Stop superconferences, start a football playoff

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports
SEC commissioner Mike Slive was among those open to a playoff in 2008, but he found little support among his peers

Stop superconferences, start a football playoff

SEC commissioner Mike Slive was among those open to a playoff in 2008, but he found little support among his peers

Superconferences benefit no one. Not the current members, not the new ones, not the coaches, not the players and certainly not the fans. They are arranged marriages of convenience designed to stave off the tumult in college athletics and maximize future revenues, essentially making the rich slightly richer in ways few will notice. They wreck traditions. They cast aside rivalries. They so gerrymander geography, politicians blush.

The uncertainty of the wild weeks that have seen college affiliations and loyalties shift again has created a similar feeling across the country among the many administrators, coaches and commissioners I’ve spoken with: It stinks. It’s ugly. It’s unnecessary.

It doesn’t seem that bad to me (they’re still going to play football and basketball, after all), but you listen to the people who run college athletics and they are making themselves sick.

It turns out the problem is potentially solvable, though. Thanks to a slight reprieve provided by the Pac-12, which Tuesday decided for now against adding four members of the Big 12, there’s a remedy to save what’s left.

It’s long past time, but not too late, to finally wrest control of the most valuable product in all of college sports – the football postseason.

As I wrote in June 2010, the Big 12 and Big East all but assured their demise when, back in 2008, they joined the Big Ten and Pac-10 to block a proposal by the SEC and ACC for a four-team playoff (a plus-one).

The commissioners, and the campus leaders they answer to, never saw a playoff for what it was – not just a better postseason system, but a lifeline that offered them the diversified revenue streams and competitive stability that could have helped assure their survival.

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Instead they stuck with the status quo. College football defies all business logic by outsourcing its most profitable product to third-party bowl games. The Bowl Championship Series not only fails to capitalize on the enormous potential of a multi-week tournament, it sucks hundreds of millions of dollars out of college pockets in an effort to preserve the tradition of $700,000 bowl director salaries and the majesty of the Bowl.

That illogical setup leaves college sports with only two, rather than three, major revenue streams – the mostly maxed-out men’s basketball tournament and conference television contracts.

Its impact on conference realignment is obvious. Everyone is trying to make up for the playoff buck they are ignoring.

The best way long term to make money in television is through the formation of a small number of big leagues. The fewer sellers (conferences) of “major college football” the higher the price. The problem? The Big 12 and Big East were (and are) eventually going to be eaten alive. So are a lot of other teams. And even for those in the “haves,” the reality of a future in a bloated, distant league isn’t as appealing as the present.

Had the two conferences gone with the SEC and ACC back when the plus one was on the table, things may be different right now. There’d be a third revenue stream and a viable postseason, both of which would curb the need for schools to switch leagues. If they had been really smart, they would’ve demanded a real playoff, eight teams or even more.

It was really their only chance at survival. They just didn't realize it.

Three-and-a-half years later all hell is breaking loose. Entire leagues are on the brink. Proud schools fear being left behind. Even big conference officials find a future full of superconferences troubling, schools in the middle wondering how bigger is actually better, old faces playing less frequently, the distinctive culture of a conference watered down. It's led to backstabbing and secret deals and a general sense of unease. Everyone is looking for calm. This isn’t what anyone wants.

The only way to stop it is to shock the market. You can’t just wish for everyone to stay put, for schools to honor tradition. You need to make it smart to stay.

What’s needed is more money coming from different places to more conferences. Then something needs to be created that will make staying in a competitively balanced conference appealing.

Even just an 8-team playoff helps do that.

No less than Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has acknowledged a playoff is worth three-to-four times what the BCS delivers. Based on bowl revenue from 2010-11, that’s about $1 billion. And Delany made his prediction long before the current explosion in live television rights fees.

Even conservatively that’s about $700 million more per year than the current bowl system produces (essentially another men’s basketball tournament contract that administrators refuse to accept). And that doesn’t even factor the money lost attending bowl games – 70 bowl teams kicked an estimated $95 million back to the bowls just for the honor of playing.

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Instead of having hundreds of millions wind up in paychecks and bank accounts of the bowl industry, playoff money would go to the schools. A single playoff share (earned by each game appearance) could easily top $30 million per game, each round adding to the total only without all crippling costs of attending a bowl. Successful conferences could make hundreds of millions. Everyone could get some big money.

The NCAA could run the playoff or the conferences could use an outside group to administer it. Whatever. Anything is better than bowl games.

I won’t get into all the financial data here, let alone the sleaziness of the bowl industry. Regular readers know I’ve researched it extensively, written about it repeatedly. Or don’t take my word for it, go watch this week’s HBO Real Sports’ segment that eviscerates the bowl business.

Unfortunately too many campus leaders – presidents, chancellors, athletic directors – never did their due diligence on just where all their money was going, never examined exactly who they were in business with, never saw the consequences in ignoring a lucrative revenue source.

Instead they engaged in typical, NCAA, follow-the-leader cronyism. A league such as the Big East, which is enduring its second raiding in a decade, should’ve long ago sought out the benefits of a playoff. There isn’t a single financial or competitive reason it should’ve ever opposed a playoff. Instead it clung to the past, went with the pack.

In 2008, Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese fought hard for the BCS, slapping down the plan advanced by the SECs Mike Slive and the ACC’s John Swofford. In 2009, when Tranghese retired, then Fiesta Bowl CEO John Junker sent him a gift: a new set of golf clubs.

After the 2010 season, the Big East champion, Connecticut, cut Junker a check for $2.9 million for absorbed tickets (mostly unsold seats) for their Fiesta Bowl trips, part of a lopsided contract schools were forced to sign. In 2011, Junker was fired following an internal investigation into expansive fraud.

At this point, it’s almost unfathomable to believe schools in the Big East (or anywhere else) would still profess loyalty to such a system.

It’s worth noting that each of the 35 bowl games are subsidized by the schools courtesy of travel, ticket and marketing guarantees. As such, few, if any, of the bowls (even minor ones) would be forced out of business if a playoff was enacted. They could just operate in the shadow of the playoff, the schools continuing to agree to lose money to enjoy the bowl experience if they so chose.

A playoff doesn’t solve every problem that’s causing realignment, but knocks out a ton of them, changing the dynamics and revenue models.

The only way to maintain any part of the current collegiate structure is to limit the appeal of the superconference. And the only way to do that is tie revenue and stability into on-field performance and not television markets and population footprints.

With a lucrative playoff bid or two available, teams would have an incentive to stay in leagues they could conceivably win. Instead, schools are now resigned to joining some 16-team conglomerate even if the possibility of navigating it without a loss is minimal. Schools jumped ship because they'd rather be the guy wearing the bright-orange tux at prom than the one who didn't have a date.

By failing to strengthen all leagues, instability has reigned. It caused a panic that has led to such unthinkable repercussions as the end of the Oklahoma-Nebraska rivalry, or Syracuse bailing on the league it helped create, the Big East, or Texas-Texas A&M ending a century-plus tradition.

The BCS also weakens regular-season television ratings (where another critical revenue stream exists) by eliminating so many teams early and turning 95-plus percent of late season games into local affairs.

With a playoff, for example, last year’s three-way Big Ten race between Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State would’ve been important nationally, because the winner (or even the second- and third-place team) would’ve been in a playoff. That would’ve driven up interest, ratings and revenue.

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“People would be watching to see who the eight (playoff) teams are going to be,” said Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds, noting that earning a BCS bowl bid produces little such bump. “It would build interest. It would enhance the season.”

Instead, few outside those fan bases paid any attention to the Big Ten because it had no bearing on anything that impacted them. Almost no one remembers the race now. Just because the BCS badgers ESPN to repeat its “Every Game Counts” mantra doesn’t mean it’s true.

"There is empirical evidence that leagues with playoffs receive a ratings increase," said West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck, who previously spent decades as a professional sports executive, pointing, in part, to the NFL's booming popularity.

The bowl lobby’s argument is the opposite of reality – that a playoff would decrease interest in the regular season. They try to compare football and basketball, two dissimilar sports in a bit of red herring ridiculousness. The whole thing is profoundly absurd. Many television executives will tell you regular-season ratings would soar with a playoff. So, too, will smart college administrators.

“I don’t know how anybody could put that out there,” Dodds said. “It’s the [opposite]. A playoff builds the season."

The thing is, the bowl system isn’t designed to help the sport. “We’re not about college football,” Gator Bowl president Rick Catlett told Jacksonville TV station WJXT last year, noting he was more concerned about economic impact.

The BCS isn’t even a system created to crown a champion. No other sport in the world has anything close and never will. It makes no sense. It’s merely a way for bowl games to maintain their lucrative stranglehold on the sport.

And the sport is choking right now.

It was horrific, suicidal leadership by Big 12 and Big East administrators back in 2008 to not support the simple plus-one proposal of the SEC and ACC. They were drunk on spin and free scotch. They’re paying for it now.

The BCS comes up for review again next spring and if those leagues, and so many other individual schools, aren’t full-blown playoff proponents now, if they aren’t driving forces for change now, if they aren’t begging Slive to, at the very least, reintroduce the plus one, then the people running things are lost causes.

Everyone knows college sports moves slow. Reform usually takes years. The instinct of administrators is to form a task force, not stand up and take charge. The time for that is gone, failures of the past creating the urgency of the present. The bowl directors had their day, the gravy train can be slowed.

Doing nothing is easy, and it can earn you a free Caribbean cruise, a Scottsdale golf weekend or a trip to the local gentlemen’s club, all courtesy of a bowl lobby eager to thank you for your continued cluelessness.

Doing something is hard, but it may save your league, your school, your sport.

Maybe it’s too late, but maybe it’s not. There’s no excuse not to try.

Not for Kansases or Cincinnatis or West Virginias or Baylors, which worry about being left out in the cold. Not for the Arizonas or Wake Forests or Mississippi States, for whom a superconference means a more difficult path and less familiar rivalry games. Not for Notre Dame, which might be forced to give up its proud independence. Not for the SEC, which is tinkering with what had been the perfect conference. Not for the Syracuses or Pittsburghs, which had to give up so much history to jump to the safest option.

And certainly not for the average fan, who just appreciated things like the Big East basketball tournament or Backyard Brawl or the myriad other traditions that seem a lot cooler than protecting the salary of the guy who runs the Great Idaho Potato Bowl.

All over college sports, administrators are lamenting what they’ve done, where it’s headed. To them, it’s Armageddon. It’s difficult to find anyone, even the supposed winners in the realignment game that think the current track is a good one. Four mammoth conferences, is that the future?

The most viable possible solution is simple as ever, though. Take control of the postseason, take control of your sport and take a last shot at saving the future.

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