Let me state upfront that there hasn’t been anything on my mind lately other than the horrific scandal at Penn State that has led to the ouster of Joe Paterno, among others. Conference realignment and the football games on the field feel pretty inconsequential compared to the allegations facing Jerry Sandusky. However, for my own sanity, I’ll try to provide a brief respite from the dark news that seems to come daily with some thoughts on the latest BCS meetings along with some new proposals being kicked around. Realignment news has gone down to a trickle lately outside of some reports this week of BYU heavily entertaining a football-only invite to the Big East, so this is a good time to take some stock of big-picture college football postseason issues.
One of constants many people have been hearing is that the BCS may eliminate auto-qualifier status for conferences in its next TV contract cycle (which would being in 2014). Stewart Mandel of SI.com said that a “high-ranking BCS source told [him] ‘almost everyone’ wants to do away with AQ bids, but they’ve yet to focus in on a specific alternative”. Interim Big 12 commissioner Chuck Neinas also indicated that he sensed support for the removal of AQ status.
Of course, there are many different interpretations of what “removing AQ status” actually means. A pure removal of AQ status would be a proposal that Dennis Dodd mentioned in the Neinas article linked above of simply having the top 10 teams in the BCS rankings get slotted into the various BCS bowls. That’s certainly the most egalitarian way of approaching things. Call me skeptical on this approach ever getting passed, though. A quick look at the latest BCS rankings show that the Big Ten’s highest-ranked team is at #15 and I can guarantee you that there will be a 3-week blizzard in hell before the Big Ten (or Pac-12, for that matter) gives up a Rose Bowl slot based on some top 10 ranking qualification. Every current AQ conference except for the Big 12 has had at least one champion ranked lower than #10 during the BCS era (yes, even the almighty and all powerful SEC) and more leagues adding conference championship games make that prospect even more likely in the future. Call me crazy, but I don’t see conferences that have 100% guarantees today giving them up (even if there’s a 90% chance that they wouldn’t be hurt in practice). The Big Ten would rather take a guaranteed Rose Bowl slot in 2011 than risk giving that up in order to shoot the moon to get 3 BCS bowl slots in 2010 (which would’ve happened under a top 10 rule).
This gets back to the question of what is actually meant by “AQ status”. One person that I’ve talked to with strong non-AQ conference ties (so there’s a measure of an admission against one’s self-interest here) said that another proposal under consideration by the college football commissioners is almost the flip side of the top 10 rule, where the BCS would exist only to create a #1 vs. #2 national championship game and the 4 current BCS bowls would be released to enter into whatever individual deals that they would like with various conferences and teams. In that scenario, there would technically no longer be AQ status, although in practice, the individual bowls would provide elevated status to the handful of chosen conferences that they agree to have tie-ins with (most prominently, the Rose Bowl with the Big Ten and Pac-12). Indeed, look at this quote from BCS executive director Bill Hancock following the BCS meetings on Monday:
“The BCS is so misunderstood,” he said. “It was created to match up No. 1 vs. No. 2. And because of the way the critics have reacted to it, it has become more than that. It was never intended to be anything more than that.”
From a 10,000-foot knee-jerk legal viewpoint, this might actually be a great move by the power conferences to institute this proposed change. The main thrust of the antitrust argument against the BCS (which, to be clear, I don’t agree with) is that the four BCS bowls and six AQ conferences have collectively created a cartel that has pricing power that excludes competition and subverts the free market. Letting each of the BCS bowls negotiate their deals individually, though, seriously undermines the cartel argument, as entering into such individual deals is the very essence of free market capitalism.* In essence, those bowls and conferences could actually become more exclusive than they are today under the current BCS system (as nothing would stop them from directly entering into contracts for multiple SEC and Big Ten schools while ignoring the current non-AQ schools completely) and remove a major legal issue from the table at the very same time. I could certainly see the SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12, ACC and Big 12 signing up for this ASAP (as they all would be protected by bowl tie-ins), while I have no idea why the Big East and the non-AQ conferences would allow this to happen. The irony is that the BCS institutionalized a divide between AQ and non-AQ conferences, yet those non-AQ conferences got better access to top tier bowls as a result of that institution. Meanwhile, if the concepts of “AQ” and “non-AQ” go away, the non-AQ conferences may end up being worse off with the top bowls shutting them out in their own individual deals.
(* Note that American antitrust law is focused on protecting consumers, whereas European antitrust law is about preserving competition in and of itself. They’re related, but not really the same thing, as there are instances where a relative lack of competition could arguably be beneficial to consumers. A classic example is the rise of big box stores, where a handful of large stores have the ability to negotiate better prices with suppliers and those savings are passed onto consumers. There might be more competition on paper if you have dozens of small stores competing against each other, but consumers may get better prices if there are just three or four large stores in an area. European antitrust law cares about the former, while U.S. antitrust law favors the latter. In the bowl context, what the consumers want is indicated by TV ratings and ticket sales (as opposed to opinion polls). If bowls are left to their individual devices and prefer taking a 7-5 Notre Dame team instead of an undefeated Houston squad because the Irish would garner better viewership levels and fans in the seats, then that’s perfectly fine from a legal standpoint.)
Larry Scott’s quotes in the Stewart Mandel article linked above highlight this further:
“The thinking about AQ status is pretty different for the Pac-12 and Big Ten than it is for everybody else,” said Scott. “It isn’t as relevant given our unique relationship with the Rose Bowl. It doesn’t really matter for us one way or the other whether there’s AQ status or not.”
There could still be workarounds for the Big East in this scenario. For instance, if it came down to having to deal with individual bowls without an overarching BCS system, the Big East could link in Notre Dame in the manner that it has done with other bowl tie-ins (such as the Champs Sports Bowl). While that might not guarantee that the Big East champ goes to a top tier bowl every single year, linking in the Irish would make the league much more attractive in a pure bowl free market system.
Still, I’m sure that the Big East would much rather keep the current BCS system in place. In a weird twist, the non-AQ conferences may feel the same way. When the power conferences are the ones suggesting changes to the BCS system, rest assured that it’s not going to be done to help out the little guy.