Future of the BCS
While the 2007 college football season will conclude with Monday night's BCS National Championship Game between Ohio State and LSU, a different sort of season is about to commence -- one that will take place in conference offices, network suites and hotel board rooms.
"The season for analysis and consideration [of the BCS' future] will take place now through the summer," said BCS coordinator Mike Slive.
The BCS' four-year contract with Fox is in its second year. (ABC's exclusive deal with the Rose Bowl extends an additional four years). The conference commissioners and bowl executives who oversee the BCS will soon hold potentially historic discussions about the possibility of adding a so-called plus-one game -- in which the BCS bowls would serve as a play-in to the national championship game -- starting with the 2010 season.
But as is often the case when it comes to college football's convoluted governance, the conflicting agendas of the various parties will make for a potentially contentious debate over any possible changes to the BCS.
The plus-one concept was first talked about four years ago, but at that time received only cursory consideration by the commissioners. They were more preoccupied with implementing the new five-bowl, double hosting model that the presidents from the six BCS conferences had brokered as a compromise to appease their largely excluded colleagues from the five non-BCS conferences.
The following season, however, SEC commissioner Slive watched as his league's champion, Auburn, was excluded from the national title game despite finishing the regular season undefeated. Throughout his two-year run as BCS coordinator (which concludes following Monday's game), Slive has continually reiterated to reporters that he is "open minded" about possible modifications to the postseason format.
In multiple discussions with Slive for this story, as well as interviews with commissioners, bowl and TV executives across the sport, it's apparent that interest in the plus-one has become far more serious than at any point previously. When BCS officials convene in Miami in April for their annual meetings, Slive -- who has the support of ACC commissioner and incoming coordinator John Swofford -- will present several plus-one options to his colleagues.
"We are in the midst of doing a very careful and thorough analysis of the plus-one model," Slive told SI.com. "In doing this analysis, we're looking back on historical data and then thinking ahead to what we know. We need to put together a model that is one that some people will be comfortable with, and see if there is acceptance to it."
Those people Slive is presumably referring to are Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen and school presidents from both leagues. The two conferences, which, along with their longtime partner, the Rose Bowl, have repeatedly stated their adamant opposition to any postseason modification that might impinge on their arrangement. The fact that their ABC deal is locked in through 2014 will make any such discussions trickier.
"My sense," said one major bowl executive, "is that Mr. Delany is unconvinced [about a plus-one]. Mr. Hansen is uninterested. Everyone says, 'Why can't we get to this yet?' Until they look at it through each party's respective self-interest, nobody understands how hard it is to come to an agreement."
Any discussion about the future of college football's postseason must start with the requisite disclaimer that "the one thing [all] of us are in agreement on is there isn't going to be a playoff," said Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese.
Such sentiments routinely frustrate the large segment of the public that clamors for a playoff and can't comprehend why Division I-A football remains the nation's only major sport -- and only NCAA football division -- which refuses to implement a full-scale tournament to determine its champion.
Leaders of the sport generally point to two primary concerns that would arise from a playoff -- that it would devalue college football's uniquely gripping regular season, and that it would unduly interfere with players' academics.
"Whenever my [league's] presidents have asked me about the positives and negatives of a playoff, I tell them the two positives are [more] money and people will stop yelling and screaming," said Tranghese. "And the negative is that the value and meaning of the regular season will be diminished. Playoff proponents who say that's not true -- that's just pure stupidity."
Tranghese points to Pittsburgh's upset of West Virginia the final night of the regular season, a riveting game that severely impacted the national-championship picture. "If there had been a playoff, who would have watched that game?" he said. "It would have no meaning. West Virginia would already be in the playoff.
"The BCS has created what I call cross-watching," said Tranghese. "An LSU fan had interest in that game, an Ohio State fan had interest in that game. Most of that would go away if we had a football playoff -- that is one thing I'm certain of."
Indeed, there have been numerous examples in recent years of games garnering high national interest that likely would not have happened without such high stakes involved. Last year's Thursday night game between undefeated Big East teams West Virginia and Louisville drew the second-highest rating (5.3) in ESPN history. A similar game the following week between Louisville and Rutgers did nearly as well (5.0).
Meanwhile, this year's late-season Friday night game between WAC foes Hawaii and Boise State earned the second-highest rating (2.8) in ESPN2's history (that channel's season average: 1.1). The next night's ABC duel between No. 2 Kansas and No. 4 Missouri -- a rivalry game long ignored by the rest of the country -- drew a 6.6, well above the network's season average of 3.9. This season, CBS recorded its highest college football ratings since 1999 and ESPN had its most viewers for college football since 1994.
"Whether you like the BCS or don't like the BCS, no matter how cynical you may be, you have to agree it has contributed to the popularity of college football, particularly in the regular season," said Slive. "Years ago, when Hawaii played Boise State, it was of interest solely to those communities. It's now of interest to everyone."
The other common argument against a playoff -- the one regarding academics -- tends to draw more rolled eyes from the public. University presidents have repeatedly stressed their opposition to any postseason arrangement that would interfere with first-semester finals (usually held in mid-December) or would carry the season into a second semester (usually starting in mid-January).
Playoff proponents counter that plenty of other sports, such as baseball and basketball, cross over two semesters (though those sports also account for many of the NCAA's lowest APR scores), and that Divisions I-AA, II and III all hold their playoffs during the mid-December finals season.
"Don't insult my intelligence," said Tranghese. "Don't compare I-AA football to I-A football. Appalachian State-Delaware, that's a great game, but they are not operating in the limelight that I-A is. For anyone to think there could be a I-A playoff during exams -- the press demands, the television demands, they're just huge.
"People criticize us for low graduation rates -- then those same people want us to play playoffs during exams."
Many of those same concerns will come up in the discussion of a plus-one, but apparently they're not so mitigating as to hinder interest.
"A plus-one," said Tranghese, "is not a playoff."
That much is clear, if for no other reason than the fact that executives for most of the major bowls -- which, understandably, are opposed to a full-scale playoff -- are supportive of the plus-one concept. Rather than diminishing their games' importance, as a playoff would, the bowls see a plus-one as a possible upside for their business.
"A plus-one is helpful because it gives every major bowl the opportunity to have the winner of that game mean something," said Fiesta Bowl CEO John Junker. "We're bowl enthusiasts, and we think there's plenty of meaning in the games already, but if we can add even more meaning, that's a positive."
"We're open to it. We certainly are," said Orange Bowl CEO Eric Poms. "Anything that enhances the meaning of your bowl game as it relates to a national-title game is worth considering."
Other leaders across the sport are interested as well. "My view is very similar to Mike Slive's," said Swofford. "I think the plus-one model deserves to receive consideration and discussion."
"I am hearing all the clamoring for a plus-one," said Tranghese. "Our conference is interested in listening to everything."
"What effect would [a plus-one] have had in the history of BCS?" said Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe. "I think it could have provided the Big 12 a number of opportunities to participate in the semifinals."
Even NCAA President Myles Brand -- whose organization would have to sign off on an extra game -- recently voiced his support for a plus-one. "I have some concerns about the academic side," Brand told USA Today recently. "But two teams? I don't think that's overwhelming."
By no means, however, should one view such sentiments as a sign that change is imminent. "I haven't had a direct conversation with Mike [Slive] about [the plus-one], but I'm surprised he's so interested in going forward," said Pac-10 commissioner Hansen. "Because the Big Ten and Pac-10 have made it clear we're not interested in that."
Delany, the Big Ten commissioner, declined to be interviewed for this story, but recently told Sports Illustrated his conference's original decision to join the BCS "was not considered the first step toward a playoff, but the last step."
Officials across the sport universally agree that despite the criticism, the 10-year-old BCS has accomplished precisely what it was designed to do since its 1998 inception: turn what used to be a sporadic occurrence -- the No. 1 and 2 teams met in a bowl game just 11 times from 1936 to '97-- into an annual event.
That the plus-one discussion has even reached their agenda is an acknowledgment of the increasing difficulty and ambiguity in determining those two teams. Earlier controversies surrounding a particular title-game participant -- such as Nebraska's 2001 inclusion following a 62-26 loss to Colorado in its regular-season finale, or USC's 2003 exclusion despite finishing No. 1 in both the AP and coaches polls -- were addressed by near-annual tweaks to the BCS standings.
The current ratings system, however -- which primarily emphasizes the opinions of human voters -- has remained virtually unchanged since 2004, yet only once in the past four seasons (in 2005, when USC and Texas were the nation's only undefeated teams) has there been an absence of controversy regarding the championship matchup. Following an upset-riddled 2007 regular season, voters were left to choose between a cluster of similarly accomplished one- or two-loss teams, ultimately tabbing 11-1 Ohio State and 11-2 LSU over 11-2 Oklahoma, 10-2 Georgia and others.
"In a year like this, while most people view the two teams that are playing in the national championship game as being deserving, you could also make the case for another team when you look at its body of work over the entire season," said Swofford. "In some people's minds, that means maybe more than two [teams] should have that opportunity."
How exactly a plus-one would work remains entirely undecided. Any number of potential models could be up for discussion, though all generally fall into one of two categories: a seeded plus-one or a pure plus-one.
A seeded plus-one is exactly like it sounds -- the top four teams at the end of the regular season would meet each other (No. 1 playing No. 4, No. 2 playing No. 3) in two of the BCS bowls. (Because the BCS wants to remain at 10 berths, a fifth non-title game -- either a newly created one or an existing one like the Capital One or Cotton -- would likely need to be added.) The winners would advance to the championship game, which, conveniently, is already being played about a week after New Year's.
Most proponents of a plus-one feel this would be the most effective format. "We've had quite a few years where there were three unbeatens or three one-loss teams," said Junker. "Unless you have two of them playing in a bowl game, you still might end up with three unbeatens or three one-loss teams."
A seeded plus-one probably seems insufficient to resolve this year's controversy, considering it would have included two teams (No. 3 Virginia Tech and No. 4 Oklahoma) that have since lost their BCS games while excluding two others (No. 5 Georgia and No. 7 USC) that dominated theirs. Most observers agree, however, that 2007 was an anomaly, considering there had never been more than four popular title claimants in any of the BCS' previous nine seasons.
That said, a seeded plus-one is sure to be met with considerable resistance from the Big Ten, Pac-10 and Rose Bowl. The Pasadena game -- which has a relationship with the two conferences dating back to 1946 -- has lost at least one league's champion to another site six of the past seven seasons. There was no Big Ten-Pac-10 matchup in four of the five seasons from 2001-05.
"The idea at the time [of the BCS' original creation] was we would lose a team potentially once every three to four years, based on the rankings the previous 10 to 15 years," said Rose Bowl CEO Mitch Dorger. "Coach Tressel and Coach Carroll appear on the scene, and all of a sudden we are almost perennially losing one of our champions. That has had a negative effect. It's impacted the tradition of the Rose Bowl."
A seeded plus-one would presumably require releasing those champions if they were ranked Nos. 3 and 4 as well, which would only increase the frequency of such occurrences.
"We're not in favor of a seeded event that would break up conference tie-ins," said Hansen.
A pure plus-one would theoretically alleviate those concerns. All of the BCS bowls would host their traditional partner conferences' champions, regardless of ranking, and then the BCS' No. 1 and 2 teams left standing would advance to the title game.
The biggest positive to such a plan is that, in the event of upsets, the two title participants could theoretically emerge from nearly any of the major games, increasing the magnitude of all. The downside, as Junker noted, is that it might not solve much of anything.
"If you don't seed, you don't really have a fair system," said Hansen. "The No. 1 conference champion might end up playing the No. 2 team, and then you haven't accomplished anything except prolong the season. And if you do seed, you're going to have to take teams out of their traditional bowls, and we're very much opposed to that."
That, in a nutshell, sums up the political quagmire Slive will likely face come April.
The first official proposal to move to a plus-one was made not by Slive or any of the other commissioners, but by a since-retired television executive. In February 2004, at a meeting in Miami, a group of presidents from the BCS and non-BCS schools -- with the help of NCAA president Brand -- stunned officials across the sport by agreeing on their own to a revised BCS format that added a fifth bowl and loosened eligibility requirements for champions from conferences without automatic bids. (Boise State and Hawaii's berths the past two seasons were made possible by the agreement.)
Unexcited by the seemingly watered-down system, ABC senior vice president for programming Loren Matthews -- whose network's original, eight-year deal with the BCS was about to come up for renewal -- proposed an alternative plan at the BCS' meetings in Phoenix two months later involving a pure plus-one.
When BCS officials balked, Matthews, whose network had seen its ratings for the non-championship BCS games decline and claimed to have lost money on its original investment -- chose to re-up solely with the Rose Bowl, paying a reported $300 million to air the eight Rose Bowl games and two national-title games to be played in Pasadena from 2007-14. Fox stepped in to claim the rights to the Fiesta, Sugar and Orange bowls, paying a reported $320 million for the 2007-10 games (which includes three championship games). The deal represented a meager five percent spike from what ABC had been paying.
Both the BCS and Fox have been pleasantly surprised by the newly forged relationship. Following initial concerns about Fox's ability to promote the games without any regular-season college football package, last year's Ohio State-Florida championship game drew a 17.4 rating, the third-highest of the nine BCS title games played to date. Fox reportedly sold nearly all its ad time for the four 2008 bowls (at a cost of $500,000 for a 30-second commercial, $900,000 during the championship game) before the teams were even announced.
At least one of Matthews' concerns has come to fruition. The three BCS bowl games to date involving non-BCS teams -- Utah-Pittsburgh (2005), Oklahoma-Boise State (2007) and Georgia-Hawaii (2008) -- have produced three of the four lowest-rated broadcasts in BCS history. That hasn't seemed to deter Fox's enthusiasm.
"We love the relationship," said Fox Sports President Ed Goren, whose network's coverage has included live pregame shows from all four bowls and a dramatically enhanced BCS Selection Show. "It's our top priority to extend the relationship, whatever format it ends up."
Meanwhile, ABC/ESPN -- whose season-long ads this season proudly proclaimed that "College Football Lives Here" -- is itching to reclaim its stranglehold on the postseason. Matthews retired in 2006. His replacement, Chuck Gerber, executive vice president for college sports programming, has hinted at regret over ceding the BCS rights to Fox. ("Some of those who made those decisions are no longer in the same positions they were then," he recently told the New Orleans Times-Picayune.)
"I've said to [the commissioners] on behalf of ESPN and ABC that we'd be interested in getting back in the BCS business," Gerber told SI.com.
Four years after accepting a lowball offer from Fox just to keep its product afloat, BCS officials could find themselves at the center of a bidding war next time around. (Fox has an exclusive negotiating window before other networks could make a bid.) Analysts have estimated a plus-one model could generate an additional $40 to $50 million annually, about a 50 percent hike from the current deal.
Both Goren and Gerber said they are content with the current format -- but it's no secret their ratings would benefit from an added layer to the postseason.
"There's a difference between making a suggestion and trying to force policy," said Gerber. "We were supportive of the plus-one the last time around. If the Rose Bowl decides they want to be part of it, we're going to find a way to make sure our agreement [can be revised]. But it's not going to be up to us to convince them to go one way or the other."
Added Gerber: "I think the fan base is going to get them to have to seriously consider making some sort of switch to a plus-one."
ABC's degree of flexibility could play a key role in determining whether the Big Ten/Pac-10/Rose Bowl ultimately soften their plus-one stance, as officials from all three parties consistently cite their extended contract with the network as a mitigating factor. "We've got an eight-year deal between the Big Ten and the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ABC," Delany told SI. "We intend to honor that agreement."
Television arrangements are hardly the only issue Slive and other plus-one advocates will have to work through. Among the other chief questions: How would the rotation work regarding the semifinal sites? Would one of the current BCS sites still host the championship game? And logistically, how difficult would be it be for two teams to play an extra game on roughly a week's notice?
"If we had out druthers, we'd like to keep the double-hosting model," said Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan. "[Hosting the title game every] five years is not a desirable proposition, because we can't entice the sponsors if the separation is that far in between."
One question that can't possibly be answered ahead of time is how a plus-one would impact fans' attitude toward the bowl games. Would fans of the top-ranked teams still travel en masse to the New Year's games? Or would they hold off in hopes of a potential championship appearance? And considering it's unlikely a large number of fans would be able to travel to a bowl site two straight weeks, who would fill their seats? Would the championship game come to mirror the NFL's Super Bowl, where the spectators are predominately sponsors and other corporate types?
Opinions vary among bowl organizers. Junker said his game would likely counter reduced bowl travel by selling more local tickets, and that the continued impact of hosting the championship game every four years would help "make it work." The Rose Bowl's Dorger, on the other hand -- whose game allocates nearly twice as many tickets to the participating schools (62,000) as the other BCS games (35,000) -- is more worried about potential ramifications.
"If [the Rose Bowl] is a semifinal game, I don't know how much [fan] support there would be," said Dorger. "If I'm hosting the championship game, and I don't know who the teams are until a week ahead of time, that's a terribly difficult task."
Slive, a former lawyer who's brokered his share of negotiations, has presumably factored these and other contingencies into his ongoing analysis. Nearly all the affected parties will be in the room in Miami in April when the much-anticipated discussion finally takes place.
Following those meetings, the BCS commissioners will bring their own recommendations and conclusions back to their respective conference's presidents and athletic directors at each league's annual spring meetings in May and June. Whether any formative change actually gets pushed through will ultimately depend on whether the plus-one proponents can somehow convince the Big Ten and Pac-10 to go along with it.
"There are six [BCS] conferences, and one-third of the six are not favorable to a certain position," said Beebe. "We have to face the reality of what that means and if there can be any persuasion. How persuasive can our position be?"
Some, like Sun Belt commissioner Wright Waters, are optimistic. "I think there's a lot of talent in that room right now," he said. "It's the best spirit of cooperation that I've seen in the room in the long time."
Others, like Tranghese, remain supportive but cynical. "Even if the details can be worked out, it's still going to take everybody to agree to do this, and I just don't think the support is there," he said. "I may be wrong, but I don't think I will be."
Meanwhile, the man who's most championing the plus-one cause remains coy about its prospects. "There is no model or solution that will satisfy everyone," said Slive. "What each of us has to do is determine what's in the long-term best interest of the game, and what's in the long-term best interest of our conference."
In other words, can a plus-one encompass both agendas? Plenty of reasonable minds across the sport think it can, but it's going to require a gigantic dose of compromise by a group of vastly conflicting parties.