Thursday December 10th, 2009

As you've probably heard, the Bowl Championship Series has hired Ari Fleischer, former White House Flack-of-all-Trades, to spiff up its image. Under the guidance of Fleischer's communications firm, the BCS has launched a wide-ranging p.r. campaign that includes a Facebook page, a Twitter account (sample tweet: "We love college football as much as anyone, believe it or not") and a round of aw-shucks interviews for executive director Bill Hancock.

This is all well and good but, judging by the public reaction -- do a Twitter search or go Googling if you dare -- it's not going to cut it. Now, I know Fleischer must be a pretty creative guy -- insert your own political joke here -- but he's got his work cut out for him on this one, and I can only imagine what's to come. Infomercials? BCS Happy Meals? Attention-grabbing slogans ("E-bowl-a Fever: Catch it Now!")?

Still, history tells us it's possible to spin the seemingly unspinnable. After all, it was p.r. gurus like Fleischer who helped resurrect the career of Hugh Grant, get Jesse Ventura elected and convince millions of people to see the second Transformers movie. And no matter what you think of the BCS, it can't be worse than the second Transformers movie.

To date I've only seen Fleischer do one interview, with Bryan Curtis of The Daily Beast (and Curtis is a BCS proponent himself). But even if Fleischer were to talk more extensively, you know what we'd get: spin, heaps and heaps of glorious spin.

So instead I placed a call to Fleischer's counterpart (of sorts), James Carville, who works on the opposite side of the political rope and is a master strategist himself. And, as evidenced by his radio show, 60/20 Sports with James Carville and Luke Russert, he's also a sportshead.

I began by gauging Carville's willingness to defend a variety of image-impaired sports entities, peppering him with questions. And to his credit, Carville somehow saw at least a glimmer of hope for each.

The DH? It extends careers, allowing great sluggers to play longer, he said. In other words: no DH, no David Ortiz.

Al Davis? It wouldn't be easy to gild the man in black, Carville said, but there's material to work with. He remains a "real rebel," and you could sell that along with the old-time football nostalgia.

On we went, through Tiger Woods ("If he goes out and wins the next tournament, that's what matters") and artificial turf ("It's much better than it used to be, so play up the advances"). The more I tried to stump Carville, the more gleefully he parried, his voice rising to a Cajun cackle at times.

Until, that is, we came to the BCS. "The Bee Cee Ay-essss?" he said, and the great flack was silent for a moment. Then, as if preparing to battle a formidable opponent in the primaries, he began sizing up the obstacles. First up: public sentiment. "If you said we're going to take away the World Series, there'd be a literal riot among sports fans," Carville said. "But suppose that they said this year we're not going to have a BCS game. People would be happy."

Next up: the structure. "Sports fans are smart and they understand the idea of the BCS is inherently uncompetitive," Carville continued. "None of these other things like the DH hamper competition. But college football players are incapable of determining their own sport's champion. It's the only sport in the world that does that. How am I supposed to promote that?"

Then there's the name: "It's a sh---- one," he said. And, finally, the biggest stumbling block as Carville saw it: motive. "The only reason the BCS exists is that they're scared that if they change it, they'll lose money. And they're unable to say what the truth is, so they're constantly coming up with other, phony reasons."

Mulling all this, Carville finally came to a conclusion. "If I were advising the BCS, here's what I'd say," he said, pausing for emphasis. "There is a very famous story about when Lyndon Johnson was president. There was a disaster and then a meeting and one of his communications people was saying, 'You need to do this and that.' And LBJ turned to him and said, 'Son, you can't shine sh---.'" Carville paused. "And that's what I'd say to these guys: Some things just aren't spiffable."

In other words, good luck Ari. We're all pulling for you (to fail).

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