TCU unleashed its purple power against No. 6 Utah last Saturday, staking its claim to a shot at the national championship. But with college football's power brokers profiting from the status quo and blocking the implementation of a playoff ...
This is an article from the Nov. 15, 2010 issue
Refresh our memory, BCS acolytes: Why must college football never have a playoff?
Oh, yes, that's right. Because a postseason tournament would devalue the sport's singularly meaningful regular season.
But if regular-season wins and losses mean so much, how did Boise State drop two places in the AP poll after eviscerating Hawaii 42--7 last Saturday? How do the Broncos fall from No. 2 to No. 4 after outgaining the Rainbows 737 yards to 196?
So please spare Boise the platitudes about the sanctity of college football's regular season. And spare us Talking Point No. 2: "We believe the bowl system wouldn't survive a playoff," predicts BCS executive director Bill Hancock.
According to interviews with numerous bowl executives, television deal makers, athletic directors and conference commissioners, all the bowls—the major BCS ones, the mid-tier ones and the newbies you've never heard of—would survive, albeit in the shadow of the playoff.
But for a playoff to exist, it would mean that those now presiding over the bowl system—some (not all) of the BCS conference commissioners; some (not all) of the ADs and university presidents at whose pleasure Hancock serves—would have to release their grip on the sport's levers of power. And that, quite frankly, isn't going to happen, short of a successful antitrust action by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Until that glad day arrives—and it may be on the way—we are stuck with an inexact, capricious, widely despised system that is propped up and defended, in the main, by the people who profit from it. College football could have an opera, a Shakespearean drama, a season that builds to a stunning (and wildly remunerative) climax. Instead, it has a soap opera.
"It's like Days of Our Lives," says TCU coach Gary Patterson of the ceaseless intriguing and politicking that attends the BCS rankings. "It's 'Who's dating who this week?' and 'Are they mad at you?' and 'Is she gonna go back to him?'
"I'm just going to be the milkman," he concluded. "[I'm going to] deliver the goods."
The Horned Frogs delivered in last Saturday's Quake in Salt Lake, putting the wood to sixth-ranked Utah 47--7. Thus did the Frogs stay in the national title hunt, while the Utes were free to start making plans for the Maaco Bowl Las Vegas.
The 10--0 Frogs, ranked No. 3, will probably finish undefeated but will still need help, in the form of a loss by No. 1 Oregon or No. 2 Auburn, to get to Glendale, Ariz., site of this season's title game. That helps explains a movie clip Patterson screened for his guys the day before the Utah game. They watched scenes from Hoosiers, in which tiny Hickory High wins the Indiana state basketball championship with a buzzer-beater against a bigger, better-known South Bend Central.
"On a national scale," explained Patterson, "we are Hickory.... We're trying to get that one shot."
The difference being, of course, that Milan High, the real-life team on which Hoosiers was based, was able to earn its chance to play for a championship, thanks to something called a playoff. What a concept, huh?
Big-time college football is a world-class beauty with a wart on her forehead. That blemish is the sport's method for determining a national champion. The NCAA crowns 88 champions in 23 sports. The only champion it does not crown is in Division I-A football, which, in its wisdom, has delegated the task of determining which two teams will contend for its title to a series of mathematically unsound computer formulas and often confused and ill-informed poll voters.
As with many seemingly intractable problems, there is a commonsense solution to this one: a playoff, in which such matters are settled on the field (and as has been done for decades in Divisions I-AA, II and III). And as with most unimplemented common-sense solutions, there is a group of people who have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are because they are profiting from the problem.
Hancock, the congenial executive director of the BCS, takes exception to that characterization. "Every conference has bowl agreements, and the commissioners can only act after taking the temperature of their schools," he says. "And if the schools didn't want to be part of the bowl system, there wouldn't be a bowl system." Critics, Hancock contends, "are fixated on the [potential] money. We prefer to do what's best for the student-athletes. And we hear them saying they prefer the bowl system." He must not be listening to the thousands of student-athletes whose sports have been cut by cash-starved athletic departments, even as the lack of a playoff deprives universities of hundreds of millions of dollars every year and enrages fans.
Today's exercise is not to advocate for a playoff (although we do present a perfectly good one above). Rather, let us shine a light on the people blocking reform—the smiling, backslapping, money-making traditionalists heavily invested in the status quo.
Representing this cartel at Saturday's game in Salt Lake City, and rocking a migraine-inducing array of strident blazers, were 10 bowl representatives, who took up most of row 3 in the press box at Rice-Eccles Stadium. They were chipper, and why not? Working for bowls is a great gig, if you can get it. You're not exactly planning a moon shot. You're putting on one game a year. Yet the money is excellent, even for such inconsequential games as the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, whose executive director, Gary Cavalli, is unlikely to go hungry, having pocketed $377,475 in 2009. Cavalli, of course, is a bargain compared with Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan, who made $607,500 in fiscal 2007. Coming in just behind Hoolahan is John Junker, who is president and CEO of the Fiesta and Insight.com bowls. Junker's salary is nearly $600,000; in addition, three times he's taken out zero-interest loans from the Fiesta Bowl, which he has since repaid.
Not to worry about the bowls, they can afford to pay those salaries and perks. The Sugar Bowl finished 2007 with $37 million in assets and turned an $11.6 million profit. What's more, the Sugar Bowl accepted $3 million from the Louisiana state government—this a year before it was announced that the state was running a $341 million shortfall in its budget.
Yes, the bowls are doing very well, thank you. Though the majority of bowl games enjoy tax-free, not-for-profit status with the IRS, it's a misleading designation. There is plenty of profit involved. Cash-rich bowl execs spend lavishly on travel, parties, political consultants and, of course, their own salaries.
In September, Marcus Owens, the former head of the IRS's Exempt Organizations Division who is working with the lobbying group Playoff PAC, asked the IRS to review the nonprofit status of three BCS bowl games because of "excessive compensation." Junker and the Fiesta Bowl, which will run this year's BCS title game, are also under investigation by the Arizona attorney general's office. In December 2009, five former or current Fiesta Bowl employees told The Arizona Republic they were instructed by Junker to donate money to certain political candidates, to be reimbursed in the form of merit pay, which would be a violation of state and federal laws. Junker and the Fiesta Bowl have denied those accusations. The Republic also reported that the bowl spent more than $4 million since 2000 to curry favor from BCS bigwigs and elected officials—including almost $400,000 for its '08 Fiesta Frolic, a golf-intensive gathering of ADs and head coaches.
Of the 120 athletic departments that play I-A football, 106 lost money in 2009, according to an NCAA report. Budget shortfalls forced the University of California in September to cut five sports. Virginia hit up students for $11.9 million in fees for the 2008--09 school year to offset athletic department operating expenses. Cincinnati reached two consecutive BCS bowls and still found itself $24 million in debt. All over the country, schools are turning to student fees, academic funds and taxpayer support to balance the athletic department's books, which helps explain the uptick in so-called pay games (Hey, LSU, good luck this Saturday against Louisiana-Monroe!), conference realignments and expansion of the men's basketball tournament.
In the teeth of the worst economic downturn in several generations, it stands to reason that university presidents might look favorably on ideas that could dramatically raise revenue. Speaking to Congress in 2005, no less staunch a playoff opponent than Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany estimated that "an NFL-style football playoff would generate three or four times" more than "the current system does." That could mean an estimated $700 million to $800 million annually to be distributed among the I-A conferences.
Not only are the I-A presidents leaving hundreds of millions of dollars on the table by forgoing a playoff, but by outsourcing their most lucrative product (postseason football), they're also handing over more than half the profits—money that could replace tax dollars in the balancing of public schools' athletic department budgets. Think about it: The NFL and its teams collect every penny of revenue, from television to tickets to parking to popcorn. In college football the bowl games grab the biggest pork chop—and then help themselves to a few more, often more than 50% of a game's revenue. (The 2007 Chick-fil-A Bowl generated $12.3 million in revenue but paid out just $5.9 million total to the participating schools, Auburn and Clemson.) They do it by thinking of every conceivable way to profit from their supposed partners.
Ask Iowa. Halftime entertainment at the Jan. 1, 2009, Outback Bowl was provided by the Hawkeye Marching Band. And how did the Tampa Bay Bowl Association, which runs the game, thank the band for that gratis performance? By charging the university $65 a head for each of the 346 band members. According to university records submitted to the NCAA, the school was forced to purchase face-value tickets totaling $22,490 for the band, even though the game wasn't sold out.
Very few bowls do, in fact, sell out. Aware of this, their directors require a ticket commitment, which obligates the purchase of thousands of tickets at face value. Schools must then resell those tickets or risk losses that can run into seven figures. Before Internet ticket sites democratized the market, the deal made sense to the participating schools. Now, for all but the biggest games, fans can avoid paying full price—as they must when they go through the school's ticket office. Tickets to the 2009 Music City Bowl were available on StubHub for 19 cents.
The commitment guarantees only one thing: the fattening of the bowls' profit margins. For their appearance in the 2009 Orange Bowl, Virginia Tech and the ACC agreed to purchase 17,500 tickets at $125 per seat, but they could sell only 3,342, according to university documents. The result: a $1.77 million bath for the school, not the bowl.
Ohio State ate $1.01 million in unsold tickets at the 2009 Fiesta Bowl. Smaller bowls do similar damage to schools thrilled by a mere invitation. The euphoria of playing in the postseason quickly wore off for Western Michigan two years ago when the Broncos' athletic department was able to unload only 548 of the 11,000 tickets it was required to purchase by the good folks at the Texas Bowl. Western Michigan's loss of $462,535 (before adding in travel and lodging costs) probably hurt more than its subsequent 38--14 defeat at the hands of Rice.
Paying full price for unused seats in half-filled stadiums is just one of the ways bowls stick it to desperate universities, like unscrupulous undertakers who see that their clients are compromised and turn the screws. Preoccupied with perception, recruiting and job security, athletic department officials are in a poor bargaining position. They tend to agree to anything. Like paying $65 a head for the band.
Yes, you may be saying to yourself, but what about the big bowls, the major BCS games like the Fiesta, Rose, Sugar and Orange bowls? Surely the teams who play in those get lucrative bowl payouts? And, in fact, Ohio State earned $18.5 million for making it to the Rose Bowl in January 2010. That's a serious boost to any team's bottom line.
So it would have been, if the Buckeyes actually got to keep the money, which they did not. The $18.5 million went to the Big Ten, where it was added to a pool of bowl revenue that was then sliced into 12 shares—one for each team, one for the league office. That still left Ohio State with a tidy $2.2 million to spend, which the Buckeyes did. Ohio State's team travel costs were $352,727. Unsold tickets ran the school a cool $144,710. The bill to transport, feed and lodge the band and cheerleaders came to $366,814. Throw in entertainment, gifts and sundry other expenses, and the Buckeyes lost $79,597.
Why do the schools put up with this? Why are universities so willing to engage in what WAC commissioner Karl Benson deemed "bad business deals?" Because it works out nicely for coaches, who land tidy bonuses for even minor-bowl glory. ADs, too, reap a windfall for a bowl invite. The going rate: one month's extra salary for an appearance in even the lowliest game. Oregon's Rob Mullens receives $50,000 if the Ducks go bowling. Kentucky's Mitch Barnhart collects $30,000.
"A few years ago our ADs came to me and said, 'You've got to start some bowls,' " Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson says. "I said, 'You'll lose money.' They [each] said, 'I don't care.' "
The truth is that the lower-tier bowls exist because athletic directors are willing to prop them up (in the process forfeiting their universities' money), and because most conferences pool all their bowl payouts, using the bigger-money BCS games to cover the losses incurred in the smaller games. Thus does the Rose Bowl help subsidize the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl—a bowl bailout system that indeed spreads the wealth. Bowl directors privately admit that fewer than half the bowls could survive without the financial support from the schools.
Meanwhile, the sad sack programs that fail to qualify for a bowl often end up in the best financial position. As former Michigan AD Bill Martin said after the 2009 season, "The fact we didn't go to a bowl game the last two years means we actually made money."
The success of non-BCS programs such as Boise State, TCU and Utah has brought attention to the inequities in the system, and some authorities have taken notice. Utah attorney general Mark Shurtleff is investigating the BCS for possible antitrust violations. Last week he traveled to Washington to persuade Justice Department officials to join him in an antitrust action. He also met with Alan Fishel, a partner at the law firm Arent Fox, which has been retained by Boise State and the Mountain West Conference.
High on Fishel's radar last week were rumblings from the Big East about expanding from eight football-playing members to 10. It's quite likely, Fishel notes, that the down-on-its-luck Big East will finish the season with no teams in the Top 25. Yet, thanks to its status as one of the BCS's six automatic-qualifying (or AQ) conferences, it will "make around 10 to 13 million more from the BCS this year than some non-AQs who will have teams very high up [in the polls]."
The Big East will reap this windfall "not because they're great negotiators," says Fishel, "but because a cartel came together to do this. They colluded, and others got marginalized in a manner that my colleagues and I believe is illegal."
If the Big East is using what Fishel calls "its ill-gotten benefits" (its remunerative place at the BCS table) as a way to recruit teams from other conferences (TCU is one of the schools reportedly being considered for membership), "there's something terribly wrong with that, in our view."
In this year of No Conspicuously Dominant Team, TCU could easily be the best, most complete squad in the country. Yet, in this flawed system, the Frogs find themselves in the unseemly position of having to hope another team stubs its toe. They deserve better. Undefeated No. 4 Boise State deserves better. And so do college football fans.
On the field after Saturday's game, Utah's talented punt returner Shaky Smithson found Gary Patterson. "You scared us all week," said the coach. "We had extra special teams practice because of you!"
"Thanks, Coach, I appreciate it," said Smithson. "You've got a great team. I hope you go all the way."
But TCU isn't Hickory High. The Horned Frogs may not get the chance.
Dan Wetzel is coauthor of the bookDeath to the BCS and a sports columnist for Yahoo!
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WHAT COULD BE ...
It cannot happen, but what's the harm in dreaming of a playoff for the 2010 season? Sixteen teams (11 conference champs and five at-large teams), 15 games over four weeks and infinite bliss.
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
KELLEN MOORE, QB BOISE STATE
COLLEGE FOOTBALL COULD HAVE AN OPERA. INSTEAD, IT HAS A SOAP OPERA.
SUN BELT CHAMPION
BIG 12 CHAMPION
9 OHIO STATE
12 VIRGINIA TECH
4 BOISE STATE
BIG EAST CHAMPION
JOHN CLAY, RB WISCONSIN
WE ARE STUCK WITH AN INEXACT, CAPRICIOUS, WIDELY DESPISED SYSTEM.
NORTHERN ILLINOIS 15
BIG TEN CHAMPION
OKLAHOMA STATE 10
MOUNTAIN WEST CHAMPION
CENTRAL FLORIDA 14