My Evolving Take on the Debate on a College Football Playoff Part IV: The Effect of a Playoff on the Traditions, the Players, and the Schools: Issues Not Directly Related to the Preceding Ones

Protect the sanctity of the bowls! With the bowls, we have 34 winners at the end of the season, not 1! In recent days we’ve been looking at the more meta-level issues surrounding a playoff and asking questions on the meaning of the regular season and of a championship in all of sports (here’s Part III). The questions we’ll look at now are different, and more disconnected, but in my opinion cut closer to the core of the issue for opponents of a playoff, and some of them are bigger threats to a playoff than the issues of fairness at the heart of the issue for supporters. But as before, we need to get one thing straight right off the top. For all the whining and crying about the “tradition” that would be lost with a playoff, most of college football’s traditions would be completely unaffected by a playoff, at least directly. Ohio State fans will still hate Michigan with a passion and vice versa, and mascots, cheerleaders, and bands will still be indelible parts of college football. People concerned about a playoff are primarily concerned about losing two traditions, rooted in the days when there was no real championship. One tradition, which they think powers the others, is the centrality of the regular season, and we’ve covered that in recent days. The other, which for more than one reason is a bigger threat to a playoff than either university presidents or concerns about the regular season, is the bowls, and one bowl in particular.

Bowl commissioners do not want to lose their cash cow. There were 34 bowls in 2008-09 and they all raked in a lot of money. Bowl commissioners do not want their party to end and be replaced by a playoff, and they have the power and money that says it’s not going to end. They want a piece of the playoff pie. But that’s not the only thing they want. They don’t want to be reduced to “play-in games”, and they want their history and tradition to continue to the greatest extent possible. (And the BCS has already removed the idea of the bowls leading up to New Year’s Day and the correlation between the bowls and the holiday season.)

The Rose Bowl has been continuously played almost every year since the Wilson Administration – that is, around the end of World War I. The Rose Bowl has more history behind it than any championship in American sports except the World Series and the Stanley Cup (not the Stanley Cup Final as it exists today). (And the only other championships around the world that could possibly be older are the Olympics and some soccer championships.) For decades, especially between when the Arizona schools joined the Pac-10 and when Penn State joined the Big 10, it served as a national championship game of its own between the champions of the Pac-10 and the Big 10. Those two conferences could be considered to form a single east-west super-conference with a single, controversy-free championship game. Those days are over, ended when the Rose Bowl agreed to take part in the BCS. But the idea is still powerful, and you do not end something with more than a century of tradition with a snap of the fingers. The city of Pasadena places too much value on the Tournament of Roses ending in the game between two of the best college football teams in the country, and the game still gets better ratings than any college football game outside the BCS Championship Game. Four of the BCS conferences and all the other bowls could be completely in favor of a playoff proposal, but if the Rose Bowl, Pac-10, and Big Ten don’t like it, it’s not going to happen.

And there is, in all likelihood, not a playoff possible that would both satisfy the Rose Bowl and maintain its own integrity. The Rose Bowl will not put up with being either reduced to a play-in game to another bowl or forced to abandon its Pac-10/Big Ten matchup all the time. (Witness how the Rose Bowl pissed off everyone, including its own fans, by sacrificing Illinois at the altar of USC after the 2007 season instead of a Missouri team one win away from the national championship game.) The Rose Bowl was forced to become a national championship game moved off New Year’s Day in 2002 and 2006 before the creation of the separate National Championship Game removed that obligation and returned the Rose to New Years’ every year. Making the Rose the National Championship Game would be better than putting it in an earlier round, but it would abandon the Pac-10/Big Ten combination, possibly every year. (The more often you make it the national championship, the more you piss off the Rose by moving it off New Years/removing the Pac-10/Big Ten matchup and the more you piss off the other bowls for not being the national championship.) Not making it the National Championship Game and moving it outside the playoff entirely would still risk teams being selected for the National Championship Game from either the Pac-10 or Big Ten and ruining things, though that’s no different than now. Making it part of the playoff and maintaining the Pac-10/Big Ten matchup whenever possible would not only piss the Rose Bowl off at being made into a quarterfinal (as in one popular “incorporate the BCS bowls” idea), but effectively violate the sanctity of the playoff as well by manipulating the bracket to satisfy one group – the worst of both worlds.

What the Rose Bowl would really want would be a return to the era of no real championship, but just as college football signed its deal with the devil by creating the BCS, so the Rose Bowl signed its own death sentence by joining it. My generation has no particular sentimental connection to the idea of the Rose Bowl as a Pac-10/Big Ten showdown, seeing the Rose Bowl’s “tradition” only as a roadblock to the playoff we all want, and eventually we’ll come into power and the Rose Bowl’s tradition will lose much of its power, but it will take many years. (I live less than a mile from a Pac-10 school and even I don’t have any sentimental attachment to the Rose Bowl; PTI co-host and Washington Post sportswriter Michael Wilbon, who’s old enough to be my father, went to an admittedly-bad-at-football Big Ten school and even he doesn’t have enough attachment to the Rose Bowl not to want a playoff!) But while the Rose Bowl’s opposition is the most formidable, there are 33 other bowls that don’t want to lose their power, and while many of them are cheap cash-ins between two mediocre teams, others have their own history, tradition, big names, and money behind them – namely, the other three BCS bowls, as well as the Cotton and the bowl now known as the Capitol One, and to a lesser extent, the Outback, Chick-fil-A, Holiday, Gator, Alamo, and Sun Bowls. You could make a case for the Champs Sports and Liberty bowls as well, but even the Texas Bowl deserves to know they won’t be left behind in a playoff.

A lot of narrowminded playoff proponents say “Just incorporate the bowls into the playoff!” but that would remove a lot of the bowls’ significance as a reward and vacation for a job well done at the end of the season, as opposed to a stepping stone to something bigger. Bowls that are quarterfinals or worse aren’t really bowls anymore. It might not be best for the playoff either: having teams fight for home field advantage would heighten the importance of seeding, and populate the stands at each playoff game with passionate supporters of the home team, showcase college football’s great stadiums and pageantry, and pump money into the host schools, as opposed to packing the stands of a dreary, cookie-cutter, possibly NFL venue with disinterested tourists and locals and pump (not as much, given the added travel) money to sponsors and bowl committees. Yes, March Madness is hosted entirely on neutral sites, but there’s a reason the NFL playoffs (outside the Super Bowl) aren’t, and there’s a reason the women’s basketball tournament has a lot of not-so-neutral sites despite the effect that has on fairness of competition. Having teams hop from bowl to bowl for weeks would put a lot of strain on fans – even awarding home field advantage is too much of a logistical concern for some playoff opponents, we don’t need to make that any more of an issue than it already is.

More realistic playoff proposals recognize two things: one, there are at most 16 teams getting plucked for the playoff to 68 teams that play in bowls (24 teams would be a closer match to the ratio of teams selected in college basketball but would include more questionable teams and dilute the regular season too much for my tastes), and two, the bowls have been pretty diluted already by the creation of One Bowl to Rule them All (which is one reason there are so many pointless bowls now). These people keep bowls for all the teams not in the playoff, comparable to the NIT in college basketball, and possibly for teams that lose in the playoff. A plus-one with semifinal games played the week after the conference championships could completely preserve the bowl lineup with the sole exception of a more acceptable championship game. Larger playoffs have more issues with this sort of thing. My 16-team playoff, as it has been devised in the past, has first-round games the week after the conference championships, quarterfinals at Christmas, semifinals New Year’s Day, and a final played anywhere from a week after New Year’s to possibly on ML King day (taking care to avoid NFL Playoff interference). Tightening it up further runs into problems like finals week, which university presidents would never accept messing with, but under this system only losers in the first round can be thrown back into the general bowl pool. In the past I’ve assigned two BCS bowls to the semifinals, one BCS bowl and the Cotton Bowl to quarterfinal losers, and the Fiesta Bowl as a third-place game between the semifinal losers, maintaining the notion of the bowls allowing one-fourth of all teams to end their seasons with a win and better evening out the number of games each team plays, but possibly making too many teams play too many games too far into December and January. This year the first round would be the weekend of December 12; December 19 would be taken off for finals; December 26 or thereabouts would be the quarterfinals; New Year’s would host the semis; and the final probably couldn’t be held any earlier than January 7. It goes no later than the current BCS Championship Game (in the best of circumstances), but not a single additional round could be added without adding more games towards the end of this period, or otherwise pushing the whole regular season back or compressing it. (Ideally one week would be removed from the end of the regular season, but that means the conference championships are either gone or held Thanksgiving Weekend, which is currently populated with rivalry games, and I don’t want to bolt the conference championships without cutting down conference sizes, which would mean more conferences and more auto bids. Until this year the Ohio State-Michigan game was held the week before Thanksgiving, though, so that might not be so much of a problem.)

Since we’re talking about finals…

You have to protect the integrity of academics! College football (and basketball) sold out on academics a long time ago. The same schools, conferences, and NCAA that don’t want to add a playoff because it would negatively impact academics added a twelfth game solely so they could make more money. (The first thing I’d do to make more space for my 16-team playoff, if I needed it and if it would help, would be to junk the twelfth game.) They could have created a plus-one instead, adding the same number of games to only two to four teams’ schedules, and not impacting the other teams’ academics or bodies. FCS, Division II, and Division III have playoffs, and some last longer than the conference championships in FBS. (You can make a case that academics for the more heavily-worked players at schools where football matters much more need to be protected more. But you can also make a case that, because smaller schools care more about academics, they should have academics interfered with and the more athletics-centered schools shouldn’t.) March Madness extends into April, which at schools where the semester ends at the winter break, technically crosses the spring break into the next semester. (And at two-semester schools, every winter sport spans two semesters! In fact, college basketball games are played as early as November and December, in the fall!)

(A quick digression. Arguments about how FCS or Division II or Division III have playoffs can be used only to prove it’s logistically, academically, and athletically possible. Even then those playoffs often begin much earlier than an FBS playoff would have to; I think at least one has its championship game during FBS’s conference championship weekend. It’s not a good idea to use it as an argument that “we can install a college football playoff and change tradition” because that is the tradition for the lower divisions where the football playoff dates back to the 70s or earlier.)

Won’t someone please think of the children! The “overworked injury-prone athletes” argument is even more asinine than the academics argument, and Gunther doesn’t even bring it up, perhaps because it’s lost some steam since the original “Case for a Playoff”. This time the counterargument is not smaller football divisions, though by the same token as the academics argument they do back up the notion of a playoff here (why should the tougher FBS athletes play fewer games?), but other levels played by the same players. We don’t even need to talk about the NFL’s 16-game regular season, where you can play 20 games if your team is good enough to make the playoffs, plus one to four preseason games, which many players at FBS schools are using college as a stepping-stone to. You can at least make the case that kids’ bodies are more fragile. But if you make that case, what do you say about high school football players who often play more games than they will at the college level, while having academics impacted?

The fans can’t possibly attend all these games! They don’t seem to have any problem with attending the games at the NCAA basketball tournament, but if you’re too concerned about that, have the first few rounds on campus sites, as suggested above.

The controversy the current system creates is one reason why college football is second in popularity right now only to the NFL. I’m surprised Gunther doesn’t include this argument, because it relates directly to what he sees as the core of the issue for playoff opponents. It isn’t just an argument against a playoff, it’s an argument for the subjective system Gunther’s opponents advocate. However, he does populate the margins of the argument when he talks about money. More on that in a minute.

Certainly the present controversy attracts a certain breed of fan in a way that other sports don’t. A lot of my activity regarding college football, especially my rankings and simulated playoff, I don’t think I’d do if college football had a real playoff. So this really comes down to why you think college football is so popular. Is it because it creates bar arguments? Or is it because of the history and traditions? Or is it because of the taste of a real championship the BCS provides? If it’s any but the first, this argument is completely asinine. Gunther includes an argument provided by playoff proponents that, while riddled with holes when talking about money, is hard to counteract when talking about popularity.

If the college basketball regular season makes $$$, and the playoff makes $$$$$$$$$$,
then if the college football regular season makes $$$$$$$, a playoff would make $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

In other words, if college football gets X number of fans with no championship, and X+Y number of fans with the BCS, then it stands to reason that with a real championship created by a playoff, with more games to focus the hype towards the championship game, it will get X+Y+Z number of fans. The BCS may turn on nerds like me, but drunken, dumb fans of the NFL (especially if they never went to a BCS college) probably find it too confusing and cerebral “thinky”. (I don’t mean that to disparage the NFL or its fans.) College football may be second in popularity right now to the NFL, but a playoff gives it a shot to rectify that problem. Think that’s too far-fetched? Until the AFL-NFL split and merger, college football was more popular than the NFL. Today, college basketball is more popular than the NBA. The ratings prove it: the national championship game, which is almost always a snoozer and anticlimax (one way you could tell 2008 was a great year for sports was that even the college basketball national championship was great and thrilling instead of a blowout), consistently gets more viewers than the NBA Finals. The Final Four gets better ratings than any NBA games except the Finals (and haven’t bolted for cable either). Even the biggest games in college basketball’s “meaningless” regular season get better ratings than any non-Christmas NBA regular season games.

Granted, some people think the NBA is too populated with prima donnas and that the college game is more “pure”, but I suspect those same people have a chance to arise as college football fans if the NFL keeps getting populated with Terrell Owens-es and if it attracts more attention for steroid use. The Golden Bowl, as I call the final of my 16-team playoff, could be a bigger event than the Super Bowl if it replaced a confusing system that doubtless turns countless fans off the sport. Texas-USC popped a rating on par with the NFL’s conference championships. The ratings might have been even higher if there was a real playoff leading up to it. The more people accept a game as a legitimate championship, the more popular it is – what a concept!

Which brings me to the number one obstacle to a playoff, perhaps even including within itself the bowls’ obstruction…

College football loses money. That’s probably a bad way to phrase it. There are a lot of different interests that both sides admit would make more or less money in one system or the other. Gunther says that when either side brings up money, it’s not their main concern; it’s just an elephant in the living room that they can’t ignore. He says this because one, most of the active debaters don’t make any money off college football (even if they bet on it that’ll only affect them by increasing the number of games to bet on), and two, both sides argue against making more money as often as not, whether it’s proponents blasting the bowls and their money as an obstacle to a playoff or opponents saying extra money from a playoff isn’t worth the loss of traditions and regular season importance.

I used to hear the argument that college football would lose money with a playoff a significant amount, though even then it was mutated into another form I’ll get to in a bit. The battle lines are drawn a bit differently now. More and more, the focus has shifted to playoff proponents claiming a playoff would make more money than the BCS does. This is based more on logic (if a bit of a logical fallacy) than on any robust economic studies that, as far as me and Gunther know, don’t exist. It seems simple enough: A playoff would mean there would be more games played. More games = more money. More concretely, the NCAA gets paid billions of dollars for the NCAA Tournament, over half a billion a year. The BCS just signed a four-year deal with ESPN worth barely $100 million a year, a total amount of money that doesn’t match what the NCAA gets for the basketball tournament in a single year, despite the fact college football is more popular. A playoff would not only be more legitimate, it would create 15 games worth paying for (under a 16-team system) instead of just 5 in the BCS. How is this even a discussion?

The flaw in this reasoning becomes apparent when you notice that the SEC raked in over a billion dollars from ESPN at the same time the BCS signed up with the Worldwide Leader. Why is a single conference raking in over a billion dollars in bank (more, I should note, than the BCS)? No doubt it’s because of the SEC’s regular season football games. You better have already proved that a playoff won’t appreciably devalue the regular season if you’re going to make the argument that college football will make more money with a playoff because college basketball does. More to the point, the gatekeepers of college football make more money, from all sources, from the current system than they do from March Madness. Gunther has compiled the relevant numbers here and they show that the Big Six conferences make way more money off the BCS alone than they do off March Madness – from 2002-2006, all six of them together made, on average, $109 million from the BCS to $70 million to March Madness. Any half-decent playoff would involve splitting that money up with the non-BCS conferences, and possibly the NCAA, as is the case in March Madness. (And I have a feeling that if the NCAA were to run an FBS playoff they would attempt to re-merge the subdivisions of Division I and jack the size up to 32 teams.)

But wait a minute. There are significantly fewer teams in FBS than there are in Division I as a whole. In fact, while the mid-major teams are the majority in college basketball (hence the name of the web site “The Mid-Majority”), the BCS teams outnumber the non-BCS conferences in FBS, 65 to 55. Even with a playoff the BCS conferences would keep a larger proportion of the money than in college basketball, so maybe they’d still make more money than they do now. Moreover, what if the gap between football and basketball is even larger in the regular season? If a playoff would increase the gap to the level the regular season is at, wouldn’t football still make more money? But what about the devaluing the regular season – wouldn’t the increase in value of a playoff be offset by the decrease in value of the regular season? And we’re back to needing to have proved the regular season won’t be appreciably devalued. And what about the teams in the non-BCS conferences? Many early-round games would need to be played against them, and games against no-names don’t put butts in seats (in the stadium or at home). In general, BCS teams have more fans than non-BCS ones – why should the BCS teams have to ship a boatload of money to the smaller non-BCS teams and have a good chunk of the new money brought in by a playoff tainted by that? But if we have games on campus sites that will pump ticket sales primarily into the coffers of BCS schools shifting the balance back to them…

So not only is the money argument tangential to the concerns people actually care about, it’s really impossible to argue concretely in the absence of hard, relevant numbers.

Tomorrow I’ll address some of the comments people have left regarding this series and cover points not made so far – to the extent I have any.

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