Defending the BCS

Yes, I have been one of the many voices crying in the wilderness that this is an unfair system. Yes, I have ranted about the screwed up computer rankings and quirks that have cost two teams dearly, denying them a shot at the title game (Ohio State in 1998 and Miami in 2000). Yes, I have even railed against the assassination of the traditions and am still disgusted over the Orange Bowl and Rose Bowl matchups in 2003.

Now comes my darkest hour. I am here to defend the Bowl Championship Series.

I am defending it because 44 Division I-A presidents have declared war against it.

In case you have not heard, last week the president of Tulane called a meeting to voice displeasure with the status quo. Participating were presidents from universities whose football teams play Division I-A football whose conferences are not directly involved with the BCS.

Allow me to say that I honestly do understand their contention that they feel they are locked outside of the BCS. I understand they view this as a possible anti-trust issue and are considering parading out their favorite lawyers and law officials to threaten the NCAA and power conferences. I understand their contention that they think they have been unfairly excluded. I understand that they believe this is limiting their revenues.

I just disagree with those charges. Not only do I think research unequivocally shows the contentions are illegitimate, but I also believe that they should consider carefully their next move. If these presidents and their allies are not careful, they will kill their golden goose and end up dining on a cold dish of ashes.

Playing the Game of Monopoly

The non-BCS schools seem to believe that they have been unfairly excluded from the top tier bowls. The implication is that the big, bad BCS boys all sat around in fat leather seats in some musty conference room and smoked Cuban cigars while scheming on how to create a monopoly. I can picture it in my mind's eye:

"Eureka," shouted Roy Kramer, "I have the perfect plan!" Devilishly evil grins upon their faces, Jim Delaney and John Swofford cackled in delight and rubbed their palms together, "Tell us more Roy." Roy leans forward and begins to whisper, while first shock and then pleasure floods the faces of the other commissioners. "It is a bold plan Roy, but it will work. We will use it to crush those hapless teams forever…Muahahahahaaaa…"

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The BCS was devised in order to provide a championship game for Division I-A college football without creating a playoff. Its inception had and still has absolutely nothing to do with excluding the minor conference teams. Under the original system (and its ugly stepchild known as the Bowl Alliance), the Big Ten and the Pac Ten sent their champions to the Rose Bowl. This meant that despite their unblemished record, teams like Arizona State in 1996 and Penn State in 1994 were pretty much stuck hoping the other undefeated team would lose and hand them the national title. Fans tired of this and under immense pressure, the bowl officials and school presidents decided to finally do something about the matter

The BCS and the Major Conferences as Scrooge

Another, somewhat related allegation is that the major conferences (Big 10, Big 12, SEC, Big East, and ACC) excluded the lesser teams and conferences (MAC, Sun Belt, WAC, Mountain West, and Conference USA) in order to hoard the money.

The statistic most thrown around to disprove the motivation of greed driving the major conferences is that in the previous 20 years only one non-BCS team has been in one of the BCS Bowls. Digging deeper, the statistics reveal a picture so sharp that it cuts to the bone. The Rose Bowl has not seen a non-BCS conference member play on its hallowed field since Southern Methodist in 1922. Since 1950, the Orange Bowl has invited only Santa Clara (1950) and Navy (1961). Since its inception in 1971, only Louisville (1991), Wyoming (1976), and Brigham Young (1974) have played in the Fiesta Bowl. Finally, the Sugar Bowl has only been sweet enough to offer Air Force (1971), Wyoming (1968), and Navy (1955) a slot of the non-BCS teams since 1950.

Do the math.

Only 8 non-BCS teams (out of 364 possible) have played in any of the top four bowls since 1950. While they might make up 46% of the Division I-A football population, these teams have claimed only 2.19% of the BCS bowl slots in the last 52 years. Even worse, three of those were service academies, and Santa Clara no longer plays Division I-A football. That leaves only four teams - three of which were in the Fiesta, the least prestigious of the BCS bowls. Until recent years, the Cotton Bowl was far and away more prestigious. That means that only one non-service academy, current Division I-A team (Wyoming), appeared in the 300 slots available with the true giants of the BCS - the Orange, the Rose, and the Sugar Bowls.

Just one team out of 300 openings.

What this means is that BCS or no BCS, the bowls themselves are not interested in teams from the other conferences. If they were, then they would have been inviting them all along. To the bowl committees, selecting one of these lower conference teams is about as attractive as driving a rusted out Chevy Nova with one working headlight to the prom. Thanks but no thanks.

No matter what they say or would have anyone believe, it is not the major conferences but their own mediocrity and lack of attractiveness to the big bowls that is condemning them to a second tier status.

The Blame Game

Third, the anti-BCS presidents are making noise that this exclusion is one of the sources of their revenue problems. The 44 presidents seem to be acting on the notion that if they could just land in one of those bowls from time to time, it would be the magical elixir to sooth all of their budget woes.

I vehemently disagree.

There is an old saying that he who lives in a glass house should not throw stones; these presidents first need to peer inward and examine their own athletic departments and fan base before they level such explosive charges.

Consider the physical facilities of Division I-A football schools. The average stadium size for teams in the power (BCS) conferences (along with Notre Dame) is 66,265 with a 2002 attendance of 59,467. Meanwhile, the average size of a non-BCS team's stadium is 37,846 (which is helped immensely by over half a dozen teams playing in facilities used by Bowl games). The attendance for these programs? They averaged an embarrassing 23,424 per game. If these programs would like more revenue, perhaps they should start by getting more fans to attend their own home games.

Further, these schools need to look at their enrollment numbers for some of the answers to their questions. Much of the economic disparity between the have's and have-nots can be traced to some pretty simple numbers. Ohio State, Texas, Michigan, Penn State, Tennessee, Florida, and a host of other large schools all boast undergraduate enrollments of at least 25,000 (and the majority have over 30,000). Add the graduate students, and it is not unusual to see numbers that approach 50,000 students at Ohio State or Texas. Meanwhile, places like Arkansas State (9,275), Idaho (7,946), and Tulane (7,701) are all attempting to compete on the same athletic field. These relatively small schools dream of some day having an athletic program worthy of BCS consideration with accompanying revenue. I am in no way trying to be rude when I say - am I the only one who sees a serious flaw in this ideal? Just for argument's sake, what if you were in business for yourself and the company you owned was 1/3 to 1/5 the size of a competitor, would you expect the same volume in sales and equal revenue? No way.

Let's take this yet another step and talk nuts and bolts, dollars and cents here. A smaller university generally means fewer graduates. Fewer graduates means fewer alumni, and that means a whole host of items. First, there will be less demand for tickets (supply and demand 101). Unlike Ohio State, which can get away with selling tickets at $40 a pop, a small school might feel lucky just to fill the stadium charging $5-10 per seat. (In some instances they are even forced to run promotional deals that drop tickets below those figures). Crunch the numbers. If Ohio State makes $40 per seat (and they undoubtedly make more with luxury boxes and alumni donations) per home game, then with 8 home dates in 2002 (and an attendance of roughly 827,900) the Buckeyes pocketed $33,116,000 just putting rear ends in the seats. On the other hand, even if a program sells out its 35,000-seat stadium at $10 per ticket with 8 home games (a real stretch since most of these teams do not sell out their stadium and have at most 7 home dates), the number pocketed is miniscule by comparison. They rake in a measly - by comparison - $2,800,000. Ohio State makes more in one home game than such a team makes in an entire season of sellouts. Besides the disparity in ticket sales there is also the television revenue to consider. More alumni allows a university to sell itself to the networks. If University A has an 8-2 team and has been churning out nearly 10,000 graduates per year for 50 years, then they are naturally more attractive than team B that is 6-4 and only graduates 3,000 students a year. Again, this is simple math. If you are a television executive, whom are you going to want on your station? Who will advertisers pay more per spot? Where will your profit margin be the fattest? A third, and extremely critical, component of having a multitude of alumni is that bowls want to be sure the team they are thinking of selecting is likely to sell their ticket allotment. The Bowls are not a charity event; college bowls may have been created to make money for the community but are expected to at least break even when the game is over.

The Real Answer

Instead of crying foul, it is my contention that if these school presidents would like to end up in a BCS Bowl, they should invest in their football programs. They should schedule more difficult opponents to raise the strength of schedule and then win those games. Florida State, Miami, and BYU built reputations in this fashion and Fresno State is attempting to do the same. Non-BCS athletic departments should hire higher profile coaches and put their money where their mouth is by giving them raises and paying market value when the inevitable job offers accompany their success. They should improve their facilities and program by committing to spending real money on stadiums, practice facilities, weight rooms. Sure it costs money, but it will impress recruits, convince coaches their administration is behind them, and force the rest of the nation's programs to sit up and take notice.

With solid success over a period of a decade, then the polls will show them more favor, and they might even find an invitation to join a more prestigious conference waiting on their desk…

Nobody is going to give any of these schools a seat at the table with the big boys and nor should they. These schools must earn their place just like every other power program, or they will cheapen the sport. This is not a Socialistic or Communistic system where the Ohio States and Texases of this country have to stop the arms race. There are no laws that say Ohio State cannot spend $200,000,000 on its historic stadium and that it cannot begin work on a weight room/athletic facility expansion just two years later. If these schools want to compete on the same field in share in the spoils, then they must be ready to pony up their own money and build a program for themselves. If they lack the funds, the facilities, the resources, and the willpower and patience to build a program over the course of a decade (see Kansas State), my contention is that they should either drop down to Division I-AA or resign themselves to a struggling athletic department.

They must stop trying to make someone else solve the problems in their own house and start cleaning up the mess themselves.

How to Kill the Golden Goose and Dine on Ashes

If the lower echelon teams do not stop in persisting that they get a bigger piece of the pie, then they will regret it. At some point, the schools in the major conferences will decide that they are tired of limiting themselves in order to promote parity and allow lower conferences a fighting chance to defeat them. They will tire of the ingratitude expressed by those same schools who then turn around and gripe because they want more access (without first earning it) to bigger bowls and more money.

What will happen?

Either the big schools will truly being pressuring the NCAA to create strict guidelines on who can join division Division I-A by establishing even higher baseline figures for attendance, number of sports offered, revenue, etc., or they will just walk away en-masse and create their own super-powers league where they can offer 125 scholarships and suck all of the top blue-chippers into their schools like a vacuum in space. Then, the small schools really will find themselves locked out of the mix. Permanently. Their chance to build a winning program and morph into a powerhouse with obscene revenues will travel from small to almost non-existent and the costs for them to build a program will double or even triple.

Then these schools that are crying now will long for the "good ‘ole days" when at least they had a remote chance of moving up and building a program to rival the royalty of College Football, but it will be too late.

They will have killed the goose and burned it to ashes.

Who will they blame for their troubles then?

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