Supporters of a playoff for major-college football believe they have a strong advocate in new President Barack Obama.
But will the inauguration Tuesday of a man who won the presidency on a platform of change lead to a shake-up of college football’s postseason?
The Bowl Championship Series was formed in 1998 to crown a definitive national champion. It relies on a combination of polls and computer rankings to determine which teams play in the BCS national-championship game and help set the lineups for the most prestigious bowl games.
The formula has been tweaked over the years, but changes have done little to quell discontent. This year, undefeated Utah and one-loss USC and Texas all complained after they were left out of the national-title game.
Obama has voiced his support for a playoff at least four times.
“If you’ve got a bunch of teams who play throughout the season, and many of them have one loss or two losses, there’s no clear decisive winner,” Obama said on 60 Minutes in November. “We should be creating a playoff system.”
After Florida won the BCS championship game and was declared the national champion despite Utah’s 13-0 record and a 31-17 win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, Obama continued to question the system.
“That’s why we need a playoff,” Obama said.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, has drafted a bill that seeks to prohibit the promotion, marketing or advertising of any national championship game that isn’t part of a playoff system.
Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, has sponsored a measure that would declare the BCS an illegal restraint of trade.
Rep. Aldolphus Towers, D-N.Y., the new chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told USA Today that he plans a hearing on how to get the BCS to use a playoff system.
Will these power players be able to speed up an evolution of the game that rarely bows to pressure and moves at a glacier’s pace?
Experts say a playoff is unlikely despite support from high-ranking officials.
Even Tulane President Scott Cowen, who in 2003 led successful lobbying of Congress to gain more BCS access for schools like his, doesn’t expect change to come to college football even if it has come to Washington.
“Even though there is a cry for a playoff, I think it’s unlikely we will see it in any reasonable period of time,” he said.
Resistant to change
To understand why, one must first understand what the BCS is.
The BCS is simply an agreement between Division I-A’s 11 conferences and Notre Dame to control college football’s postseason revenue and keep it out of the hands of the NCAA, which controls postseason championship revenue distribution for all other sports. The mission is simple—produce teams ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in a computer ranking so they can play for a trophy. In that regard, the system has never failed even if there is annual debate over the matchup.
It’s a compromise designed to quell public clamor for a “true” No. 1 while protecting the traditional bowls and keeping the most money in the hands of the most prominent schools. The six conferences with automatic BCS bids and Notre Dame were awarded about 78 percent — or $580 billion — of the BCS payout from 2003-07, according to NCAA statistics.
Critics say a playoff would generate even more money for the schools, with conventional thinking being that a college football playoff TV deal would dwarf the NCAA’s $6 billion deal with CBS for its men’s basketball tournament.
John Swofford, ACC commissioner and current coordinator of the BCS, agrees. A playoff would be lucrative. It’s also not the answer now.
“We are … not at a point where there’s a willingness to go to a playoff, knowing full well that a playoff would generate more money for the postseason,” Swofford said.
Conference commissioners and university presidents are resistant to any change that would extend the season into the spring semester or interfere with fall semester exams.
Swofford also said the conferences would be hesitant to adversely impact the traditional bowl lineup.
TV contracts with the current BCS lineup run through the 2013 season, with ESPN outbidding Fox to take over the broadcast of BCS games starting in 2011. The network will pay $500 million over four years for the broadcast rights.
Don’t expect ESPN to exert playoff pressure.
“I just don’t think it’s appropriate for us to put down ultimatums or to make unsolicited suggestions about how they should run their sport,” said Burke Magnus, ESPN senior vice president of college sports programming.
Magnus said the bowl structure draws great television ratings for the network. Ratings for the BCS championship game broadcast on Fox were up 18 percent and 17 of 27 non-BCS bowls saw ratings increases over last year. Four bowl games broadcast on ESPN saw double-digit ratings increases.
Gary Roberts, a veteran sports law professor at Indiana University who has studied the BCS extensively, sees two big obstacles to a playoff: the Big Ten and Pac-10. Those conferences have had lucrative agreements with the Rose Bowl since the 1940s and don’t intend to relinquish them.
“You really can’t hold a playoff without support from a huge chunk of teams,” Roberts said. “I think the BCS presidents would fight a playoff until the bitter end, but they would be open to making it easier to reach the national championship game.”
SEC Commissioner Mike Slive proposed a plus-one format last year, but it was rejected by the 11 Division I conference commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director who cast votes on BCS changes. The plus-one format is a mini-playoff, with the four major bowl games played as scheduled and the winners ranked again to determine which of those teams should play in the BCS championship game.
“At least in this generation of presidents and most commissioners, I don’t see an interest in moving to a playoff,” Slive said. “Plus-one is something that deserves legitimate opportunity.”
While BCS leaders aren’t embracing change, some politicians are eager to force a makeover.
One of the most interesting comes from Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who is investigating the BCS for possible violation of federal antitrust laws because the Utes were left out of the national championship game following their second undefeated season in five years. The Sherman Antitrust Act prohibits monopolies and the restriction of competition.
Proponents of a playoff argue the BCS unfairly concentrates profits among power conferences and hurts competition. BCS leadership points out every Division I school voted for the format and that the system has made football more lucrative for all.
“It’s a case in which both sides have good arguments,” Roberts said. “… It all comes down to whether the BCS’ anti-competitive benefits are greater than the pro-competitive benefits.”
Roberts said “non-BCS” schools — those from leagues without automatic bids — would fear a backlash and are unlikely to challenge the system in court. But the Utah attorney general could bring his case before a favorable judge and jury.
“It would probably force them to continue slowly relaxing the requirements to get into BCS games,” Roberts said.
Swofford said legal advisers have worked to “make certain that the main structure of the BCS is within the antitrust laws.”
“And we’re comfortable, our legal people are comfortable, that … the BCS structure indeed is,” he said.
Roberts said the political banter about the BCS is unlikely to yield reform because the BCS schools wield a lot more clout on Capital Hill.
“The football and basketball coaches from BCS conferences are like rock stars during those hearings and a lot of those congressmen will end up asking for autographs instead of having a real debate,” Roberts said. “Even if the BCS is ruled in violation of antitrust laws, they’re a politically powerful group that can just go and get a waiver from Congress allowing them to keep the current system.”
Swofford emphasized that the BCS allowed Utah to shine against a tough Alabama team and earn recognition for having a strong football team.
He also said the BCS isn’t deaf to public outcry, but it has to be weighed against the logistics of making major changes.
“The desires of the public may not always be the same as the desires of the decision-makers in higher education about how to handle a sport,” Swofford said. “ . . . But you know, I think you always want to keep your pulse on public opinion and particularly how college football fans feel about the sport overall.”