SBJ/July 29 - August 4, 2002/Opinion

Another bowl game not what NCAA needs

NCAA has approved another college football bowl game, the ConAgra Bowl to be on Christmas Day in Hawaii for the 2002-03 season. This makes 28 certified postseason bowl games.

Thus 56 schools will go to bowl games next year. With only 115 Division I-A schools playing football, this means that 48.7 percent of the teams will make the postseason. More precisely, with two or three schools typically sanctioned against playing in bowl games each year for NCAA violations, half of the eligible schools play in bowl games.

Some might say that this is a good sign. The NCAA is behaving in an egalitarian manner, befitting its stated commitment to amateurism and academics. Of course, if this were the goal, one wonders why not have 57 bowl games?

Others say that the proliferation of bowl games is good for no one. It detracts from the top contests, hurting the best teams and diminishing the value of college football's richest asset. Aside from the four alliance bowls, going to a bowl game is a money-losing proposition for a school. Travel, lodging, entertainment and food costs plus the obligation to guarantee thousands of ticket sales almost always outpace the meager revenue going to the school.

Since the athletic programs of these schools are virtually always several million dollars in the red anyway, the extra deficit from the bowl appearances just requires increasing subsidies from the university budget.

Well, some do benefit. The athletic and academic administrators at the participating schools get a free, perk-laden trip to a warm clime for themselves, and often their families, in midwinter. The sponsoring bowl committee, assorted business people from the local community, enjoys increased spending at the hotels and restaurants in their city. And athletic directors delude themselves into believing that they will have an easier time recruiting when they tell their prospects that their school played in a bowl game.

Why not just admit the fact that fans really care only about the national championship? Even among the four alliance bowls, ratings are strong for only the top one or two games, depending on the ambiguity in the computer rankings.

MLB takes eight of 30 teams — or 27 percent — for its postseason. The NFL takes 12 of 32 teams, or 38 percent. Based on those ratios, college football can support 15 to 20 bowl games with 30 or 40 teams.

But there is a crucial difference. MLB and the NFL play an elimination tournament, working down to the winner. The NCAA bowls are isolated events.

Although various alternatives have been suggested, the most obvious is to have the NCAA run a national championship tournament, as it does in basketball and in Division I-AA, Division II and Division III football. The Division III championship, for instance, began in 1973 as a single-elimination tournament for four teams. It became an eight-team single-elimination tournament in 1975, and the current format has 16 teams.

An eight-team format would involve three rounds to determine a national champion. The alliance argues that three games in the postseason would prolong the season two weeks and this would take up too much time for the student athletes. Not a bad thought, but in the past decade three alliance conferences have added conference championship games, and two preseason games have been created.

If those two weeks were used instead to support a championship tournament, sponsored by the NCAA, the selection of participants could be open and the distribution of revenue could be more equal, similar perhaps to the NCAA basketball tournament. If the regular-season schedule could be tightened to save one additional week, the final tournament could include four rounds with 16 teams.

Furthermore, if the NCAA were to add games, it would be far less disruptive for student athletes to play during the first two or three weeks of January when school is not in session than is the scheduling of the March basketball tournament.

Many fans would prefer a playoff system for football, as in basketball, because it is more interesting to have real competition decide championships than to have it done by computer. Moreover, many writers have cited possible anomalies with the bowl championship formula that will result in the crowning of an ambiguous or disputed champion.

In a playoff format, the greater the number of rounds included, the greater would be the financial bonanza to the NCAA. DeLoss Dodds, athletic director at the University of Texas, believes a playoff system would be so popular that it would add at least an extra $1 million in revenue for every team playing Division I-A football. Schools clamoring for resources to meet the demands of Title IX might welcome such a financial windfall.

But the politics of change are not encouraging. The bowl committees would lose control if a playoff format were adopted and, hence, resist such a change. The alliance members would lose privileged access to their self-proclaimed championship games and would be forced to share their postseason revenue with dozens, if not hundreds, of other NCAA schools. They too would resist the change. Conference commissioners, ADs, coaches and sometimes college presidents and trustees from the alliance would lose the enticing perquisites provided by the bowl committees.

Conference commissioners may also prefer to defer to the NFL wishes to have no intrusion of competition during its playoffs and Super Bowl. Unfortunately, these groups are already sufficiently powerful to make such a reform unlikely. Without serious governance reform, college sports will continue to operate against the best interests of the student athletes and the fans.

Andrew Zimbalist teaches economics at Smith College and has written extensively about college athletics.

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