- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2004

The revenue generated by college football’s Bowl Championship Series is unprecedented, an annual windfall that, including the lesser bowls, amounted to $185 million this go-round for participating schools and conferences.

The pageantry, pomp and traditions of the end-of-the-season bowls remain intact. And in most years, an attractive title game is delivered.

Yet something is missing. Call it mainstream buzz. Call it goodwill toward the sport. Or call it fan fatigue after decades of infighting by college football’s fiefdoms.

For many, the BCS delivers only slightly more joy than a Redskins home game.

Oklahoma, a team that lost its conference championship game four weeks ago, plays LSU tonight in the Sugar Bowl for the national title. But USC, the No. 1 team in both major human polls, beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl on Thursday, making another split championship and muted interest in tonight’s game all but certain.

Average TV ratings for the BCS title contest have shown no elevation from major bowl games prior to the game’s 1998 formation. Combined attendance at the four BCS bowl games (Rose, Sugar, Orange and Fiesta) declined three of the past four years.

And water-cooler discussion about college football almost always fixates on the flawed system, instead of which team is truly superior or who’s throwing the best party to watch the games.

“Consumers of college football would obviously prefer to see a playoff system,” says Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economics professor who writes frequently on college sports. “It would enhance the legitimacy of the competition, and almost certainly deliver more revenue. But we’re clearly dealing with a very entrenched power system.”

A hopeful beginning

Hope dominated cynicism five years ago. After more than 50 years of seemingly ironclad alliances between various conferences and individual bowls, particularly the Big Ten and Pac-10 with the Rose Bowl, the BCS broke through in early 1998 with a new structure created in the name of delivering a true national champion.

The four major bowls rotate the privilege of playing host to the national title game. Participants in that final clash are selected using a complex numerical formula that compiles win-loss records, quality of victories, strength of schedule, human polls and series of computerized rankings.

Many fans hated the fact that computer models gained such powerful influence on selecting competitors for the national title — and still do. But the initial returns on the BCS, particularly those pertaining to money, were staggering.

ABC signed on for exclusive TV rights to all the BCS bowl games and just two years later extended the deal through January 2006 at a cost of more than $900 million. Payouts from the four major bowls nearly doubled overnight and now stand at about $14 million for each team in each game.

The lesser bowls, though far less lucrative for everyone involved, also were able to up their payouts, fueled primarily by ABC’s raising the bar on rights fees.

“The BCS has unquestionably accomplished a lot of its objectives,” says Neal Pilson, former CBS Sports president and an industry consultant, including to the Rose Bowl. “They wanted increased emphasis on the regular season and they certainly got that.”

The BCS money also makes its way across much of college football, thanks to a complex revenue-sharing system. The BCS, comprising six major conferences (Atlantic Coast, Southeastern, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, and Pac-10), will share an anticipated $83.3 million from the BCS games, derived largely from ABC, ticket sales and sponsorships.

The split among the six conferences is roughly equal. But the two conferences that land a second team in the BCS bowls — in this year’s case, the Big Ten and the Big 12 — each receive an additional payment of $4.5 million, taken from the larger sum.

Biggest thing out there’

Participants in the Rose Bowl each year also get additional money outside this defined BCS largess, as that event pays them through a slightly different financial arrangement. Those Rose Bowl payments boosts the total windfall from the major bowls to nearly $120 million.

From there, each conference has its own internal revenue-sharing formula, each operating with a general philosophy of economically propping up the entire conference.

Teams participating in the BCS bowls typically receive travel stipends from their conferences to help with the cost of playing the game. The teams then cash in through subsequent ticket and merchandise sales, alumni donations and even local broadcasting rights.

The BCS system continues to generate heated criticism over a lack of inclusion for lesser football conferences. Only teams from the six major conferences have automatic berths in the four BCS bowls.

Gaining at-large entry, even with a sparkling win-loss record, is all but impossible in practical terms. Only Notre Dame, a storied independent that carries its own network TV deal with NBC, has made the BCS bowls from outside the major conferences.

But the rest of Division 1-A and 1-AA conferences without automatic berths will receive a total of $6 million this year and $42 million over the first eight years of the BCS.

ABC, believed to be losing money on the BCS TV deal, claims to be happy with the arrangement. And with some reason. Despite stagnant ratings, the BCS title game delivers a wider audience than anything else in sports except the NFL, major parts of the Olympics, and a few must-see baseball postseason games.

The BCS imbroglio is helping ABC increase its ad prices, this year reaching about $1.2 million per minute of ad time during the major bowls. And even without bona fide profits, those eyeballs are valuable fodder to promote other network programming.

“Other than the Super Bowl, [the BCS title game] is really the biggest thing out there for a single sporting event,” says Loren Matthews, ABC Sports senior vice president of programming. “We think this has been terrific.”

Where it all went wrong

Amid all the money and ratings is the inescapable feeling that college football’s grandest showcase could be a lot more grand.

USC already has done what lobbying it could to make tonight’s Oklahoma-LSU game meaningless.

“We really do feel like we’re national champions,” USC coach Pete Carroll said after his decisive 28-14 victory over the Wolverines. “Somebody else might tell us we’re not, but I promise you we’re not going to believe them.”

History tells us what the public thinks when a team deemed less than worthy enters the title game.

Two years ago, Nebraska made the BCS title game, edging out Colorado in the ratings just days after losing to the Buffaloes by 26 points. Miami capped an undefeated season and temporarily spared the nation further BCS debate by handily beating Nebraska.

But TV viewership for the game was easily the second-lowest for any bowl game delivering a piece of the national title in the last decade.

“The [Sugar Bowl] matchup isn’t quite as compelling, but the storyline is still there, and what ABC and sponsors will be looking at is cumulative ratings for all four [BCS] bowls,” Mr. Pilson says. “Most sponsors are buying this as an entire package, so that number is important to a lot of people.”

What’s more, a revisionist spirit exists among those running the system. After years of painstaking effort to develop a reliable way to extract the two best teams for a head-to-head meeting, Mr. Matthews and others say the debate about who belongs in tonight’s game “adds to the spice of the bowl season.”

“We never guaranteed an absolute No. 1 versus No. 2 every year,” says Roy Kramer, former commissioner of the Southeastern Conference and godfather of the current BCS system. “We’ve had split champions before and the world didn’t come to an end. We’re not the NFL, and we shouldn’t be. And a playoff isn’t going to end the controversy.”

Potential fixes

A full playoff, even among the top four teams, is not coming to college football before the 2006 end of the current BCS TV deal with ABC. That much is certain.

Add college football’s historically slow decision-making and myriad disparate parties benefiting from the current bowl structure, and that further distances fans’ hope for sweeping, meaningful reform.

But there does seem to be acknowledgement, despite the revisionist history, that change is needed.

The Senate Judiciary Committee took some interest in the BCS debate, particularly on restraint-of-trade grounds. Little force has come from Capitol Hill, though, beyond the holding of hearings, most recently two months ago, and rattling of sabers, particularly by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican.

In a more meaningful move, BCS commissioners and university presidents began to talk quietly about several smaller tweaks to the system.

Among those ideas: adding one game to allow two top teams among bowl winners to meet for the title; mandating a conference champion play in the BCS title game; and adding a provision that if one team is voted No.1 in both major human polls, as USC was this year, that team has an automatic berth in the BCS title game.

A slate of potentially important BCS meetings is set for April. ABC, the one party paying most of the BCS bill, is expected to weigh in with ideas, but the network’s position is not clear.

“We’ll be very opinionated, just behind closed doors,” Mr. Matthews says. “But would we be opposed to discussing a playoff? Absolutely not.”

Still, what seemingly everyone wants and agrees would generate an ultimate windfall — a playoff with at least eight teams — is not coming anytime soon.

“I don’t see a lot of momentum to really extend the season,” Mr. Kramer says. “And everyone keeps saying the BCS broke down this year. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

And the debate continues.

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