SportsBiz: Big Cash Subsidy

The 2009 college football season is over, and a winner of the Bowl Championship Series has been crowned. Which means if you’re a college football follower, there are two things gnawing at you.

First, no matter which team won, you despise the BCS. Second, you or someone you know has a better idea for determining college football’s best team.

The most commonly endorsed scenario – you’ve heard this at least three times this season, usually from a friend who’s on his second beer and has a daughter at Boise State – is to construct a simple bracket-style playoff system that leads, over a span of three weeks, to a singular champion.

Your friend sincerely believes that he, uniquely, has conceived this system, and that if only it could be advanced before college football’s Powers that Be, it would be adopted unanimously and immediately out of recognition for the brilliant plan it is. And then they would name a Bowl after him. And he’d get really good seats each year for the championship game.

Never mind that every Joe or Joan who has given the subject a shred of thought has come up with exactly the same idea, under exactly the same illusion that it would stand a chance of being adopted.

But here’s to them for trying, at least: A playoff system does make perfectly good sense from a standpoint of good ‘ol American competition. Letting ’em line up and play is the credo of nearly every organized sports league. “Can they be right and every other sport be wrong?” asked U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) at a December congressional hearing on college football.

Of course not. The BCS approach to determining a college football champion runs counter to every tradition of fair play, in that it substitutes guesswork, computer models and pre-determined participants in place of honest gamesmanship.

But let’s be grown-ups here, sports fan. Your anger over the BCS has been misdirected from the start. You’re coming at the issue of a college football championship formula from the wrong place. You presume it’s about football, about competition.

You’re so cute.

What happens on the field is peripheral to the BCS’s mission. The BCS is about distributing income from a college bowl economy that generates roughly $250 million per year. It is a closed system for rewarding insiders – mainly the six collegiate conferences that receive automatic placement in BCS-sanctioned bowl games.

The other day at the hearing conducted by a U.S. House subcommittee, Barton, in a huff, was struck by this very revelation. “We have a system that is designed as an economic cartel,” he complained.

Give that man a prize!

Oh, we know: You’ve thought about this, too. Your playoff system would increase the number of games played by Texas and Florida and Michigan and USC and the occasional Cincinnati or TCU, showering those schools and their respective conferences with incremental revenue.

Except for one minor wrinkle: What if they don’t make it? What’s the incentive for a collegiate athletic conference to replace a guaranteed, large revenue stream with a riskier approach that may leave it empty-handed? Why should Notre Dame, which enjoys a unique entry path to BCS participation and receives $1.3 million each year from the BCS, no questions asked, relinquish its special status?

Last month, the House Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection subcommittee passed a measure that would ban the advertisement of any postseason NCAA Division 1 football as a “national championship” game unless a true playoff system was in place. (Yeah, that’ll show ’em.)

The bill faces big hurdles, not the least of which is legitimate concern over whether football ought to be occupying the attention of a Congress dealing with broader public policy issues. In truth, about the only way your buddy’s playoff system dream will come true is if it can preserve guaranteed revenues for the current BCS signatories while producing incremental revenue to be shared among newcomers.

Figuring out that plan may take a little more time at the drawing board. But at least you’ll be focusing on what really matters.

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