Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Getting the playoff argument wrong

image A lot of people still don’t get it.

Let the record show that I favor replacing or reforming the Bowl Championship Series with a some form of playoff. My preference is the “Plus One” model floated by the SEC and ACC four years ago and gaining favor among conferences originally opposed to it. Both the Big 12 and the Pac-12 Commissioners have warmed to the idea and only the Big East and Big 10 likely stand in the way.

I want to see a playoff but if we’re going to make a successful argument and convince the BCS commissioners and college presidents that a four-team, two-round “Plus One” postseason is good for college football, some people will either need to change their line of reasoning or simply STFU and GTFU.

For starters, let’s dismiss the notion that bowl attendance is falling and that fans are no longer interested in traveling to support their teams in postseason play. It’s not only bogus, it’s dishonest. The long term trend clearly shows that college football fans are taking advantage of more postseason opportunities and total bowl attendance has more than doubled over the modern era.

Let’s also avoid the temptation to cast an apparent decline in BCS television ratings as a protest by the public over the refusal of the college presidents to institute a playoff system. By doing so, you are making the classic mistake of confusing correlation with causation (more on that later).

When Fox’s contract with the BCS ended after the 2009 season, ESPN won the rights to the broadcasts and put all of the BCS bowls on its cable channels, ending the era of major bowls being televised on over-the-air networks. You fail to recognize the significance of that at your own peril.

Estimates vary, but between 10% and 15% of American homes don’t have cable or satellite service at all. They either receive television with an antenna or don’t have televisions. With about 310 million people in the US, between 31 and 46.5 million—or something on the order of about 12 to 15 million households—couldn’t watch the BCS Championship Game between Alabama and LSU. Further, recent research shows that even more people are dropping cable/satellite service—but aren’t switching to internet-based entertainment. 

The article linked above suggests that economic factors are driving the cable and satellite industry’s troubles. How can you make an argument that fans are tuning out in protest when tens of millions don’t even have that option?

Fans constitute the economic engine that drives the postseason industry, and they aren’t stupid. They’re rational consumers of the college football postseason product. They are willing to pay a reasonable price to watch their team play in the postseason. Survey after survey shows high fan support for a playoff, but given that the college presidents have failed to deliver the product they demand, they are doing what any rational consumer would do—they are choosing a substitute that provides less satisfaction but still provides the some of the opportunity they seek.

The decline in ratings since the Fox deal ended is a function of many different factors, the largest of which is the inability to reach those without cable. Given the numbers above, a broadcast of the BCS Championship Game over ABC (which owns ESPN), CBS or Fox would have had access to as many as 15 million additional homes. With the rating and share figures from the game itself, this would have resulted in several million more viewers for both the 2011 and 2012 BCS Championship Games.

Another factor to consider—some of the country had little interest in the 2012 game and ignored it in much the same way that fans routinely ignore World Series matches not involving the Yankees, Red Sox or other large market teams. The same can be said for the NBA Finals not featuring Lakers, Celtics or Bulls and Super Bowls not featuring Packers, Steelers, Raiders or Cowboys. It’s not a protest. It’s a lack of national interest in a regional matchup and as big of a business as Southeastern Conference football is, it’s still a rematch of a regional matchup. Why would college football be any different from the other sports? Trust me. It’s not.

If you pointed to a decline in ratings and said “aha! the fans are protesting;” or, you said the ratings indicate an approaching critical mass; or you went so far as to proclaim the college football patient as terminally ill, you aren’t getting it.

Did you know that there is a statistically valid correlation between the number of miles I run down Fort Morgan Road during the summer and the amount of rainfall in the sub-Saharan region of Africa? If I made the same mistake these people are making—if I confused correlation with causation—I’d literally run myself to death to keep the poor dirt farmers in Africa from dying of famine.

TV ratings are no more of an indication of fan protest than rainfall in Africa is an indication of my running prowess. Get the college postseason off of cable and ratings will go up. Get the American economy back in full gear and both ratings and attendance will go up. Get a playoff system installed and produce more postseason inventory and they’ll soar even higher. But don’t tell me that fans are not going to bowls or changing channels out of protest. Those arguments are flawed at best and downright dishonest at worst.

If you’re arguing for a playoff, your selling points to the BCS commissioners and college presidents are more inventory for broadcast networks, improved quality of the inventory and greater fan interest and attendance. The commissioners and presidents won’t be fooled by specious protest and low ratings arguments.

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