Friday, January 13, 2012

Change is a’comin to college football

image Emerging from the Football Bowl Subdivision conference commissioners meeting and the NCAA Annual Convention is an apparent consensus that the major college football postseason needs to be changed and that some sort of playoff is in the near future.

It won’t be done before the 2012 season starts, so don’t look for a “Plus One” to settle the who’s No. 1 debate next year. The Orange Bowl will host the BCS No. 1 and No. 2 teams next January, and the Rose will pit 1 vs 2 in January 2013. But if things play out along the path they started this week we could have a seeded Football Final Four by 2014.

There’s good reason for optimism if we’re to take Big 10 Commissioner Jim Delany’s words at face value. Here’s what he told the New York Times’ Pete Thamel yesterday in New Orleans:

“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, comparing Tuesday with four years ago. “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.”

The “four years ago” conversation Delany references occurred right after LSU won its second BCS Championship and the conference commissioners met to discuss the future, just as they do every year. The 2008 meeting was important in that the BCS’ contract with Fox was expiring and the organization was about to begin negotiating a new television contract between the BCS, the bowls and broadcasters. Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive and ACC Commissioner Jim Swofford proposed that the BCS develop a four-team seeded playoff. The other conferences wanted none of it. Since that fateful meeting, Florida, Alabama, Auburn and Alabama again have won the BCS National Championship.

Now, the conference commissioners who’ve been outside looking in are eager to talk. It’s funny how things like that work, isn’t it?

Meanwhile in Indianapolis, NCAA President Mark Emmert was delivering a “State of the Association” address to the league’s annual convention. Striking a harmonious chord with the conference commissioners, he stated his support for a four-team football playoff but expressed reservations about expanding it to a multi-round 8- or 16-team affair when asked about the New Orleans discussions.

"The notion of having a Final Four approach is probably a sound one," Emmert said when asked what he heard coming out of New Orleans this week. "Moving toward a 16-team playoff is highly problematic because I think that's too much to ask a young man's body to do. It's too many games, it intrudes into the school year and, of course, it would probably necessitate a complete end to the bowl system that so many people like now."

These developments are great news for college football fans, who have been clamoring for just such a system for years. While some may float specious arguments about falling attendance and declining ratings as protest votes by fans, the truth is that demand for the college football postseason product has been growing for decades. In fact, college sports is probably the only bright spot in a dismal US economy.

College sports is big business, and the only viable solution to the current, much-maligned BCS is one that delivers a good product to consumers and enhances the revenue earned by the schools. Many schools are hurting for cash and the prospect of adding hundreds of millions in new revenue is the only way to lure the college presidents into giving Slive’s idea a try.

Playoff zealots and BCS anarchists pushing for more than a Final Four model will be disappointed. Expanding beyond a four team system means significant disruptions in academic calendars and would almost certainly require shortening the regular season. That means programs giving up the revenue associated with a home game and incurring the additional academic and travel costs. Try selling that to an already reticent group of college administrators. It doesn’t matter what extra revenue would be generated by the playoffs. Nothing offsets the millions in revenue from gate receipts, television, concessions, etc., not to mention the howls of protest from the local community over lost lodging and entertainment business.

It’s a Final Four, and that’s it. Fortunately though, it looks like it’s really about to start happening.

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