Turkmenistan Airways, the flag-carrying airline of the central Asian nation of Turkmenistan, was founded in 1992 shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union. From its hub in the Turkmen capital of Ashgabat, it serves 21 different destinations across Eurasia. Aboard Turkmenistan Airways, you could fly to such exciting destinations as the Caspian port town of Türkmenbasy; Balkanabat, a hub of petroleum and natural-gas production; or Dasoguz, home of Konya-Urgench, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Why would you want to go to any of those places? Pffft, I don’t know. But in a metaphorical sense, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch wants you to visit, and he’s going to make the world’s major airlines help you get there.
Allow me to explain. For all its faults or drawbacks, the Bowl Championship Series, which is the subject of the Senate hearings Hatch is leading today, is neither a monopoly nor a cartel; it is simply an alliance. It was formed between the major bowl games and the six major conferences in the mid-1990s to ensure that the top teams would get matched up in the top bowl games and that viewing opportunities would be readily available for interested fans. And while the historical strength of those six conferences was the main reason they got included, the brand names of the teams represented by those conferences had a lot to do with it, too; it was reasonable for the bowls to think they’d attract more TV viewers, and thus more advertising dollars, by featuring Ohio State than, say, Wyoming.
In that sense, the BCS alliance is a lot like the airline alliances that have popped up over the past decade or so. You may not know what an airline alliance is or what airlines comprise them, but if you’ve flown internationally anytime recently, chances are you’ve benefitted from them. Let’s say you tried to book a flight from Atlanta to Turin for the 2006 Winter Olympics: Ordinarily, this would’ve been difficult because Delta doesn’t fly to Turin and Alitalia doesn’t fly to Atlanta. But because both Delta and Alitalia have a code-sharing agreement through the SkyTeam alliance, you could buy one ticket through the airline or Web site of your choice and fly straight there with a minimum of hassle.
I’m no fan of the BCS, but I can (grudgingly) concede that that’s all they’re trying to do — for you, the viewer, they’re trying to match up two teams you might not get to see (or would experience an undue amount of hassle trying to see) otherwise. And to do so, they invite the conferences they think you’re most likely to want to watch, just as the SkyTeam alliance has invited the airlines they think are most likely to take you where you want to go. Hence SkyTeam includes such major national carriers as KLM, Aeroflot, and China Southern so that you can go to Amsterdam, Moscow, or Beijing, and doesn’t include airlines like Turkmenistan Airways because they’re not convinced you have any special urge to visit Ashgabat or Dasoguz.
In the case of the BCS, this has been a shrewd decision from a business standpoint, if nothing else. But Orrin Hatch doesn’t like it because his conference — or airline, if you’re one of the two or three people still following this metaphor — isn’t included. And he wants to force SkyTeam to invite Turkmenistan Airways into the fold in spite of the fact that SkyTeam may not be able to find anyone who wants to go to Turkmenistan in the first place.
This isn’t an entirely accurate comparison, of course. I’m sure you could find plenty more Americans who would like to watch Utah in a BCS bowl than would like to fork over cash money for a flight to Turkmenistan. But the fact remains that the non-BCS schools just aren’t as big a draw as the name-brand programs. The last two Sugar Bowls, both of which pitted established SEC juggernauts against non-BCS conference champions, were the lowest-rated Sugars of the BCS era. And as exciting as it may have been to watch Boise State stun Oklahoma in the ’07 Fiesta, that game’s Nielsen rating of 8.4 represented a dropoff of more than a third from the previous year’s game — a snoozer in which Ohio State stomped on Notre Dame’s throat almost from the get-go and won by two TDs.
And it’s important to remember that the national championship game is the only bowl game in which anybody actually cares about matching up the two best teams from a talent or wins standpoint; for all the other ones, from the BCS on down, it’s all about which teams put the most butts in the seats and draw the most pairs of eyes to the ol’ TV screen. There is a chance (minuscule though it may be) that Orrin Hatch will succeed in adding football Turkmenistan to college fans’ list of holiday destinations, but that doesn’t mean anyone’s actually going to volunteer to get on the plane.