By Katie Kieffer
It’s college football championship season and time for the annual debate on whether to keep the current Bowl Championship Series (BCS) or switch out to a playoff system. Last fall, I blogged about this topic here and here to show why politicians should leave football alone. I still think politicians should stay out of sports and focus on bigger issues like national security and job creation.
The problem is, pro-playoff politicians like Sen. Orin Hatch (R-Utah) are trying to throw mud on the BCS’ face and financial heavyweights like billionaire Mark Cuban are lobbying politicians for a playoff system. Since outspoken politicians and lobbyists on the left and the right favor a playoff, the debate is not going away any time soon.
Regardless of whether you favor a playoff system or the BCS, most of us can agree that the NCAA can figure out the best way to crown a champion without politicians and lobbyists getting involved. I reviewed some of the strongest arguments in favor of switching to a playoff system. While the BCS is complicated and imperfect, it still makes the most sense:
BCS Execs are different from Wall Street Fat-Cats
The playoff system crowd is now painting the college bowl CEOS as greedy and corrupt execs similar to the Bernie Madoffs and Kenneth Lays of the world. TIME Magazine recently blasted the executives who run the bowls for their high salaries (about 24 execs earn over $300,000 annually according to 2007 federal tax filings). TIME Magazine implied that the bowl executives do not work hard enough to justify such salaries.
While it’s true that the average executive salary for nonprofits with comparable operating budgets to the bowls is $185,270, it does not follow that it’s immoral for college football bowl executives to earn about twice the average. Some nonprofits require large staffs and cannot afford to pay their chief executives as much as nonprofits with smaller staffing needs. The CEO of the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, Gary Cavalli, has just two full-time staff members, for example.
Furthermore, a six-figure position as an executive of a college football bowl is certainly an enviable position, but, it is not an illegal position. Corporate sponsors like GODADDY, AT&T, Allstate and Discover see the bowls as exceptional marketing opportunities. They give enough money to the non-profit bowls so that they can hire executives who will work hard to host successful bowls that draw maximum attention to their brands.
Student athletes prefer the BCS
Some argue that a playoff system would provide more students opportunities to showcase their skills in front of a national audience of potential recruiters, fans and sponsors. They think that a playoff system would be more equitable and give more schools the opportunity to participate in top-tier championship games.
In fact, an August 2010 ESPN poll of student athletes revealed that students prefer the bowls to a playoff system 77 to 23. Students have more to gain from a bowl system including:
- More time to study for December finals.
- Ample recovery time – crucial for a high-impact sport like football, particularly at the Division I-A level where players are larger than players in lower divisions where playoff systems reign.
- A rewarding, week-long experience of memorable football, family and friendship instead of four weeks of high-pressure games across the country.
BCS gives fans a better experience
The day after the college football season ends in late November, you know what bowl your team is going to. Fans have an entire month to plan to attend their team’s bowl appearance. Bowl games are a big draw for cold weather team fans, who get a chance to watch their team play in a warm bowl host state. For example, in the Rose Bowl matchup of TCU vs. Wisconsin, the Badgers brought close to 60,000 fans to the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, CA.
The BCS is financially viable
Perhaps the biggest reason to keep the BCS system is that it is financially sound. A playoff system is already in place for Divisions I-AA, I, II and III, and all of these playoffs lose money.
In contrast, a bowl system motivates players and their family and friends to make a trip out of the single game that matters. It is typical for players and fans to spend five to seven days in the bowl host city – providing a boost to the local economies. For example, “the 2010 Sugar Bowl generated $137 million for New Orleans via spectators’ meals, hotel rooms and shopping,” reports TIME Magazine.
A bowl system generates more attendance than a playoff system. Former Division I Athletics Director, Butch Henry, states:
“The Sugar Bowl provides each team 17,500 tickets to sell to fans and students. How many teams would sell 17,500 tickets on a Monday after a victory for a game the following Saturday 10 hours away? You say it works in college basketball. Well, teams in the regional round only receive 750 tickets and often struggle to sell those. Teams receive 3,500 tickets for a Final Four, and just four years ago, LSU, Florida and George Mason failed to sell their respective allotments. No, attendance would be a major problem in a football playoff system.”
If college football converted to a playoff system, TV ratings would be a challenge. No one wants to watch a game on TV with empty stands. Football stadiums are significantly larger than basketball arenas. If the Final Four scrambles to sell playoff tickets in arenas that seat under 25,000, how could the NCAA fill college football stadiums that seat 70,000-plus attendees? A bowl system allows enough time for fans to juggle schedules, purchase tickets and find flights.
The BCS is fair
You might think that the BCS is unfair because there can be scenarios like this year’s where an undefeated team, namely TCU, didn’t advance after winning the Rose Bowl.
But there were two other undefeated teams – Oregon and Auburn – which belong to better conferences. The BCS polls determined Auburn and Oregon to be the two best teams, and rightly so. For one thing, it is much harder to go undefeated in the SEC conference or the Pac-10 conference than in the Mountain West conference. College football fans can rest assured that the two best teams will play each other in the national championship.
Ryan Thurman of the Herald points out:
“…playoffs work in basketball and in professional sports, but college football has a unique system that lends its race for the top a bit of intrigue. Yes, the best team of the year may not always be crowned in an appropriate and definitive fashion, but it’s different enough that the allure of the very unique game of college football doesn’t get lost. Throw in a bunch of playoff games that dilute the regular season, which is what actually makes college football entertaining, and you take away the thrill of knowing that every Saturday is like a playoff game.”
No better proposal available
A playoff proposal from billionaire Mark Cuban is gaining press and traction. Cuban is a basketball guy: He owns the Dallas Mavericks. Filling out a bracket and watching a playoff are second nature to him. Cuban plans to pitch his proposal by lucratively rewarding college administrators who promise to accept offers to enter a playoff system.
Ultimately, my main issue with his proposal is not that it’s pro-playoff but the way he’s going about it. Cuban will pressure schools to accept a playoff system by offering them financial incentives that they can’t resist. He’s also going to start lobbying politicians to buy into his proposal. So, it seems like it requires bribes and political lobbying to work. ESPN reports:
“Put $500 million in the bank and go to all the schools and pay them money as an option,” Cuban said. “Say, ‘Look, I’m going to give you X amount every five years. In exchange, you say if you’re picked for the playoff system, you’ll go.’”
College football needs a system that suits its unique needs. Lobbyists like Cuban and politicians like the President and Sen. Hatch should stay out of college football and let the players and fans decide how to crown their champion.