Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

26 Jan 2004

Confessions of a Football Junkie: Chariots of Fire

by Russell Levine

Unless your name is Mel Kiper, Jr., and you spent Saturday afternoon foaming at the mouth over the Senior Bowl, the weekend without football just past serves as a reminder that the darkest days of the sports calendar will commence immediately following next Sunday's Super Bowl in Houston.

Among the many reasons not to like the off-week before the Super Bowl, which is back this year after a two-year hiatus, is that it offers a preview of the pigskin-free months of February and March, before the NFL draft returns to excite football fans in April.

It's not the purpose of this column to debate the merits of the week off before the Super Bowl -- that's an argument for another day. The fact is, the week off is most likely here to stay, and I understand the league's position on the issue. It's not fair to players and fans alike to make them scramble to get to the Super Bowl site immediately following the championship games.

Given that we appear to be stuck with this off week, shouldn't we find some event to fill it? To many, the logical solution would be to use this weekend to play a college football "super bowl" at the conclusion of a Division I-A playoff bracket.

This was a hot topic a few weeks ago when USC and LSU each laid claim to a share of the mythical national championship. Among hard-core college football games, the debate as to which team was more deserving is likely to rage for several more months, if not years. (If you have a free hour to kill, I'd gladly break down for you the particulars as to why Michigan deserved the outright title in 1997, instead of a split with those cheating, ball-kicking, pollster-whining, gift-to-a-retiring-coach receiving Nebraska Cornhuskers.)

On the surface, it makes perfect sense -- schedule a playoff to conclude this weekend, fill a huge hole in the sports-TV calendar and make piles of money of the rights fees and gate receipts. In fact, computer-maker Gateway got some free publicity this month when it offered to put up $30 million to stage a USC-LSU match. But since we're talking about an event that would have to be sanctioned by the NCAA, how much sense it makes is of little consequence.

I'm here to tell you why it's never going to happen -- in this lifetime at least -- no matter how many split championships we have. The reasons why have as much to do with this nation's appetite for chariot racing (more on that in a bit) as they do with academics.

College presidents and school administrators love to wax poetic about how the reasons against a playoff are rooted in academia. To play games all through December would force student-athletes to play during the Fall-semester exam period, they say. Outgoing BCS commissioner Mike Tranghese even suggested that the integrity of a championship game played after New Year's (and into a new academic semester) would be put at risk by the potential for star players to be out of the lineup due to academic ineligibility. Hey here's a thought: Go to class and that won't be a problem.

As far as playing during exams goes, it doesn't seem to be that big an obstacle during the college basketball season, so that's clearly a manageable problem. School and NCAA officials can talk about academics all they want, but the real reason a playoff is not going to happen in this lifetime is...

(drum roll please)


Money

 
 
(But Russ, you said the answer lay in the popularity of chariot racing. What about that? Patience, the answer is coming.)

First, let's examine the two primary solutions that are usually proposed: a full-blown, March Madness-style bracket tournament that scraps the bowl system altogether and a more-limited playoff that would make use of the bowls.

They key obstacle to both plans is money, or more precisely, who controls it. If the NCAA were to sanction a bracket-style football tournament, it would presumably control all the money involved. It would negotiate the television contracts and spread the wealth after all the gate receipts and licensing revenues were collected.

Under the bowl system, the bowls control the money. They are not run by the NCAA. They negotiate their own TV and licensing deals and collect their own gate receipts. They sign their own sponsorship agreements (hence, the Kelly Tire Bowl and the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl). They determine how much money they will pay out to the participating schools.

For the bowls to be used as part of a playoff, the NCAA and the various bowl organizing committees would have to come to some agreement as to how to share control of all that money. The organizing committees are largely non-profit associations that stage the games to attract tourist dollars to their communities. While the NCAA is also a non-profit group, it's not your garden-variety humanitarian mission. The organizing committees are not reaping huge profits from these games that could be shared with the NCAA. Furthermore, the NCAA is not a big fan of corporate titles. Anyone who has ever been to an NCAA championship event has probably noticed that all the sponsorship signage in the arena is dimmed and there are certain amenities, like alcohol sales, that are missing. Those corporate dollars are a huge chunk of the money that the bowl committees use to put up their appearance fees, and would have to be replaced.

Even if some sort of sharing of financial control could be agreed upon, it's unlikely that the bowls could succeed as host sites for playoff games.

The bowls work because they are attractive destinations for fans and alumni to come see their team play as a reward for a good season. If the Rose Bowl, with all its pomp and circumstance, was merely a semifinal game, it's doubtful fans of the competing teams would travel great distances to attend.

People will argue that following a basketball team in the NCAA tournament means that some fans will travel to three different locales on three consecutive weekends. While that's true, it's also true that at each opening-round venue, there are eight teams present to fill perhaps 15-20,000 seats. In the bowls-as-tournament-games scenario, you'd have two teams present to fill 75,000 seats or more.

Ticket sales are why nearly every other NCAA tournament plays its early round games at campus sites rather than neutral venues.

So why can't the bowl system simply be scrapped? Would anybody really miss the EV1.net Houston Bowl if it disappeared, anyway? The truth is, if chariot racing had proven to be a more popular spectator sport, the bowl system might never have survived and prospered.

Bowl games were born in 1902, and nearly died the same year. The Tournament of Roses Association decided that year to add a college football game to its traditional New Year's Day festivities. Mighty Michigan was invited to come west and take on Stanford, but the game was a mismatch. In fact, Stanford gave up in the third quarter while trailing, 49-0.

The Tournament organizers were discouraged to the point that they replaced the football game with Roman-style chariot races the following year. The chariot racing proved to be a less-than-overwhelming success, and football returned to stay in 1916, giving birth to the modern tradition of New Year's bowl games.

In the intervening nine decades, the bowls have become a venerable institution that is as much a part of college football as the marching band. They grew up outside of the auspices of the NCAA as sort of an afterthought to the regular season. In fact, the final AP poll wasn't conducted after the bowl games until 1968. Before then, the writers awarded their championship based on the regular season. In the 1970s and 80s, the bowls became more flexible in their attempt to stage championship games, leading to the precursors of today's BCS system, which stands as a de facto playoff for the express purpose of determining a national champion. But that's never what the bowls were intended to do. Instead, they became a part of the fabric of college football as destination events and end-of-season rewards. As a result, they are too firmly entrenched to be done away with.

If college football were to ever scrap the bowls and go to a true playoff, the sport would be largely indistinguishable from the NFL in the method by which it determined its champion. The thing that makes the NCAA basketball tournament such a great event is its one-and-done format, which is totally separate from the way the NBA playoffs are conducted. But there would be nothing unique about a football playoff, and it would rob the college game of its identity.

Besides tradition, academics, a potential turf-war with the NCAA over who controls the money, there's another reason why the powers-that-be in college football have no desire for an exclusive playoff. Say you're the athletic director at Big 12 doormat Baylor. What incentive do you have to do away with the bowl system? The Big 12 sent eight teams to bowl games, including two to ultra-lucrative BCS games. After expenses, all that appearance money is pooled and split 12 ways, giving Baylor the same cut as Oklahoma. Baylor can count on that money rolling in pretty much every year, whether it goes 1-11 or 11-1. An NCAA playoff would operate differently, and all that bowl money would likely dry up for non-participants. When it comes to deciding whether there's a playoff, the Baylor AD holds just as much sway as the LSU AD. Which way do you think he's voting?

So what will happen? The BCS formula is likely to continue to undergo revisions after this year's embarrassing result that left the consensus No. 1 team out of the championship game. There will be some lively debate about returning the four major bowls to their traditional conference alignments, then playing a single championship game a week (or more) later, but in the end, that idea will be rejected as well, once everyone realizes it's as likely to create more controversy as it is to solve any.

Face it, the bowls are here to stay. And I don't think that's a bad thing. And hey, it beats watching chariot races.

Previous articles:

You can read an archive of Russell's columns from earlier in the season, before he joined us at Football Outsiders, here.

Posted by: Russell Levine on 26 Jan 2004

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