- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2006

It works for college hoops. Why can’t it work for football, too? Installing a playoff tournament to replace the much-hated Bowl Championship Series system seems like such a logical and simple idea. At long last, the annual controversy over college football’s Division I-A champion would end.

But despite several decades worth of arguments and pleadings from college football fans, the sport appears nowhere close to installing a true playoff system. The BCS — with its mixture of computer and human polls to determine which teams will face each other in a national title game — is widely seen as an improvement over earlier systems that relied solely on polls to determine the national champion. But fans of top-performing teams, such as undefeated Auburn in 2004 or Michigan this season, are especially vocal in pushing for a tournament-style playoff.

Many of the playoff systems proposed by media members and fans involve eight or 16 teams, with the current BCS bowl games used as four of those games. For instance, under an eight-team format, the Rose Bowl and Fiesta Bowl could play host to two semifinal games, with the Orange Bowl playing host to the championship and the Sugar Bowl playing host to a quarterfinal. The major bowls then would rotate positions in the playoff.

It all seems to make sense, on paper. But efforts to turn paper into a new system have hit their share of roadblocks.

The money issue

It’s clear that television networks are willing to pay big bucks to televise college football’s postseason. Last year, the BCS pulled in $126 million from its bowls, including $81 million from television rights and title sponsorships. That amount likely will be even higher this year because of the addition of a separate national championship game and a new contract from Fox, which is paying $83 million annually for the rights to televise the Sugar Bowl, Orange Bowl, Fiesta Bowl and championship game through 2010. (ABC is in the first year of a separate $300 million deal to televise the Rose Bowl through 2014.)

But sports media rights analysts and consultants said networks could pay as much as $500 million a year for the rights to televise a college football playoff, making it nearly as valuable as the men’s NCAA basketball tournament (though no official estimates ever have been made public). The addition of Internet, radio and other rights would net even more revenue.

The financial case for a playoff system, however, may not be so clear cut, according to people who have examined the issue. For one thing, any analysis of bowl revenues also must take into account how that revenue will be distributed to conferences and schools. Last year, the six BCS-affiliated conferences and Notre Dame (which has no conference affiliation) received about $118 million, which is 94 percent of the bowl revenue collected. The remaining $7 million was split among 13 conferences that did not have teams represented in the BCS bowls.

The NCAA likely would require any revenues from a college football playoff to be distributed more equally among conferences. So while the total amount of revenue from the bowls would rise dramatically, the amount taken in by the major conferences would increase by a smaller percentage. Moreover, while networks would pay handsomely for the rights to televise a playoff, they then also might pay less for the rights to show regular-season games.

“The total value isn’t clear in the aggregate,” said one attorney specializing in media rights negotiations who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is involved in discussions with conferences and schools. “It puts negative pressure on the rest of the deals, and it may be a zero-sum game.”

Even if a college football playoff got the endorsement of every necessary party, there’s still the matter of actually putting it together. People who have examined the issue said it is possible to fit the games in without extending the season more than a week or so, but getting fans to attend those games is trickier. Games must sell out to make economic sense for bowl organizers, and that can become a tall order when fans are asked to attend as many as three games on three consecutive weekends in three different cities.

“You can’t expect people to travel across the country week after week for these playoff games,” said Jerry Palm, publisher of the Web site collegebcs.com. “Do you go to Phoenix or are you saving your money to go to Pasadena? It’s not easy to take an established, entrenched system like the BCS system and modify it to form a playoff structure.”

Tradition extinction?

A college football playoff has received virtually no support from operators of the bowl games. They are skeptical of proposals that show the playoff and bowls co-existing, and see the playoff as a potential death knell for small bowls.

“I think it’s a slippery slope, and it’s a big misnomer that the bowl system and a playoff system can simply co-exist” Scott Ramsey, president of the Football Bowl Association and executive director of the Music City Bowl, said during a recent appearance on the College Sports TV cable network. “Once it starts, we’ve never seen a system in postseason sports that hasn’t expanded that eventually. And then I think the gap widens between the BCS and non-BCS bowls to the point where it becomes very difficult on the economic side to make your bowl game work in your own city.”

Indeed, college bowl operators point out that the games are often just the focal point of a week-long festival involving the teams and their fans. The event becomes an economic engine in some cities, pumping tens of millions of dollars into the economy. The Football Bowl Association reported that college bowls generate $1.2 billion in economic impact each year.

Economics aside, organizers of the BCS bowls have resisted a playoff system because they believe it would further disrupt the ability of bowl organizers to select games based on rivalry or history. While the BCS already disrupted some traditional matchups, such as the Pac-10 and Big Ten champions in the Rose Bowl, a playoff system might eliminate them entirely, organizers and supporters fear.

“If my team wins the Big 10 and goes 12-0, I want to go to the Rose Bowl,” said Palm, a Purdue graduate. “That is still a big deal. I don’t care about the national championship.”

The presidents

If a college football playoff is to be created, the presidents of the nation’s Division I schools must support it. And thus far, the majority of those presidents have shown either an unwillingness to support such a proposal or mere indifference. To college presidents, the current BCS system is more than satisfactory because it meets several key criteria: It results in the declaration of a true national champion and is thus an improvement over previous systems; it is inclusive, allowing any school from any conference to participate if it is good enough; and it has no effect on the number of bowls overall or on the opportunities for the advertisers who sponsor them.

“The only way a playoff is going to come about is if the presidents get behind it,” Maryland football coach Ralph Friedgen said last week. “I don’t frustrate myself with that because it’s out of my [hands]. It doesn’t matter what I think. It doesn’t matter what you think. It matters what they think.”

Some college presidents, including University of Florida president J. Bernard Machen and Florida State president T.K. Wetherell, are crafting proposals for a playoff system, and there is growing support for a playoff among some schools from the SEC because of Auburn’s exclusion from the national championship game two years ago. But among other large conferences, particularly the Big Ten and Big 12, support for a playoff is lacking.

College presidents voicing concerns about a playoff format said they worry about the impact on athletes’ time away from class. Others said they would be concerned about the physical impact that two or three extra games would have on players. But most college presidents have been silent on the issue altogether.

“It’s not that they’re saying, ‘No, we don’t want a playoff,’ it’s that they’re not even looking into it,” said Brian Curtis, an analyst with CSTV who recently was the host of a show on the topic.

In that show, University of Washington president Mark Emmert said discussing the idea of a college football playoff is healthy but not a priority given his other responsibilities.

“The reality, of course, is that university presidents run very big, complicated enterprises,” he said. “The amount of time that I or any of my colleagues spend worrying about how the BCS is formulating championships is a pretty small amount of our attention.”

Any momentum?

With networks locked into broadcasts contracts with the BCS through 2014, a full-blown college football playoff seems unlikely in the near future. But there have been rumblings about the creation of a “plus one” system, in which two of the winners from the first four bowl games would play in a fifth, winner-take-all championship game. Many observers believe the addition of a fifth game beginning this season was a first step toward implementing the “plus one” structure.

“I don’t think at this point we are close to a full-blown playoff anytime soon,” Curtis said. “But I could see them doing plus one within five years.”

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