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Mark Cuban's interest could be significant step in playoff push

A lot of us want a college football playoff. A lot of us know a playoff would be infinitely superior to the BCS. A lot of us -- including university presidents and athletic directors -- know a playoff would make a lot more money for schools than the BCS does.

But we aren't worth $2.3 billion. We don't have venture capitalists sprinting to throw money at us every time we have an idea.

Mark Cuban does.

Recently, the Dallas Mavericks' owner decided that instead of spending his energy and considerable financial resources to buy a Major League Baseball franchise, he could profit more -- financially and historically -- from creating a playoff system in major college football.

"It just dawned on me that for the amount of money that I would consider spending on a baseball franchise, you could take that money and turn the BCS upside down and start a playoff system," Cuban said Thursday on the Dan Patrick Show.

Cuban's interest might be the playoff movement's most significant step forward yet. Dan Wetzel, Jeff Passan and Josh Peter, the authors of Death to the BCS, deserve all the credit for inspiring the new proponent of a fair, reasonable and profitable method of deciding major college football's champion. Cuban's idea is a 12- or 16-team tournament. (His twist is that those who lose later in the tournament would get to play in the best bowls.) He would try to raise about $500 million as a financial inducement to convince schools a playoff is a better option. He did not mention the significantly higher television rights fees a playoff would bring. The BCS receives $125 million a year in rights fees from ESPN. A playoff would command three to four times that number. "It's an obviously profitable opportunity for colleges -- which is something all schools need in this economic period we're in," Cuban said.

Does this mean we can start planning playoff-watching parties for 2014? Certainly not. People have tried to throw money at this issue before and failed.

But Cuban is different.

International Sports and Leisure, a Swiss company, tried in 1999 to convince university presidents to start a playoff by offering $3 billion over eight years and got soundly rebuffed. That probably was a wise move. The once-powerful sports marketing company had serious cash-flow problems, and it went belly-up within a few years. (Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott probably remembers this all too well; Scott was second-in-command of the ATP when ISL failed to pay for a deal it had signed with the men's tennis governing body.)

Cuban is more prudent. He made his fortune in the '90s with Broadcast.com, which advanced the then-novel idea of listening to sports broadcasts over the Internet. Yahoo! bought the company for $5.04 billion in stock. Cuban didn't just sit on the stock, though. He survived the dotcom bust with a huge fortune intact by diversifying and seeking out new markets. Shortly after the turn of the century, Cuban realized before most that someone needed to start producing content for high-definition televisions -- which at the time were a pipe dream for the average consumer.

The guy clearly has a knack for identifying markets in need of improvement. Major college football's postseason certainly qualifies.

"As a college football fan, I hate the BCS simply because of all the inefficiencies," Cuban said. "My orientation always is if there is something everybody hates, and there are all kinds of inefficiencies and a lack of transparency, then somewhere in there is a business opportunity."

What is unclear is whether Cuban understands that he'll be fighting against people who are well aware that they are short-changing schools with the current system. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, the man Cuban ultimately would have to topple, freely admits a playoff is the far more profitable alternative.

If Cuban thought MLB was a fuddy-duddy, old-boy network resistant to new and better ideas, wait until he meets some of the conference commissioners. Wait until he meets the bowl directors who will fight tooth and nail to keep their bloated salaries right where they are.

Of course, Cuban may find he already has some allies. We know SEC commissioner Mike Slive and ACC commissioner John Swofford support the idea of a four-team bracketed tournament. (They call it a plus-one so simpletons won't realize it's actually a playoff.) Scott, who took over the Pac-10 in 2009, already has tried to blow up the current conference configuration and is quite fond of pointing out how undervalued college football still is. He's in a delicate spot because he's tied at the hip to the Rose Bowl, but he seems to have enough maverick in him to listen to new ideas. In an e-mail to The Associated Press on Thursday, Scott toed the party line.

"The fact is that college football has never been more popular in its current format, and it's a mistake to assume the impediment to a playoff is money," Scott wrote. "We could get a lot more money tomorrow from lots of folks by moving to an expansive playoff; this is about a broader set of priorities benefiting schools and student-athletes."

Ultimately, Cuban would have to convince university presidents. To do that, he said, don't go to the presidents. Go to major donors at the most powerful schools and convince them to cut off their donations unless the president gets behind a playoff. "That's the big missing piece that other folks who have considered this haven't done," Cuban said. "Most of them have gone to the presidents and have gone to the athletic directors and kind of taken the sports path. In reality, you go to the stakeholders."

Would that work? Maybe. Maybe not. Boosters love their bowl trips, too. But they love championships more. Cuban might start by explaining to the big-money boosters at Big Ten schools that the BCS actually is keeping their football teams from playing for the national title. Why? Because Ohio State lost two consecutive BCS title games, and now poll voters are unfairly painting the entire conference with a broad brush. A one-loss SEC team can play for the title, but a one-loss Big Ten team is a lock for the Rose Bowl.

That's just one example of an angle Cuban and his investors could attack. They might also want to target Connecticut legislators, who may have to explain to the state's taxpayers how the University of Connecticut could get stuck with a $2.5 million bill for unsold Fiesta Bowl tickets. According to UConn, 26 percent of the athletics budget for fiscal year 2010 comes from the publically-funded university. So guess who will pay any unexpected costs? Even better, Cuban could offer to buy all of Connecticut's unsold Fiesta Bowl tickets on the condition that university president Philip E. Austin support and vote for a playoff system in the future. That's putting your money where your mouth is.

Cuban will probably meet with a lot more resistance than he realizes, but who knows? Cuban's name, bank account and business acumen may open some doors that were previously closed. At any rate, the fight for a playoff beats buying the Dodgers and getting bashed hilariously by T.J. Simers on a regular basis. "This sounds a lot more interesting and a lot more fun," Cuban said. "And [it's] a lot better business."

Of course, Cuban could always get bored or frustrated and move on to another opportunity. That's certainly the most likely possibility. But any time a billionaire gets behind a good idea, it's progress.

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