May 27, 2009
Pursuing the BCS
Posted by Gordon Smith

Longtime readers know that I despise the college bowl system, the worst post-season system in all of sports. Emboldened by President Obama's call for a playoff, Congress has been holding hearings on the Bowl Championship Series, and the results have been surprisingly enlightening. Especially now that reporters have started digging.

What justifies the silly bowl system? According to Alamo Bowl executive director Derrick Fox, “almost all the postseason bowl games are put on by charitable groups” and “local charities receive tens of millions of dollars every year.” Uh ... no:

In fact, 10 bowl games are privately owned and one is run by a branch of a local government. The remaining 23 games enjoy tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service, but combined to give just $3.2 million to local charities on $186.3 million in revenue according to their most recent federal tax records and interviews with individual bowl executives.

And then there is this:

When asked if he thought a multinational corporation such as ESPN, which owns six bowl games, qualifies as a “charitable group,” Fox said, “Well, they’re certainly involved in charitable activities.”

Presented with the facts on charitable giving, assembled from tax returns, Rep. Joe Barton of Texas is threatening to pursue perjury or contempt charges against Fox. That's not likely to happen, but this drives home the point that the BCS is supported by lies.

Both Fox and ACC commissioner and current BCS coordinator John Swofford cited local economic development as another justification for the current bowl system. Fox even made reference to a study conducted by the Alamo Bowl. And yet ...

“… [M]ost spending by local residents is considered to be displaced spending and is not counted as part of economic impact,” the Alamo Bowl study states. “[The local fan] is … providing zero economic impact.”

Yet it is local fans that bowl games are increasingly turning to in order to anchor ticket sales and stabilize bowl revenue, even at the expense of tourism dollars.

More than a third of last season’s bowl games (12 of 34) featured a local school – eight were from the host city or a short drive from it and four others came from within a two-hour drive.

“I think bowls’ business models have changed,” said Gary Stokan, president of Atlanta’s Chick-fil-A Bowl, which last year included hometown Georgia Tech. “When we all originally started, bowls were created to really develop economic impact. That’s still our goal. But with the contracted payouts you have now, you’ve got to weigh that, balance the economic-impact figure with attendance.”

So if it's not about charity and it's not about economic development, why does the current bowl system persist? Hmm. A real stumper. I am thinking money and power might provide some clues:

Troy Mathieu, who served as executive director of the Sugar Bowl from 1993 to1996, said it largely comes down to money.

“A part of the motivation in keeping the system is there’s truly no revenue sharing with conferences across the country,” Mathieu said. “I don’t think there was anybody that ever debated that a playoff … was more valuable in terms of the dollars that the network would be willing to pay. It was how would the revenue be distributed and divided.”

Thompson, the Mountain West commissioner, testified that the six major conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC) received 87.4 percent of BCS revenue. In contrast, the same six conferences took home just 61 percent of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament revenue.

A playoff might bring football’s revenue sharing more in line with basketball.

Some playoffs plans, including one produced by the NCAA, concluded they could produce so much revenue that even a lesser percentage share would result in more actual dollars for the six major conferences. However, it likely would require ceding power to the NCAA’s central office, which presumably would run a playoff.

The italicized part is the kicker. It probably is not even worth arguing whether a playoff would produce more revenues than the current system. Just take judicial notice. But the current system funnels most of the money to the six BCS conferences, allows them to have control over the playoff, and -- a factor not cited in the story -- gives them a near monopoly on the best high school football recruits. Those recruits want to play on a team that can win a national championship, and only teams from one of the six BCS conferences have a realistic shot at that.

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