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The Future Direction of the BCS: What’s on Second

In my first article, I detailed the groups, the issues, and the money that frame the decision-making that comprise the framework for discussion for the next BCS contract, which is estimated to be $500 million per year - the Who. This article will examine what proposals, their proponents, and possible compromises - the What.

Money, Money, Money, Money

In 2001, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics confronted Sonny Vaccaro, the "sneaker pimp", who had built the marketing at Nike, Adidas, and then Reebok by signing athletes like Michael Jordan and collegiate coaches to sponsorship contracts. For decades the Commission has acted as the conscience of amateur college sports and was comprised that day of the NCAA President, two former heads of Olympic Committees and eminent presidents and chancellors of renowned universities. Vaccaro was the embodiment of the rampant commercialism they sought to hold at bay.

Vaccaro was confronted with the question: "Why should a university be an advertising medium for your industry?"

His response might be those of a media or athletic wear contractor today:


"They shouldn’t, sir. You sold your souls, and you’re going to continue selling them. You can be very moral and righteous in asking me that question, sir, but there’s not one of you in this room that’s going to turn down any of our money. You’re going to take it. I can only offer it."


Silence fell over the committee room as Vaccaro had made those members realize the impact of their decision-making. Over ten years later, some conferences like the SEC and the Big 10 have total athletic revenues of approximately $1 billion mark each.

Yet none of last year’s BCS payouts of $20 million to each participant went to academics for their universities and twenty-five per cent of participants did not graduate half of their "student-athletes". What will be the impact of the decisions for a contract that increase revenue to cash-strapped universities by 400%?

With the crisis in funding higher education, the U.S. Department of Education Secretary, Anne Duncan, has said:

"A BCS conference should set aside a meaningful share of bowl revenues for an academic enhancement fund to support the education of the student-athletes. The NCAA has no control over bowl revenues so this would be a decision each conference would have to make."

"You sold your souls, and you’re going to continue selling them...there’s not one of you in this room that’s going to turn down any of our money."

Proposals, Proponents, Possibilities

The public’s silence clubbed the BCS over the head as last year’s BCS bowls earned historically low TV ratings and attendance. The national championship barely eeked above the worst ever championship rating. Overall, bowl TV ratings were down 8% over last year and have dropped 37% since 1998 to the lowest since the BCS began. BCS viewership was down 6%. Average bowl attendance has dropped to the lowest since 1979.

Clearly, the BCS must put a package together that will appeal to viewers, attract public interest and generate more than one media bid. Here are the four proposals.

1. Keep the current system with adjustments. The adjustments would be to eliminate automatic qualifier status and limitations on the number of conference participants.

Probability Index for Agreement - Slim to None. Without provisions for Notre Dame and non-BCS participation, this ends up as an antitrust case. Notre Dame’s participation in the Champs Sports Bowl boosted viewership 56% over the previous year. No media partner would offer a serious bid for this kind of package and viewership and attendance would continue to plummet.

2. A Plus-One using the current bowl system. The Big 10 and Pac 12 have deep ties to the Rose Bowl and the SEC want to keep an arrangement with the Sugar Bowl.

Probability Index - Slim. The Rose Bowl probably locks in one national champion game spot. The SEC gets the other. With this proposal, the Orange and Fiesta bowl continue downward slides. Why should we watch those games and why would the World Wide Leader want those bowls involved?


3. Four Teams Plus. The Rose Bowl always gets the Big 10 and Pac 12 champions. Four other teams play in two other games. Two teams are chosen after the three games are played.

Probability Index - Twenty-five per cent, just because the conferences want to preserve their bowl tie-ins and the top conferences could rake in proportionately more money with the potential for three participants, and the Orange and Fiesta may get better matchups.

Using last year’s rankings and champions, LSU plays in the Sugar. Alabama hits the road to the Orange or Fiesta. Oregon plays Wisconsin in the Rose. Oklahoma State and Stanford complete the six teams. Don’t we come up one BCS bowl short if we match up those two against LSU and Alabama? Isn’t this just a slight variation of the Plus-One?

This scenario keeps BCS bowls as sites, locks out other potential bowl competitors like the Cotton, the Big East/ACC/non-BCS contenders and possibly keeps ESPN’s hold on the BCS. We stll may have ended up with a LSU-Alabama matchup, but it would have had more credibility. Some boost in the TV ratings would have been provided. The rich would get much richer.

When would the government step in either in antitrust action or to deny non-profit statuses? Instead of only the Utah Attorney General engaged in antitrust actions, would AGs from more populous Eastern states combine for lawsuit?

4. Playoffs. Yes, playoffs. The vast majority of us favor this proposal with four seeded teams in semifinals and the winners playing for the national championship. If the BCS wants to engage us and create an exciting television package, this proposal will be adopted. Variations on this theme are:

A. All three games are played in the existing bowls.
B. All three games are played at neutral sites, which are selected through a bidding process.
C. Semifinal games are played in existing bowls with the championship game selected in a
bidding process.
D. Semifinal games are played at campus sites with the championship game selected in a
bidding process.

Probability Index - Seventy per cent.

Option A will require existing BCS bowls to adjust their schedules to accommodate the timeframe that University Presidents demand (from December 21st to January 1st) so as not to conflict with academic calendars. The Rose and Sugar bowls would be retained, but three games and four current BCS bowls leaves one bowl out in the cold.

Option D will heavily favor those teams seeded First and Second, though the communities around them would benefit immensely and the atmosphere would be most like a college game. This past year Oklahoma State and Stanford would have played campus games at LSU and Alabama. Two of those teams were not their conference champions. This choice opens up the possibilities of games at Ohio State, Notre Dame, Michigan or Oregon in late December, for instance. Most campus games would need to be played when the students are on semester break to keep to the University Presidents’ timetable requirements.

Option C would probably involve the Rose and Sugar Bowls for the semifinals, which would have more favorable weather, but may favor those conference teams with longtime alliances and short travel distances. Would the top seeded team get their choice of venue? If so, this past year, LSU may have played Stanford in New Orleans, while Alabama would have played Oklahoma State in Pasadena. Should the Rose Bowl always features the top ranked team, LSU-Stanford would have been played in Pasadena and Alabama-Oklahoma State would have been played in New Orleans.

Option B may minimize most objections and maximize the most out of the contract. The possibility could exist of a team playing Texas or Oklahoma in Cowboys Stadium, LSU in the Superdome, Florida in Orlando or Notre Dame in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indy. But if a couple of these sites were awarded by bidding out in prior years and the top two seeds that year turned out to from the SEC, the home field advantage would go to the "visiting" team. Fans of each team may need to stay home and may not be able to go to a semifinal and final game.

Decisions

Within the framework outlined in my first article, most of us would choose 4B as the best option for postseason play to determine FBS’s national champion. The devil is in the details.

Not only will the choices need to be attractive and appeal to the public, but the decision-makers will have to keep the government and lawsuits on the sideline. University Presidents will need to guide the process so that their academic goals are not sacrificed on the altar of commercialism. The huge gap between the rich and the poor and the potential for the coming quantum leap will complicate discussions. In a recent study, of the 115 universities examined (minus Air Force, Navy, Tulane, Tulsa and Wake Forest), 89 are worth less than $180 million. Thirteen of the remaining twenty-six programs are worth more than $400 million. Ten of those are in the SEC or Big Ten. The other three are Texas (worth more than the Jacksonville Jaguars recently sold for), Notre Dame and Oklahoma.

All that potential increase in revenue creates opportunity and also complications. It may be harder to justify why athletes should not be paid. Sonny Vaccaro has involved himself in a lawsuit against the NCAA by a former athlete who is suing for some of the profits from using his name in sponsorship and licensing deals.

In my next article, "Why's on Third", I'll look at Notre Dame's unique position in the group and in college football. I'll then end with "Where’s on Home" with an examination of these proposals and these implications are taking the BCS and college football.

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