Out of all of the quotes that came out of the Bowl Championship Series meetings held yesterday, none drew more attention than those from Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. A month ago, Delany seemed to be taking a defiant stand against any type of expansion of the college football postseason, including a plus-one. At the BCS meetings, though, he indicated a much more open mind toward discussing changes to the current system:
“It was far more open,” the Big Ten’s commissioner, Jim Delany, said. “Four years ago there were five guys who didn’t want to have the discussion. Everyone here fully participated in it.”
Delany had been one of the commissioners who did not even want to discuss a playoff then, but he described himself as “interested, curious and fully participating” Tuesday. He said he would meet in January with the presidents and athletic directors of the universities in his conference to discuss the possibilities for college football’s postseason.
“The environment has changed in the sense that we had five people who didn’t want to talk about it, of the seven founders,” Delany said. “And I think the seven founders were the conferences plus Notre Dame, and four years ago five of us didn’t want to have the conversation. Now people want to have the conversation. I don’t know where our institutions will be on any of this, but I think that in good faith we have to engage and be curious and be open and see where we go.”
This is massive news. Even though this is at only a discussion stage and it’s been indicated that no two conferences are “in the same place” regarding what they want in a new system, the fact that Delany did not immediately shoot down the concept of a plus-one (unlike what had occurred when a seeded plus-one was proposed by the SEC and ACC in 2008) is a significant step toward change. That likely means that Delany received some direction from the Big Ten presidents (who, just like in conference realignment, are the only people that matter as opposed to athletic directors and coaches) to at least listen to what the market is offering as opposed to taking an ironclad stand. Considering that the Big Ten is the largest single power player that needs to be moved on the plus-one format just as a general concept (much less the details), there’s a much greater chance that the BCS system (to the extent that there is even the term “BCS” anymore) will look significantly different when it’s presented to ESPN later this year for a possible TV contract extension that will start in the 2013 season.
As a reminder, there are a couple of things to remember as you read articles about possible changes to the BCS system over the coming months:
- The term “plus-one” is NOT interchangeable with “4-team playoff” – Some mainstream media types (such as Pete Thamel of the New York Times) have been better at making this clear than others. Most pundits seem to automatically assume that a “plus-one” is the same thing as a 4-team playoff, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. As I’ve described before, a 4-team playoff is only one variant of a plus-one system. There is also an unseeded plus-one option along with different strains in between that could be called “semi-seeded”. The old adage that the “devil is in the details” couldn’t ring any truer than in this situation. There are going to a lot of different plus-one scenarios discussed and I’d wager that what we ultimately end up with won’t be the simple 4-team playoff that many are assuming is end game.
- Removal of AQ status is NOT interchangeable with the removal of conference contractual tie-ins – The potential removal of the concept of automatic qualifying status is another issue that much of the mainstream media makes a large deal about but often doesn’t explain clearly. As I’ve explained previously, this is largely a matter of semantics for every current AQ conference except for the Big East. The concept of AQ status might go away, but rest assured that the Rose Bowl will still have contractual tie-ins with the Big Ten and Pac-12 no matter what happens and that will likely be the case with the Sugar Bowl and SEC, Orange Bowl and ACC, and Fiesta Bowl and Big 12. The Cotton Bowl might swoop in to get the top Big 12 tie-in, but the overarching point is that those five power conferences are going to continue to have de facto AQ status through their contractual tie-ins even if the actual term “AQ status” goes away. No one should be fooled into thinking that the BCS bowls are just going to take the top 8 or 10 teams in the BCS rankings if AQ status is removed. The entire reason why the Big Ten and SEC actually agree on the removal of AQ status is that the power conferences will actually end up with more top bowl bids based on brand names as opposed to strict merit.
So, what exactly are the key issues to overcome in order to actually make changes to the BCS system? Here are some further items to think about:
1. The Seven Founders – It’s telling that in Jim Delany’s quotes about the openness to discussing a plus-one, he specifically referenced the “Seven Founders” of the BCS system: the Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC, Big 12, ACC, Big East and that massive coast-to-coast conference known as the University of Notre Dame. What it means is that any opposition to a particular proposal by the Big Ten (and potentially the Pac-12 and Notre Dame) shouldn’t be framed as being against the wishes of the 9 other FBS conferences. Instead, the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Notre Dame represent 3 of the Seven Founders, which means that the SEC and ACC can’t just ram their old seeded plus-one proposal through. It also shows that the opinions of the non-AQ conferences literally don’t matter here. They might technically have a vote and can provide some input, but nothing is going to be changed unless it makes the Seven Founders happy.
2. Big East as a Swing Vote? – The fact that the Big East, at least for now, is still considered to be one of the Seven Founders (despite the fact that the only current Big East football member that was part of the league when the BCS system began in 1998 is Rutgers) could become a key point. It seems clear that the SEC and ACC support a seeded plus-one, with the Big 12 probably jumping aboard. On the other side, the Big Ten, Pac-12* and Notre Dame appear to be fairly aligned. With a potential 3-3 deadlock, where the Big East ends up could become the deciding factor to the system that ultimately gets put into place. From a pure Big East standpoint, this is a great thing since it can leverage that swing vote position (the Justice Kennedy of the BCS) to possibly preserve access to the top bowls that it might not otherwise receive if the all of the bowl selections went to an open market. For example, the new system might require each BCS bowl to have a contractual tie-in with one of the Seven Founders, which means that if a fifth BCS bowl is added (such as the Cotton Bowl), one of them will need to have a tie-in with the Big East. That Big East tie-in could be made much more palatable if it includes access to Notre Dame (i.e. a bowl can select the higher ranked of either Notre Dame or the Big East champ in any given year). Speaking of which, Notre Dame certainly has a self-interest in preserving the Big East, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the Big East ends up in a voting bloc with the Irish, Big Ten and Pac-12 since the Domers are going to be more willing to offer the fledgling league protection than, say the ACC and Big 12 that just raided them. To be sure, the Big East isn’t anywhere near out of the woods yet (as the prospect of the Big 12 raiding it again for Louisville and Rutgers is the one conference realignment move that I see is plausible over the next year), but at least it’s not completely all doom and gloom.
(* Many in the media believe that Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott is willing to break with tradition with his aggressive nature, but he hasn’t really said anything different compared to Jim Delany up to this point regarding the plus-one. If anything, preserving the value of the Rose Bowl is even more important to the Pac-12 than the Big Ten. All of the major bowls across the country would love to have contractual tie-ins with the Big Ten, as evidenced by the fact that the conference has received more at-large BCS bowl bids than any other conference, including the vaunted SEC. For the Pac-12, though, the specific Rose Bowl tie-in is really the only leg up that it has over the ACC in its overall bowl lineup. The Big Ten can draw bowl interest from literally every region of the country in a manner that the Pac-12 will never be able to do.)
3. The Divergent Interests of University Presidents, Bowls and ESPN – Many college football playoff proposals often start with, “This is so simple. WHY CAN’T THEY DO THIS?” The issue, of course, is that it’s not simple at all with all of the entrenched interests involve that are often at odds with each other.
For example, ESPN has said that it’s on board with having the title game closer to New Year’s Day. That certainly makes sense in order to counter “bowl fatigue” being experience by TV viewers, but it also means that would make it virtually impossible to have the bowls host semifinals in a seeded plus-one or to create a #1 vs. #2 matchup after the bowls are played in an unseeded plus-one. Having schools host games on their home fields in December could alleviate that, but that also means shutting the bowls out of that first round process and whether you like it or not, that’s NOT happening. Even Dan Wetzel, who has made a career out of demonizing the bowl system with his book “Death to the BCS”, acknowledges that a plus-one system will need to incorporate the bowls in some manner because of their power. People can keep wishing that weren’t the case, but it is what it is.
The notion that the top bowls could be played in mid-December or even around Christmas is also something that won’t work practically. As anyone in the travel industry will tell you, the 2 weeks in December leading up to Christmas is the slowest travel period of the year, which is logical since few people want to take days off right before the holidays. That’s why the top bowls avoid dates in prior to and bracketing Christmas like the plague. The lower level bowls only agree to those earlier dates because that’s the only way that they can receive TV coverage.
At the same time, TV executives have access to larger potential audiences after January 1st (which is why TV networks air mostly reruns throughout the entire month of December) and on weeknights, while the bowls are best served by dates between Christmas and New Years Day when more people have time off. Neither the TV networks nor the bowls want to compete with NFL playoff games that are on the weekends at the beginning of the year, either, so those midweek January games (even if the TV networks and bowls are sincere in wanting to get rid of them) are tough to move.
University presidents will throw out some arguments such as having too long of a season or that they want to prevent football from becoming a two-semester sport. Even if they are sincere about that (and it’s hard for me to take them seriously when the other revenue sport of basketball has practices that start in October and the NCAA Tournament ends in April), it directly conflicts with their own desire to work with the bowls and TV networks that effectively push the most desirable games into January.
Lest we forget, there are also fans! (Who the heck thinks about them?) It’s asking a lot of even hardcore football fans to travel to one bowl game, particularly in this economy. Asking them to travel to two neutral site games is stretching it very thin, while having them travel to even more neutral site games in an 8-team playoff scenario (which won’t be happening in practicality, but it will still get proposed) is virtually impossible. This could be solved by having earlier games played at teams’ home fields, yet we run into the problem that the bowls must be included.
When push comes to shove, I believe a plus-one national championship game will be played in mid-January, with possibly Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a regular date for the game since that’s a holiday weekend for a fair number of people on a Monday that falls about 2 weeks after the bowls are completed. The timing generally works as a week turnaround from the last bowl game to the national championship game is practically too short for the players and fans, so as much as people want to compress the length of the bowl season, it needs to be closer to a two-week gap. The concept of “bowl fatigue” is likely more of a function that none of the bowl games besides the national championship game and maybe the Rose Bowl have much meaning, which would change if a plus-one is instituted. (I’ve never heard of anyone getting “basketball fatigue” during the course of the 3-week NCAA Tournament. If people believe that the games matter, they will happily watch.)
Also, ticket sales to the national championship game are much less sensitive to dates and the ability for fans to travel compared to the bowls if only because there are so many more tickets allocated to corporate partners for that game (similar to the Super Bowl). No matter what date the national championship game is held, it’s going to sell out easily. In contrast, moving a bowl game from near New Year’s Day to prior to Christmas can be a killer from a ticket sale perspective. That’s a further argument that the plus-one championship game will end up later in January as opposed to close to New Year’s Day.
Finally, university presidents are in much less of a position to turn down revenue in a time of shrinking endowments and state budget cuts to public colleges compared to the last time a plus-one system was proposed in 2008. Some estimates out there show that the BCS TV contract could double from its current $125 million per year level to around $250 million per year if there’s a plus-one game. Note that this figure doesn’t even include the separate Rose Bowl TV contract. So, are university presidents going to be taking a principled stand against a further extension of the college football season when all that is happening is the addition of one game featuring two teams (out of 120 FBS schools) being played in mid-January and will add about $1 million to $2 million per year to each of their schools’ coffers without any effort whatsoever? The extra revenue from a plus-one game is so large with such little practical change to the current system (literally the addition of a single game) that it’s low hanging fruit which the university presidents likely can’t resist.
To be clear, the possible (if not probable) changes to the BCS system are NOT arising from the all-SEC national championship game this year. This is about the powers that be witnessing postseason bowl ticket sales and TV ratings trending down in the long-term, which translates into lost revenue. That wasn’t the case in 2008 when there were recent national championship games featuring all-”king” matchups, such as Texas-USC in 2005 and Ohio State-Florida in 2006, that saw boffo ratings numbers. (Meanwhile, regular season college football ticket sales and TV ratings are as strong as ever.) A plus-one game is a relatively non-disruptive way on paper to alleviate a lot of those concerns about the state of the college football postseason with pretty much an instant jolt in revenue, which is why it’s now getting a whole lot of traction today. The details of what that plus-one system will actually look like, though, will take much of this year to resolve.
(Image from Birmingham News)