BCS Or Playoff System To Determine Football National Champion?

This year’s Florida-Oklahoma BCS national championship pairing provides strong ammunition for those, including President-elect Barack Obama, advocating there instead should be a playoff system to determine the  NCAA Division I football national champion.  Although Oklahoma and Florida are the two top-ranked teams in the regular season BCS standings, third-ranked Texas defeated Oklahoma 45-35 in October.  Obama’s proposal for an eight-team playoff would work well this year because there are seven one-loss BCS conference teams (but none are undefeated) and two undefeated teams from non-BCS conferences.  (But which one of the nine would be left out?) Obama has suggested he would be willing “to throw his weight around” to make this happen.  What he could do: push to eliminate the federal tax-exempt status of university athletic departments, or perhaps even propose federal legislation to directly regulate the NCAA.  

However, neither is likely to happen because Obama will have more important issues on his plate.  Moreover, reflecting the historically cozy relationship between sports and politics in America, Congress rarely (if ever) has enacted any sports-specific laws that would adversely affect national sports governing bodies and leagues or their respective members.  At most, we might see some future Congressional hearings or calls for a Justice Department investigation regarding whether the BCS system violates the federal antitrust laws — initiated by legislators from states in which a home university’s football team was perceived by constituents to have been treated unfairly.  But, after all is said and done, there will be a lot more said than done.  Besides, Obama’s proposal would make NCAA Division I football even more like the NFL, probably result in the elimination of many of the 34 existing bowl games, and reduce a source of lively debate among college football fans.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. William Ross

    I was a student at Auburn University in 2004. After watching the Tigers go undefeated (in the SEC), and not even have a chance at the title, I cannot help but think the current system is flawed. While I do not generally like the idea of the government becoming involved in sports, the recent announcement that ESPN bought the rights to the BCS beginning in 2011 challenges my opinion on the matter.

    Reports say that ESPN offered $125 million dollars a year for the television, radio, digital, international, and marketing rights to the four bowls within the BCS. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/19/sports/ncaafootball/19bcs.html?ref=sports

    Many people already feel that ESPN exerts too much influence on the BCS system. There is a widespread belief in Auburn that the Tigers were denied a chance at the title game, not because of anything that happened on the field, but because Coach Tuberville said ESPN was too powerful, and then proceeded to disparage analyst Lou Holtz.

    Now that ESPN will own the rights to the system it already largely controls by virtue of its “reporting,” the controversial outcomes will only increase. Controversy fuels shows such as PTI and Around the Horn. Controversy generally raises the interest level in sports. ESPN now stands to reap the benefits of controversies that its own coverage will be able to sow. I do not know what the answer is, and I am not very hopeful that anything will be done.

    I still think that the best outcome is a change in the system brought about by the outcry of fans, coaches, and schools, and not by government action, but the incredible amounts of money being thrown around, in combination with the increasingly all-powerful nature of ESPN do make me consider that college football may be an industry that is worthy of further regulation.

  2. Richard M. Esenberg

    My sense is that a playoff doesn’t happen because of a desire to retain the revenue associated with this gaggle of bowl games.

    But I don’t know why a playoff has to undercut the bowl games. Why not use the BCS system to identify eight finalists. There will still be controversy but it’ll be the rare year when eight will not include every team that can make a legitimate claim for a title shot.

    Then either take the current BCS bowls as quarterfinalists and rotate the semis and championship among the BCS bowl stadiums like is done now for the championship. Or invite the next two strongest bowls (the Cotton and Gator?) and rotate everyone. (The latter would be resisted by the current BCS bowls.)

    It would take three weeks to determine a winner and I don’t see how the other bowls are hurt. None of them would have gotten any of the eight teams anyway.

    We could still debate over the last few out and the seeding.

  3. Spencer Larche

    For all that is good in the world, please do not let the government try and regulate college football. If there is something you need messed up, call in the government. Are there problems in the system — undoubtedly. As an Auburn fan myself (season tickets 2001-2004), I know the pain. But regulation is not the answer.

    As long as consumers continue to watch the 30-something bowl games and ESPN, consumers will continue to get what we have now.

    I have seen in several places where writers advocate a playoff, noting that a four- or eight-team playoff would be even more profitable than the current system due to better match-ups, among other things. While I guess this could be true, I tend to believe that if a playoff really would be more profitable, then those who have the power (and are driven by such financial decisions) would be jumping to move to a playoff. Of course, there may be other considerations that are unknown, but if we are to assume money drives the BCS/ESPN/Conferences, and playoffs truly are more profitable, then why aren’t we seeing a shift to a playoff?

    I think Mr. Ross hit the nail on the head — controversy sells. We need to be upset so that we tune in, but not so upset that we turn off the TV in disgust and vow to never watch another game, listen to another talking head, or buy any collegiate merchandise. I guarantee you that if consumers refuse to tune in and buy merchandise, things will change.

  4. Patrick Sterk

    Firstly, as a public disclosure, I am a proud OU alum and I for one could not be happier with the way that the BCS standings ended up in ’03, ’04, and presently in ’08.

    That being said, the reason why the powers-that-be are against a playoff system is the practice of event planning. With event planning, ESPN/ABC can market the championship game, and the teams which will be involved, for 5+ weeks leading up to the game. Similarly, other favorable matchups of national interest such as USC-Penn State and OSU-Texas can be played up for an entire month themselves. This, however, is only the TV aspect of it all.

    For alumni, boosters, and bigwigs, the bowl game is the one place in which they can all converge for a few days to revel in their shared comraderie for their dear alma mater. The fact that the game is almost always in a warm and sunny locale doesn’t seem to damper their spirits either. With only one postseason game to attend, the fans of each school can devote all of their money to this one trip. Hotels, airfare, meals, souvenirs, and more can, and often are, purchased en masse by the fans who attend the bowl game.

    If a school, such as an Oklahoma or a Florida, expected to reach the title game of an 8-team, 3-round tournament, there would be considerably less incentive to travel to the first round game or to buy the corresponding merchandise of that game in question. Instead, the common fan would save his money for that last big game. Unfortunately, six of those eight fan bases would be left disappointed; their teams would never reach the title game, and thus the fans would never spend the money on the extravagent bowl trip that they had money set aside for. This would result in the fanbases of these playoff schools spending less on average at each bowl game than they would if they were sent to a pre-scheduled, one time postseason event.

    Finally, there is the psychological factor. Because every bowl game which is NOT the national championship game is in actuality nothing more than a glorified scrimmage, each of these bowling teams are put on an egalitarian plateau. A 6-6 Southern Mississippi team that won the “R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl” or a 7-5 Rutgers team that won the “Papajohns.com Bowl” would still be called “bowl champions” in the same breath as USC or Texas, were they to win the Rose and Fiesta bowls, respectively.

    Bowl games make it possible for any program, no matter how lowly, to hope that for just one season the bounces will go their way, the players will fight hard, and their 6 or 7 seven win team can make it to the promised land, the postseason. From there, the bowl game allows the fans to embark on a crusade in the name of their school and a crowning glory on the field for each of the players. This is the magic of the bowl season, and it is a compelling reason why it is not something that is going to be replaced without a fight.

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