Tuesday April 26th, 2011

It figures to be a jolly week in New Orleans, with the Hornets locked in a thrilling playoff series against the Lakers and Jazz Fest set to begin Friday. Amid the revelry, however, a set of visitors will descend upon the city to discuss more dour circumstances.

Officials who oversee college football's postseason are attending one of two coinciding events this week in the Big Easy. The 11 BCS conference commissioners will hold their annual administrative meetings Tuesday through Thursday at the Windsor Court Hotel, where topics figure to include the ongoing review of the recently tarnished Fiesta Bowl as well as Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff's announcement last week that he plans to file a federal antitrust lawsuit against the BCS.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away at the Hilton Riverside, representatives from all 35 bowl games will attend the Football Bowl Association's annual convention, a generally cheery event juxtaposed this year with a meeting between the NCAA's bowl licensing subcommittee and Fiesta Bowl officials as the former considers stripping the latter's license.

"It's been a tough year in our business," said FBA Chairman Tina Kunzer-Murphy, executive director of the Las Vegas Bowl. "The public perception of the bowl business has come up time and time again, and while there are so many student athletes and coaches that love the bowl system ... I'm not blind. There have been some difficult times."

Over the past couple of years, organizations like Playoff PAC and the authors of the book Death to the BCS have galvanized a public already clamoring for a college football playoff by directing attention to certain business practices of the bowl games, most of which are nonprofit enterprises. In recent months, the bowls have played right into those critics' hands.

Last month's 276-page report detailing the Fiesta Bowl's indiscretions under the watch of longtime CEO John Junker -- solicitation of donations to political candidates that likely violated federal campaign laws; lavish expenditures like a $30,000-plus birthday party for Junker at Pebble Beach; and an apparent cover-up during an initial investigation into the campaign donations -- turned the stomachs of even the staunchest bowl proponents. The BCS issued a statement the day of the report's release calling the behavior "unacceptable," and last weekend Fiesta Bowl officials met in Chicago with a seven-person task force that will ultimately issue a recommendation to the commissioners about whether the Fiesta should remain a part of the BCS lineup.

Many have questioned whether the BCS is truly serious about the possibility of excommunicating the Arizona bowl, which for years has hosted and entertained most of the officials reviewing it at its annual spring golf retreat, the Fiesta Frolic.

"We keep coming back to the statement that we said right from the start -- it's that serious," said BCS Executive Director Bill Hancock. "Writers have said, 'Are you threatening [the Fiesta Bowl?]' If you want to take it as a threat, you can, but that's just our statement. This is very troubling to our group. We just will not do business with people that behave in that way."

However, skeptical watchdogs remain adamant that the Fiesta Bowl is hardly alone in its lavish ways, and that the other BCS bowls should be subject to the same reviews. Last year Playoff PAC filed a complaint with the IRS alleging the Fiesta, Sugar and Orange Bowls violate their tax-exempt status by directing millions in revenue toward entertainment-related expenses and executives' salaries.

"I think the Fiesta Bowl is the tip of the iceberg," Shurtleff, who began investigating the BCS following Utah's undefeated 2008 season, told USA Today. "I'm pretty confident from my research that there'll be more problems with other bowls."

Hancock, who serves as a spokesperson for the BCS commissioners, said that after the Fiesta Bowl began its independent investigation last fall the BCS suggested the other bowls conduct independent reviews of their own. "They assured us that those independent reviews did not turn up any improprieties," he said.

Spokesmen for the Sugar and Orange Bowls confirmed their organizations hired outside auditors last year to review their operations. A spokesperson for the Rose Bowl said "the standard procedures of the Rose Bowl call for an annual review and audit."

Several sources also expressed doubt that the BCS could take any immediate action against the Fiesta Bowl with three years remaining on its contracts with the Big 12, ESPN and title sponsor Tostitos, not to mention similar obligations for any potential bowls that would replace it.

Whatever the case, the Fiesta Bowl scandal has called attention to the NCAA's lax oversight of the bowl business. To receive and maintain their licenses (which are granted for a four-year period), bowls need only meet minimal financial and attendance thresholds. Only two now-defunct games, the Seattle Bowl and Silicon Valley Classic, have lost licenses in recent years due to the aforementioned factors, but Big East associate commissioner Nick Carparelli, head of the bowl licensing subcommittee, said ethical issues are also a factor. In a meeting Thursday morning, the committee will ask Fiesta officials to explain what happened and how they plan to run the game in the future.

"It's much like when we approve or disapprove of certain types of sponsors," said Carparelli. "Is this the type of [organization] we want associated with the NCAA brand?"

One issue that's apparently not on the table at either hotel this week: the eye-opening headlines this winter about schools losing millions of dollars due to their participation in the bowls.

Connecticut, which earned its first-ever BCS berth with last January's Fiesta Bowl appearance, reported losing more than $1.6 million from the trip, despite a $2.5 million expense allowance from the Big East. And for the second time in three years, Virginia Tech and the ACC took a bath ($1.6 million) from the Hokies' trip to the Orange Bowl. In both cases, the main culprit was unsold tickets, since the two BCS games require participating schools to purchase 17,500 tickets and absorb the cost of any that go unsold. UConn sold just 2,271 of its allotment, a nearly $3 million loss.

The BCS pays the automatic-qualifying conferences roughly $22 million, but leagues split the money among all of their member schools, and each handles bowl expenses differently. Connecticut's Fiesta Bowl opponent, Oklahoma, was stuck with 11,933 unsold tickets, but the Big 12 covered most of those losses, allowing the school to break even.

"If a conference takes in $22 million [from the BCS], then if the school loses money ... it's because of conference distribution and because of how many people are in their traveling party," said Hancock. Noting reports that Oregon lost $285,437 on its trip to the BCS National Championship Game, Hancock said: "Oregon chose to give [1,761] tickets away; no one made them. I don't know whether it was to boosters or people on their staff. That's been way mischaracterized in the media. The Pac-10 got $28 million [for two BCS berths]."

With the rise of secondary ticket outlets like StubHub and Craigslist, fans are no longer dependent on schools to purchase their bowl tickets, and in many cases can buy them elsewhere for well below face value. Yet there seems to be little movement to change the bowls' costly distribution method, which many rely on as a main revenue source.

"The [NCAA] committee really does not see that as an issue at all," said Carparelli. "The reason that Connecticut lost money was because of the Big East's revenue-sharing plan, which the ADs decide on. ... The solution there is an internal issue within our conference." He said the league plans to address that issue at its spring meetings.

Lost revenue is at the crux of Shurtleff's gripe with the BCS. In announcing his intent to file an antitrust suit against the group in the coming months, Utah's attorney general told USA Today " ... there are serious antitrust violations that are harming taxpayer-funded institutions to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars."

Hancock and the big-six commissioners have repeatedly downplayed the threat of litigation, and it's worth noting that Shurtleff's main motivation for going forward is that the Department of Justice has shown little interest in launching its own investigation. While one can easily claim the BCS configuration is unfair to the non-AQ conferences, it's hard to argue an "illegal monopoly" exists when the bowls have in fact provided more access to non-AQ schools (seven bids in the past seven years) than they previously enjoyed. Utah and TCU have parlayed success in those games into invitations to join the Pac-10 and Big East, respectively.

Still, news of the potential suit may require a whole new round of "BCS-defense fatigue," a term Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany coined last December to describe the commissioners' continued justification for their system's configuration. At a panel in New York, Delany, Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe and Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott all intoned their impatience with being "politically correct." Beebe threatened a return to the old bowl system (with no national title game) were the BCS to dissolve.

Their comments will be closely watched again this week.

As part of the increased scrutiny of the bowl system, many have started directing the never-ending playoff debate away from the on-field aspect and instead toward unrealized revenue that schools are hypothetically leaving on the table by continuing to "outsource" the postseason to outside groups.

"It's truly amazing," Boise State AD Gene Bleymaier said at a speaking engagement last week. "The sport where the NCAA can generate the biggest revenue and they end up giving it away for free."

Counters Carparelli: "We need to be mindful of the fact the No. 1 goal of the NCAA is to provide opportunities for student-athletes. We operate under this assumption we need to make money all the time. There are some conferences that appear in bowl games that are not on top [in payouts], but it gives the athletes an opportunity to appear on national television, allows their students to experience something they've never experienced before. ... It's not unlike when the NCAA has their golf championship. You pay for a lot of those other things even though there's not a chance to generate revenue, but you want the students to be able to experience that opportunity."

Comments like those are sure to be met with groans and rolled eyes by fans who've spent the past year watching those same conferences raid each others' teams in an attempt to reap hundreds of millions in regular-season television contracts. There are myriad political reasons why a playoff remains a non-starter for the big six and why the bowl system remains entrenched. (Mainly, they want to retain control of the postseason for themselves.) But it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain that position when the system they're relying on is exposed for corruption.

"I want [this week] to be a celebration of all the great things we do for college football, but we also have to do our due diligence to make sure we're doing our business in an appropriate manner," said Kunzer-Murphy. "We're going to have some lively discussion."

It's worth noting that the schedule for the FBA meetings includes golf outings on Wednesday and Friday as well as numerous dinners and receptions. Even in times of crisis, the party rolls on.

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