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Disgruntled colleges and sports fans have been complaining about the Bowl Championship Series for years. It dictates the only path to a national championship and the spoils that go with it. And a very narrow path it is, heavily favoring the traditional football powers of the Big Ten, Big East, Pac-10, SEC, ACC and Big 12 as well as Notre Dame.
For everyone else, it provides, at best, a long shot at one of the premier BCS bowls, and far more likely, a spot in one of the countless secondary bowls that continue to sprout up across the country.
The call for change has gotten even stronger since President Obama weighed in. Congressional hearings have been held. Bills have been introduced. Even the Department of Justice has vowed to take action.
The U.S. antitrust laws are at the center of this storm. Surely, the Football Bowl Subdivision elite cannot continue to perpetuate their football dominance through such an exclusionary arrangement. At least, that is the reasoning of those arguing for reform. Unfortunately, the antitrust laws do not provide the necessary fix so many are seeking — not without ignoring how the BCS originated and where college football would be without it.
Unlike most college sports, there has never been a playoff system for Division I-A football. The postseason has always been a jumble of stand-alone bowl contests. Originally, these matchups were predetermined by specific bowl/conference affiliations that rarely pitted the nation’s top teams against each other. The BCS was formed to end this scattershot system of postseason play. It brought within its fold the six FBS power conferences and their historically affiliated bowls: Rose, Orange, Sugar and Fiesta. The champion of each of these conferences, and Notre Dame (if ranked high enough), qualifies automatically for one of these choice bowls. The two top-ranked teams play for the national championship.
The BCS accomplished its goal. It guarantees a championship matchup between the top two teams and ensures marquee matchups in the four BCS bowls.
For the disfavored FBS conferences, however, the BCS is not so rosy. Only one team among them may automatically qualify for a BCS bowl, and it has to achieve a No. 12 or higher ranking in the final BCS standings to do so. A second or third team might also qualify by invitation, but not likely. It is even less likely that they will ever get the right to the title fight. It has never happened.
The BCS revenue share is equally misapportioned, with the favored conferences getting most of the considerable BCS kitty.
Clearly, not all conferences are created equal in the BCS. To BCS opponents, the current system is destined to keep it that way by fostering a self-perpetuating cycle of presumed mediocrity. As Utah and Boise State can attest, even an undefeated season cannot overcome this manifest destiny. To BCS proponents, it is not about excluding the secondary conferences; it is about giving them the opportunity they never had before: a chance at a top bowl and even the national championship.
The problem with this back-and-forth is that it has been usurped by a very different dialogue: not whether the BCS system is inherently fair, but whether a March Madness-style playoff system would be better. That is the question dominating the antitrust debate in Washington. It is a valid question, but from an antitrust perspective, it entirely misses the point.
That is because this all centers on a sports league where there is an inherent need for coordination and cooperation among the competing conferences and teams. Without it, there could be no postseason play at all. The antitrust laws are applied much more loosely in this context. In fact, they are not applied at all where the challenged arrangement is essential to the very existence of the offering. Arguably, that is the situation here. The BCS is necessary for facilitating a true national championship and other top postseason matchups. History shows where college football would be without it: a disconnected assortment of preordained bowl games.
To be sure, a formal playoff system would provide a more equitable and competitive postseason path, but the antitrust laws do not measure a practice by how it compares to something else that might be better. Instead, they look to how the practice has changed the competitive landscape. If it has allowed for a higher-quality product, the antitrust laws do not kick in. By most accounts, that is exactly what the BCS has done. It has ensured a championship matchup between the top-ranked teams. It has enhanced the quality of the leading bowls. And it has opened the door for the less brawny conferences and teams to make a run at some measure of postseason prominence. It is by no means a perfect system, but love it or hate it, it is a lot better than it was.
In addition, there is no real consumer harm at play. Sure, the subsidiary BCS teams and non-BCS teams are subject to unequal (and possibly unfair) treatment. But that is not the constituency of primary antitrust concern. That party, rather, is the ultimate consumer — here, the college football fan (and perhaps the TV networks and sponsoring bowls). They have fared much better under the BCS. Whether they could do even better under a playoff system is simply not part of the analysis.
So let’s be honest. The current BCS system could be better, a lot better in providing a more open, just and compelling postseason contest. A March Madness-type playoff system would definitely do the trick. But the antitrust laws are not going to get us there given the vast improvements the BCS has brought over the indiscriminate bowl assemblage that preceded it. The sooner everyone recognizes this, the better we will fare in reaching some common ground on improving the BCS.
Gordon Schnell (gschnell@constantine cannon.com) is a partner and David Scupp (email@example.com) is an associate with New York City-based Constantine Cannon LLP, an internationally recognized law firm specializing in antitrust litigation and counseling.
I need to start out with three disclaimers. I am the son of a pioneering NBA coach. I am someone who has been in love with the continent of Africa for more than 40 years. Finally, I have spent most of my adult life in programs that try to use sport as a vehicle for social responsibility and assist communities in becoming safer, healthier and better places. That being said, I believe everything that follows is still objective and accurate.
I recently returned from my 35th trip to Africa. This time it was with the Basketball Without Borders program led by the NBA. In terms of social responsibility on an international level, few organizations are comparable to what the NBA has done and none are comparable on the continent of Africa. The NBA has opened a new office in Johannesburg for the continent. The office is led by Amadou Fall, who was previously an executive with the Dallas Mavericks and himself is a son of Senegal.
The Basketball Without Borders program in Africa has been going strong throughout the last decade. I was lucky enough to be able to help bring the NBA to South Africa for the first time in 1993 and 1994 with players Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning, Patrick Ewing and John Sparks and coaches Wes Unseld and Lenny Wilkens. Commissioner David Stern and Charlie Grantham, who was the National Basketball Players Association executive director at that time, were pivotal in arranging the first two trips. I loved watching how the NBA was exposed to what Africa was. In the case of South Africa, it was a nation that epitomized racism for a century and was being transformed into a democracy led by Nelson Mandela, perhaps one of the greatest leaders of all time.
Basketball Without Borders, which was established in 2001, will stretch its reach into other African countries in the years ahead. Amadou has planned how the expansion will take place, and this year what happened in Senegal was heartwarming. The 60 best African male players and 40 top female basketball players from Senegal participated in skills programs in the morning, learned life skills in the afternoon and contributed in community development/social responsibility projects at the end of each day.
Senegal, located on the westernmost part of Africa, is a particularly historic place where slaves were shipped from the fort on Goree Island. All of us went to Goree and heard and felt the chilling details of how 20 million Africans, the youngest and strongest of the continent, were taken from Africa and brought to the Americas, or died in the process. It is typical of programming of the NBA that they emphasized this as the starting point of the trip. Last year in Johannesburg, the trip began with a visit to the Apartheid Museum so that the players understood the role of apartheid and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.
The component of social responsibility was reflected in Senegal by players helping to dedicate the new basketball court where one of the players along on the trip, Charlotte Bobcats center DeSagana Diop, had grown up. Another player on the trip,Luc Mbah a Moute of Cameroon, attended one of the first Basketball Without Borders camps and is now a veteran with the Milwaukee Bucks.
All the players and coaches spent an afternoon helping to hang mosquito nets in the homes of people in Rufisque, a village near Dakar. It was part of the Nothing But Nets program and literally helps save lives. One million people died last year of malaria, a thoroughly preventable disease. The Legacy Project, part of the NBA Cares program in which the NBA helps build a permanent piece of infrastructure in a community, allowed for the expansion of the Dakar YMCA to give it computer capabilities as well as better classrooms and a refurbished basketball court so that the children will be able to spend their afternoons safely at the Y.
Basketball is the sport that in our Racial and Gender Report Cards leads all other leagues in terms of racial and gender hiring practices for both the NBA and WNBA. Furthermore, the NBA employs Kathy Behrens as a senior vice president for social responsibility, a position that does not exist in any other league. Elsa Lopez is the senior director for vendor diversity, which again, to my knowledge, is a position that does not exist in any other league.
The NBA Cares program is in every community where an NBA team plays. It has an impact that is readily seen in those communities. Through its Basketball Without Borders program, it works not only in Africa but also in Asia and Europe and potentially in other areas of the world. It has been in 10 countries in five continents.
Good comes as a result of a socially responsible league that does good business. Which is why this son of an NBA coach, who loves Africa and believes in the social responsibility of sport, tips his hat to Stern and all those who work for him.
Richard E. Lapchick (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the chairman of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida. He is also the director of UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, which has provided diversity management training for the NBA.
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Andy Dolich (email@example.com) has been an executive with NFL, NHL, NBA and Major League Baseball teams. He is president of Dolich & Associates, a sports business consulting firm.