have or ever will. The revenue potential for a 16-game college football playoff over four weeks is far greater than that of the basketball tournament but as long as the bowls continue to ante up more blackmail money --- and let's face it, that's what it is --- the athletic directors and university presidents feel no need to give the fans that actually pay the freight for college football what they want."

Simply put, afraid of losing these cash cows, the playoff system everyone is begging for gets the kibosh.

Kirk Herbstreit was asked Wednesday on ESPN about a playoff system, and he put it ominously, but simply: "Never gonna happen."

Another problem is Big Southern School arrogance. Since the majority of these bowl games are played in the South, a team like Boston College which played well and deserves a major bowl bid gets screwed out of one in Atlanta or Tampa because the Bowl commissioners would rather have a close by team like Georgia Tech or Florida State—even if Boston College (or whichever northern team) beat them or had a better record. See, the Bowl commissioners know that fans from southern schools are closer, so are more likely to travel to the bowl, get hotel rooms, spend money in bars and restaurants, etc. The same goes for smaller schools—a Boise State. Since they haven't had a winning football program for as long as Georgia or USC—and as big a traveling fan base— they get penalized. Even if Boise State, or Marshall or Akron goes perfect for the entire season, it will never, ever have a shot at national championship because the Powers That Be in college football won't allow it.

And that's a shame. It proves that performance on the field matters less than cash in hand. And that doesn't only hurt the players and the schools—it hurts the game itself. Because while bowl games might be fun, the deck is stacked against truly iconic moments ever happening in college football. A Cinderella moment—a no 8th seeded Villanova running through the tournament and upsetting Georgetown—will never occur because of the bowl blackmail.

Dan Weitzel (of Yahoo Sports) recently wrote the umpteen thousandth article proposing a college football playoff system. The difference with his, is that his modest proposal actually was well thought out and well designed. Therefore, it'll never work. Let's take a look at it anyway.

Basically it's a 16 team round robin, where 16 plays 1, 2 plays 15 and so on for 4 rounds, until you have a national champion. The teams are selected as in college basketball with 11 automatic bids going to conference champions, and 5 at-large bids which would go to the highest ranked teams. What's great about this is that now smaller conferences get to play for something substantial: a chance to go to the dance and become the next George Mason, the next Valparasio. Potentially an Appalachian State now would have a Cinderella-like Bowl Series.

Also, while teams left out of the 16 would complain—there are always bubble teams who complain in college basketball—what this system does is ensure that an unbeaten team would never get left out of the hunt for the championship. (Auburn 2004 anyone?)

The next part of this plan would be controversial, but the idea has merit. The first three rounds of these games would be at the team with the higher seeds' home field—as is done in the NFL. You know, though, the owners of the bowls as they are right now would throw the Grandmother of all hissyfits once they hear of this plan. Not only is there a playoff system, but now the games aren't in New Orleans, or Tempe or Miami, but in Columbus, Eugene or Norman? Hissyfits aside, the plan has merit because it forces teams to play for the highest seed possible, even if they have their conference wrapped up—home field advantage is a good incentive to play hard the entire season.

But, as Wetzel writes, (and I have to admit, I thought of a while back when I was coming up with my own playoff system), bowl games could still exist. For the other 113 teams not in the playoffs, you could still have a bunch of bowl games whenever, and wherever you want. (And thank god, we salvaged the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl.) And Pasadena, Miami, New Orleans, or wherever you wish, could still account for the neutral site championship game—call it the Rose Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, whichever.

But when money is involved, I have very little faith. Herbstreit said on ESPN, "Never gonna happen," and I can't say I disagree. As long as the people who decide are hostage to the people holding the money, the true champion-deciding playoffs the fans want and the players deserve will never happen. And you know what they call that:

They call that blackmail.


Pete S said...

Poignant opinion on the bowl system. The 16 team format is an interesting idea. I have always thought 8 teams would suffice. You could do the national championship game the weekend before the Super Bowl when the NFL is off. It wouldn't be a perfect system, but it's better than what they have now.

The only reason this year has been the most interesting one in years in college football is that the number 1 or number 2 team in the country (at the time) has gotten knocked off so frequently this year. I'm going to watch Missouri play. I forgot Mizzou had a team...that 5 down game against Colorado some years back and the receiver on the Jets seemed to be Mizzou's claim to fame outside the basketball season until a few weeks ago. I hope they win it all and the greedy power teams push for a play off. It will never happen, though.

Unfortunately, money talks, but at least I've read some interesting opinions on potential college football play off formats.

P-Cat said...

Thanks Pete for your comments. The reason I think the 16-team playoff system might work is because its so damn long between the end of the season and the big bowls. Ohio State, if they get to the Championship Game would have been off for about 5-6 weeks!!

As for Misouri, I forgot it was even a state.