BCS spends record money in D.C. to keep making money in college football

Dr. Saturday

From the outside, the BCS appears to be on the cusp of a major identity crisis that stands to fundamentally reshape the postseason structure of college football. But you don't have to take some pundit's word for it — as Politico suggested on Saturday, all you have to do is follow the money to Washington, D.C.:

College football's Bowl Championship Series, meanwhile, last year spent a one-year record of $350,000 [on Congressional lobbying]— more than four times what it spent just three years ago.
Prior to 2003, the BCS didn't lobby the government, and it had never spent more than $120,000 doing so until 2009, records show. It now counts former college football great Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) among its hired guns.

"We go to Washington because Washington is interested in this, and we're achieving our goal of helping educate people on the benefits of the BCS system," Bill Hancock, the BCS's executive director, said, citing revenue distribution. "The decisions about college football are best made by the universities, the education system, and not Congress."

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Of course, $350,000 isn't exactly eye-opening by Capitol Hill standards — the NFL has ramped up its lobbying efforts at an even steeper rate over the last five years, spending a record $1.62 million in Washington last year to influence the debate over concussions and other long-term health effects. But a fourfold increase in three years doesn't happen by accident.

The most obvious catalyst for the political spending spree is the emergence of a political counterweight, Playoff PAC, which began as a pro-playoff lobby in 2009 and was instrumental in launching the investigations that nearly brought the Fiesta Bowl to its knees last year — a pattern it's attempting to repeat through ongoing scrutiny of the Orange and Sugar bowls. If Playoff PAC exists to whisper in one ear, the BCS realized pretty quickly it had better have someone whispering in the other. (Hence, Hancock's job, which didn't exist before 2009.)

More broadly, though, it's expanded naturally as years of seemingly harmless prodding from fans, coaches, columnists, announcers, economists and late-night comedians and grandstanding politicians has escalated into a steady barrage of antitrust lawsuits, hostile Congressional committees, the Department of Justice, the President of the United States and not one, not two, but three separate bills in the House of Representatives that threatened to ban the entire operation by legislative fiat. Playoff PAC's assault on the overindulgent, inbred political culture of John Junker's Fiesta Bowl is only the most effective campaign among many, and I suspect the crippling hotel and ticket obligations that annually bilk bowl-bound schools out of millions will be making their way onto some distinguished alum's agenda soon enough.

All of which — along with a string of major scandals in the sport, accompanied by steadily declining attendance in both regular season and bowl games and plummeting television ratings in bowl games — amounts to a consensus that the status quo cannot hold. Even Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, the man astride the wall separating the BCS from anything that might possibly be construed as a playoff since the inception of the BCS, is beginning to give a little ground in the face of a critical mass for reform. Some change seems inevitable.

At this point, then, the expensive lobbying effort is aiming to a) Keep those changes to a minimum, and more importantly, b) Keep them in the hands of the current power brokers in the conference offices, as opposed to the NCAA or (worse) a handful of politicians. As long as the heavy-hitting leagues are still controlling the purse strings, any outlays toward helping them maintain that control is money well spent.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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