SBJ/January 14 - 20, 2002/Marketingsponsorship

Blowouts and lower ratings push college football toward the inevitable

Will we soon kiss
the BCS goodbye?

Will we look back one day and realize the 2001-02 college football bowl season was so bad that it compelled a change that saved America's traditional holiday TV feast?

The Bowl Championship Series, the system used to pick NCAA Division I-A teams for the four biggest bowls, has been battered by sports and TV media since its inception in 1998. But this year was the worst yet in terms of criticism, blowout scores, unfathomable matchups and low TV viewership.

The BCS was a creation of the Southeastern and Big Ten conferences, the Rose Bowl and ABC. The BCS grants participation for the top six football conferences in the nation. It guarantees that once every four years the Rose, FedEx Orange, Tostitos Fiesta and Nokia Sugar bowls will host a rotating national title game while the other three get marquee games featuring top teams.

Attendance is traditionally noted as an indicator of bowl-game vitality. The BCS games held their own given today's economy. The Rose (down 0.6 percent), Orange (down 4.2 percent) and Fiesta (down 1.7 percent) bowls lost an average of about 2 percent compared to last year. LSU's rabid football following gave the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans a whopping 20.6 percent increase over last year.

But fans in the stadiums are only the studio audience. While the media track these numbers as an antiquated measure of vitality, sponsors and advertisers look at TV ratings. And ABC and the participants in the BCS rotation took a beating this year.

Overnight ratings from the controversial national championship Rose Bowl game between Miami and Nebraska slipped 22percent from last year's championship game in the Orange Bowl. Viewership of this year's Orange Bowl was down 27 percent, not from the previous Orange Bowl but from last year's comparable Sugar Bowl. The Fiesta Bowl this year was down 19 percent from last year's comparable Rose Bowl, and this year's Sugar Bowl was down 20 percent against last year's comparable Fiesta Bowl.

There's no doubt that media criticism, poor matchups and lopsided scores didn't help viewership. But it is also possible that the production values of the telecasts themselves are pushing away viewers.

The Florida-Maryland Orange Bowl was the most difficult college football telecast in memory to watch. It was smothered by ABC's self-promotion, on the screen, the field and from the announcing booth. The stadium itself was a logo junkyard. Pointless, annoying animations promoting the BCS and ABC were endlessly flipped on and off the screen. The game drowned in the promotional stew in which it floated. Could any sponsor or advertiser seriously believe that its brand was enhanced by this mess? Why do any accept this?

Another factor to consider about the declining ratings, according to TV consultant Neal Pilson, may be that the public believes the so-called championship game is the only one that matters. This obviously reduces the drawing power of the other three BCS bowls in any given year.

Love it or hate it, the BCS is here to stay — at least through 2006, when its current contract ends. And then the hope here is that it will be replaced by an eight-team NCAA Division I-A playoff that will culminate in an authentic national college football championship. Sponsors, advertisers and the public would eat it up.

The free market will guarantee that the BCS never makes it past its current contract. Colleges that participate in today's bowl system reportedly receive an aggregate of $70 million in revenue. According to a story in the Jan. 2 Austin (Texas) American-Statesman, an eight-team playoff could drive $350 million in revenue in its first year. The largest increase would come from TV rights fees put out to bid. Sponsors and advertisers also would commit a ton more revenue and promotion to the new playoff system.

BCS executives plan to tweak the rules for next year. Fine, but it's too late for the BCS. The schools and broadcast media understand how much money is on the table. They will drive reorganization. The NCAA will finally admit that a playoff for Division I-A football makes sense.

The BCS beats the chaos that preceded it. But sports fans — and, by extension, the marketing industry — are dissatisfied with the product. And the BCS will soon be viewed as a temporary, but necessary, step in college football's evolution.

Mel Poole (mp@sponsorlogic.com) is president of SponsorLogic, a consulting management and events agency.

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