Sports Law Blog
All things legal relating
to the sports world...
Tuesday, November 04, 2008
Decision 2008: Should the BCS Stay or Go?

Although there are obviously more important issues at stake in the 2008 Presidential Election, the elimination of the computer-oriented "Bowl Championship Series" system (better known as the BCS) would be preferred by one of the two persons who will become our next President. In last night's Monday Night Football telecast of the Eagles-Cowboys game, Senator Barack Obama said:
"I think it is about time that we had playoffs in college football. I'm fed up with these computer rankings and this and that and the other. Get eight teams — the top eight teams right at the end. You got a playoff. Decide on a National Champion."
Supporters of the BCS would probably disagree with Senator Obama, noting that the BCS--which came into existence 10 years ago--uses a complicated math formula for a reason: to ensure fairness when evaluating teams that play opponents of varying quality. The many critics of the BCS, however, would respond that the BCS is much more about making money for schools, conferences, TV networks, merchants, and many others (though not the players on the field) than about determining who should be considered the best teams. I should note that our blog has featured some excellent and critical commentary on the BCS -- see Geoff's "BCmesS: The 2008 Edition", Rick's "The BCS System: Could it be an Illegal Restraint on Trade?" and Greg's "BCS: A Collection of Haves and Have Nots".

One quick background point: although it is often linked to the NCAA, the BCS is not formally part of the NCAA. It is a committee of persons associated with the 11 Division 1-A conferences as well as Notre Dame who manage the 5 bowl games and who execute contracts with companies to sponsor and broadcast those games. In theory, the NCAA could promulgate a playoff system like the one mentioned by Senator Obama and it could effectively replace the BCS. But that doesn't appear to be happenning anytime soon, though perhaps today's election could change that.


If there is ever going to be a college football playoff system, it is going to be driven by financial issues as opposed to legal or political issues. That is, the BCS conferences currently control over 90% of college football's bowl revenue, so any playoff system must either maintain or even enhance that revenue disparity (regardless of whether this is "fair"). As you pointed out, the NCAA does not have control over this issue, so any playoff system that has any iota of a chance of being implemented must have the BCS conferences at the head of the table (as opposed to being imposed on the conferences, as a number of sports fans seem to want). So, I think that any "reasonable" playoff system will need to be structured in a way where the lion's share of the money and access go to the BCS conferences just as it is done now, which removes any chance of an NCAA Tournament-style system. The fans of the non-BCS conferences may cry foul on this, but the fact is that if those fans ask for "all or nothing" on this issue, then the BCS conferences will immediately say "nothing" since they don't have a financial incentive to throw the current system out.

Thus, I think the best compromise would be a relatively simple procedure: take the 4 BCS bowl games, keep the traditional conference tie-ins (i.e. the Rose Bowl always has the Big Ten vs. Pac-10), have the next 2 highest ranked teams that are not BCS conference champions invited as at-large bids, and then make that into an 8-team playoff. I outlined this proposal in detail on my blog a couple of years ago:

The Best of Both Worlds: A Modest Proposal for a College Football Playoff That Keeps the Bowls

This keeps the BCS conferences in power, provides a reasonable structure to determine a national champion, maintains the Big Ten/Pac-10 control of the Rose Bowl (which is essential to getting those conferences to come aboard - they are adamant in not agreeing to any type of system where there is straight seeding), and at the end of the day is an addition to the bowl system that is already in place as opposed to replacing anything (which means the BCS conferences will make even more money than they do now, which is key). Plus, this removes the traditionalist argument about the importance of the regular season in college football today - if anything, the regular season will be enhanced because every BCS conference race will have an impact on the national championship picture (as opposed to what we have now, where the last month of the season will only be focused on the last three undefeated BCS teams).

Once again, the whole point of this proposal is not to make it "fair" for the non-BCS conferences - in fact, that's the reason why I believe that the BCS conferences would actually agree to this type of playoff system. Taking a hatchet to current bowl system will not get anywhere if sports fans really want progress on this issue - if the BCS conferences can't unequivocally state that a playoff system is better for them financially at the end of the day (and by that, I mean that they maintain the huge revenue disparity between them and non-BCS conferences), then it's going to be thrown out the window on sight.

OpenID frankthetank -- 11/04/2008 2:04 PM  

Frank--I fear it will come down to a legal issue, namely the 8000-lb. gorilla hanging over college sports:


BUT, if a playoff does happen, I still suggest a 16-team playoff; the conference champion from each of the conferences (that's 11, currently), plus the independent team with the best won-loss record, plus four at-large teams with the following provisos:

(1) No more than two [2] teams from any conference.

(2) The at-large teams must be either:
(A) The team that loses the conference title game, OR
(B) The team that finishes second in the conference standings (if no title game).
[Should either be a team on probation, the next team in line would go as determined by the conference.]

(3) At-Large teams would ALWAYS play on the road in the first round.

(4) Matchups could be determined in any way--by teams' record (head-to-head if possible), record vs. common opponents, conference's non-conference won-loss records, or any other method--as long as point (3) above is kept in mind. (Also, if possible, teams in the first round should NOT have played each other during the regualr season.)

(4) No moving games to "neutral" sites, barring unforeseen circumstances! (I.E. If Florida, as a second place team, is drawn to play Boise State, the Gators MUST play at Boise--no moving the game to Denver, say, or New Orleans, or Gainsville!)

(5) In terms of the money: The TV money could be split evenly, plus the gate money could be split as normal--such that a team getting into the playoff would have its expenses covered PLUS be able to give some to the other teams in their conference (as done with the money from March Madness and football bowl games). Given the interest such a playoff would generate, even a first-round game should bring in some millions for each team (imagine what a national title game might bring in, in terms of money--maybe not Super Bowl-type numbers, but not chump change).

I could go on, but here's my idea for a playoff--maybe Pres.-elect Obama as a different idea.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 11/06/2008 11:34 AM  

Post a Comment