SBJ/December 3-9, 2012/Opinion

The give and take of the new college football playoff system

There has been a great deal of excitement and discussion about the death of the BCS and the birth of a real college football playoff system. At the same time, there has been significant confusion about the details of the four-team playoff.

To discern the winners and losers in the new system, we must first understand how the new structure works.

The system

The university presidents who oversee college football’s Bowl Championship Series have agreed to launch a new four-team, seeded postseason playoff to determine the national FBS champion. The format will begin with the 2014-15 season and will run through the 2025-26 season. In addition to the playoff, there will be eight other teams that will play in prestigious bowl games.

Six bowls will play a part in the championship format, with the national semifinals rotating through them, setting up two playoff games and four major bowl games every season. The title game will be selected through an annual bidding process that is similar to what happens with the Super Bowl.

The six games will include three contract bowls and three host bowls. The spots in the contract bowls, when they do not host semifinals, are mostly reserved for teams that have conference or individual deals with those bowls.

Every conference champion from the five major FBS conferences (Pac-12, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and ACC) and potentially Notre Dame would receive a berth into the 12-team format through their bowl game tie-ins. The five lesser conferences (Big East, Conference USA, Mountain West, Sun Belt and Mid-American) would have their highest-rated combined team receive an automatic berth into the format.

ESPN has secured the broadcast rights for the deal for 12 years at $470 million per year for the seven games, which considerably surpasses the current BCS deal of approximately $155 million per year for five games.

Not surprisingly, the commissioners and presidents announced that a greater percentage of the revenue from the playoff format will go to the conferences of the four teams that qualify for the playoff and the other games, but significant revenue will go to all FBS conferences.

The composition of a 15- to 20-member selection committee has not been finalized. The criteria that will be used by the selection committee will include win-loss record, head-to-head results, strength of schedule and whether a team is a conference champion.

Winners

Mike Slive’s steadfast advocacy and the SEC’s six consecutive BCS championships deserve recognition as a prime catalyst for the new playoff format.
Photo by: SHANA WITTENWYLER
Power conferences: College football’s five power conferences will dominate playoff appearances and payouts. The market has spoken, and these conferences have the teams the public wants to watch.

Southeastern Conference: Commissioner Mike Slive has been arguing for a playoff since 2008. The existence of a selection committee means that the SEC will have the opportunity to have multiple teams in the four-team playoff rather than being limited to its conference champion. The strength-of-schedule consideration will also weigh heavily in the SEC’s favor. Slive’s steadfast advocacy and the SEC’s six consecutive BCS championships deserve recognition as a prime catalyst for the new playoff format.

College football fans: This playoff system recognizes the demands of most college football fans, as well as President Barack Obama. Fans will also benefit from the semifinals being scheduled on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day and the creation of Championship Monday, which sets the date of the championship game on the first Monday in January that is six or more days after the final semifinal game is played.

Losers

This deal means the Big East is now a lower-level football conference.
Big East Conference: After significant membership defections, this deal means that the Big East is now a lower-level football conference. The Big East will compete with four other conferences that did not previously have BCS automatic-qualifying status for a guaranteed spot in the new postseason format.

Other FBS conferences: The criteria for selecting the four playoff teams are stacked against them when strength of schedule is monopolized by the five power conferences. These conferences also have few tie-ins to major bowls. As a result, the reality is that it is just as unlikely as before that a Cinderella team from outside one of the five power conferences will be able to make it to one of the semifinal games.

Other bowl games: Currently, there are 35 bowl games that provide postseason opportunities for 70 teams. The permanent elevation of six bowl games to be part of the playoff structure means that 58 teams will be playing in inferior bowl games, making some of these games economically challenging for the teams as well as the local organizing committees.

Student athletes: Over the last decade, the football season has lengthened considerably. The teams that will play for the national championship will have played 15 football games, but there has been no talk about additional financial benefits for the players.

NCAA: Despite the evolution to a four-team playoff, the conference commissioners successfully kept the NCAA bureaucracy and its more equitable revenue-sharing philosophy on the sideline by refusing to relinquish control of the FBS postseason.

Antitrust lawsuit advocates: The new playoff format gives all the teams an equal theoretical opportunity to participate, which significantly diminishes the strength of any antitrust arguments that had been advanced by several states and the Justice Department.

The future

Conference realignment continues unabated, with the recent addition of Maryland and Rutgers to the Big Ten. Certainly more is to follow with Connecticut likely headed to the ACC and possible Big 12 expansion looming. These moves feed the television demographic appetites of the conferences and help justify and drive the conference television and playoff financial packages even higher.

Now that we know that a four-team playoff with four other bowl games is worth $470 million per year, how long will it take for college football fans and administrators to inquire what an eight-team playoff is worth per year?

Dave O’Brien (dpo32@drexel.edu) is an associate teaching professor and sport management program director at Drexel University, and is editor of College-SportsBusinessNews.com. He is a former Division I athletic director at Long Beach State, Temple and Northeastern.

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