A little over two months ago, I responded to a Sports Illustrated article detailing how unscrupulous business practices are keeping college football fans from a playoff system because bowl organizers are getting rich off advertising revenues and forced ticket sales. I defended the current system, citing a lack of hard evidence in the article that a playoff system would improve anything. I suggested that NCAA regulation of bowl-appearance bonuses for coaches and removal of conference profit-sharing could fix a system without forcing a radical change that I thought would be both costly and rocky in transition. But as the Joker said in “The Dark Knight:” “I’ve had a change of heart.”
I first realized my priorities might be wrong when I read some of the comments readers posted online. They struck me as surprisingly logical, and I found myself agreeing with them. Uh-oh.
In my pro-BCS article, I said “what makes Bowl season great is that for about a month… at just about any time on just about any day you can turn the t.v. on and find bushy-eyed youngsters in sunny stadiums playing great football.” Despite my shifting opinions, I still believed that my support of the BCS bowl system would be validated by all the great bowl games that I’d soon be watching.
Nope. Didn’t happen. Of all the non-BCS bowl games, I don’t think I watched a combined five minutes. Of the BCS bowls themselves, I only watched one: the Rose Bowl, which featured Wisconsin, the only college football team I actively root for. Maybe I watched a bit of the Sugar Bowl, too, just to see if Ohio State could restore some honor to Big Ten conference. I watched even less of the BCS national championship, changing the channel when the game failed to spark my interest in the first 45 seconds. I said that all the great football would justify my support of a highly exploitative system. But actions speak far louder than words, and my actions tell a far different story. If there was great football being played in the Houston Bowl, Emerald Bowl or Outback Bowl, I didn’t bother watching it.
I was perplexed by this rather abrupt about-face, but now I understand why it happened: lack of intrigue. Let’s compare the bowl season with the NCAA basketball tournament. In the 2010 championship game, Butler University faced off against Duke University in Indianapolis. It was the kind of match-up sports writers could only dream of. Here was Butler, a school of 4,500 students that has only sent four players to the NBA. Their opponent: Duke, one of the best college basketball programs in history. Three times as many students. Over 50 NBA draftees. A head coach who in his spare time wins gold medals with the Olympic team. And now the two would contend for a title on Butler’s home turf. Cinderella. David vs. Goliath. The Alamo. Other generic sports metaphor. Only in sports do we get these kind of stories, and they’re what make sports worth watching.
But if Butler and Duke had played just one random basketball game together and then gone their separate ways, would anyone outside of Durham or Indianapolis have cared? Unlikely. Butler needed to win all of those preliminary games to build an aura around itself, to let the media promote the team and convince fans that this was a team worth watching, maybe even worth “believing in.” Butler’s intrigue grew with each successive win. A college football playoff system would do the same thing. If Ohio-Wesleyan beats Brigham Young in the Motor City Bowl and then the season ends, who cares? But if Ohio-Wesleyan goes on and beats, say, Boise State? Then Florida? Then Oregon? Now they’re interesting! That’s the power of the playoffs: they create stories that can’t be told in a single game.
I still believe that losing neutral game sites and bowl credibility will cost the BCS money in advertising and sponsorship. But if they moved to a playoff system with games played at the stadiums of their schools, much of that revenue could probably be replaced with local advertising. Schools would not have to take a bath on ticket sales, and students wouldn’t have to take a bath on travel fees. No more of this “forcing schools to pay for bringing the marching band” crap, either. Perhaps the BCS could even compromise, playing the first couple rounds at school stadiums, then moving “Football’s Final Four” to a neutral site. Corporate sponsors would probably sponsor the semi-finals and championship if it was marketed the same way college basketball is.
As for the lengthened-season issue, all the BCS would need to do is get rid of the three weeks between the end of the regular season and the start of the postseason. No other league waits that long to start its playoffs, because the game-play suffers because the players get rusty. Start the playoffs the week after the regular season ends, maybe throw in an NFL-style first-round bye for the best teams, and call it a day. Or, delay it just enough so that the BCS championship is in the off-week between the NFL conference championships and the Super Bowl. I would guess far more people would tune in to a college football game that mattered over the NFL Pro Bowl.
So down with the BCS, I now say! Bring on brackets and seeding and home-field advantage. All those number-crunchers can keep their jobs for the regular season, figuring out how OSU’s losing to Michigan State affects Auburn’s win over LSU. But when it’s time to crown a national champion, why should the chance be restricted to just two teams, especially when the climb to the top is far harder for some teams than others? Every other college and professional sport championship is decided using a playoff system. It’s time the king of college athletics falls in line with the commoner.