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College Football Playoffs: Modest Good News From the Big 10

The conference makes a push to add a real, if small and short, playoff to the BCS system, as low TV ratings have the powers that be considering what fans have wanted for years.

Neyland Staidum


I’m probably the wrong person to write about the Trib’s big news that the Big Ten is actively interested in an actual college football playoff system. I’m really not that interested in college football, the only major sport that I have zero interest in watching. I think it dates back to the only game played by an actual college football powerhouse I’ve seen in person, a drubbing of Texas El-Paso by the pre-Peyton Tennessee Vols. It was more like a starters-bench scrimage—I think the final score was 62-7—only in front of a crowd as big as the city I grew up near, looking like a magnetic football game from the nosebleed rows of Neyland Stadium. It just seemed really confusing.

Then again, I’m exactly the audience that playoff partisans is interested in. Ratings for the Bowl Championship Series were down substantially this year, and the trend for the BCS bowls over the past 13 years is not promising.

College football has always seemed less like a sport to me than geopolitics—a handful of empires rolling over their lessers year in and year out, occasionally declining over the course of decades. Here and there some outlier (Houston, Texas Tech, Oregon) will institute a weird system and come to prominence, or a great power will violate international law (USC, Ohio State) and be brought to its knees. But generally speaking, it’s the same storylines, changing in geologic time.

But the Big Ten seems to at least be aware that something’s off, and aware that it’s not just the BCS system:

Alabama’s trouncing of LSU took place Jan. 9, a day after the NFL’s wild-card weekend. Fourteen percent of the country tuned in, marking the third-lowest rating in the 14 years of the BCS.

“There is a very strong sense that we have missed the boat and are playing games too late,” Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany told the Tribune. “Students are back in class, people are back at work.”

The Big Ten’s idea is very much a compromise, promoting a mere four teams to a semifinal playoff. I much prefer Dan Wetzel’s idea of a 16-team playoff. Wetzel and Yahoo! colleagues Jeff Passan and Josh Peter have done excellent reporting on the BCS mess over the years, and they’ve got a watertight argument that should appeal to the schools (and the monied interests) as much as the fans:

So why does college football stage its postseason in antiseptic pro and municipal stadiums?

Hosting games would be a boon to the schools. Instead of sharing up to 40 percent of game revenue (and all travel costs) with third-party bowl committees – run by an executive director making up to $800,000 a year – college and universities could keep all money in-house.

And as the colleges themselves lose money indirectly by not hosting the games, and sometimes directly through the process of participating in bowls, the non-profits that run the bowls themselves make money—some of it taxpayer money:

The non-profits that run the bowls have accepted subsidies from governments facing difficult financial times. Louisiana, for example, gave the Sugar Bowl a nearly $1.4 million subsidy in 2009, the same year it began cutting spending for public colleges and health-care services. Tempe, meanwhile, will pay the Fiesta Bowl $6.45 million through 2013 to host the Insight Bowl, another game that the Fiesta Bowl operates in Sun Devil Stadium.

If we get a playoff system, some of the momentum will come from fans, but a lot of it will come from complex, behind-the-scenes politics that pit the universities against the bowls they play in. And the BCS will have only itself to blame.


Photograph: Triple Tri (CC by 2.0)


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