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Volume 21 No. 34


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.


Mike Slive’s steadfast advocacy and the SEC’s six consecutive BCS championships deserve recognition as a prime catalyst for the new playoff format.
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.


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 ( is an associate teaching professor and sport management program director at Drexel University, and is editor of He is a former Division I athletic director at Long Beach State, Temple and Northeastern.

We always like to hear about good, new ideas, and one of the more novel ones came recently in Toronto around the 100th Grey Cup. The concept came from Commissioner Mark Cohon, whom many of you may know from his history at the NBA, MLB and AudienceView ticketing/technology company. Mark has done a very nice job in leading the eight-team football league, and his concept of getting fans closer to the CFL’s championship hardware may be one we see replicated in the U.S.

In an attempt to create a new tradition, the league invited fans to join a parade and take turns carrying the cup from the University of Toronto’s football stadium to the game at the Rogers Centre about 2 1/2 miles away. Cohon started the relay and handed off the trophy to a 14-year-old boy and the parade was on. We have seen other forms of this communal atmosphere around games — the “March to the Match” in Seattle for the Sounders has been a big cultural hit. But this is one of the few instances I can recall where the championship hardware was placed in the hands of the fans.

Fans embraced the opportunity to carry the Grey Cup to the stadium ahead of the 100th CFL title game.
Toronto media reported that each participant carried the trophy up to 50 feet and that they were prevented from putting the cup over their heads. About 300 people carried the trophy and, in my favorite line, “despite the excitement, and some signs of inebriation, the cup made it to the Rogers Centre without hitting the ground once.”

I caught up with Cohon the next day. He was thrilled over the reception and noted it was all part of a two-year plan to celebrate the 100th Grey Cup. The key activation was a 2,550-mile train tour through Canada — the Grey Cup 100 Train Tour presented by Rona, which stopped in more than 100 communities. “Along the way fans touched it, kissed it and photographed it,” Cohon said. “They revere it, and we thought the best way to make the final journey into the Rogers Centre would be to allow the fans to carry it. It was well worth the risk because the outpouring of emotion from our fans was overwhelming.”

Cohon’s overall takeaway and feeling is that sport needs to continue to get closer to community. “I fundamentally believe that professional sports need to be closer to their fans through grassroots initiatives that are open and honest,” he said. “Trust them.” This came after his fourth State of the League Address, where 400 CFL fans grilled him for an hour about the league. “It was one of the highlights of my Grey Cup week,” he said.

> FOLLOWING THE PLOT: The film “Silver Linings Playbook” offers both the good and the ugly sides of the NFL’s place in today’s culture. It tells the story of Pat Solatano, a bipolar man from Philadelphia (played by Bradley Cooper) who has spent the last eight months in a mental hospital and returns home to live with his parents. The parents’ life, especially that of his father, Pat Sr. (played by Robert De Niro), revolves passionately around the Philadelphia Eagles.

The movie touches on all the positive pulls of fandom — bringing family closer together, bonding time, rituals and superstitions, and great joy. The story also hits on the more unseemly aspects, not just in the NFL, of stadium violence (Pat Sr. is banned from Lincoln Financial Field for too many fights) and gambling (Pat Sr. is a part-time bookie). Excessive drinking during a tailgate leads to ethnic insults and a violent brawl before the game.

Followers of the game will be able to relate to these plot lines. The question is how the NFL will react to this, as the movie is sure to be on many year-end lists and already has Oscar buzz. Attention around the film’s themes will only increase, and the movie is likely to be a hit. So does the league embrace its portrayal of NFL die-hards or ignore it?
An early line into the league’s thinking could be gleaned when it pulled a planned promotional interview with Cooper that was scheduled with NFL Network’s Rich Eisen on the host’s Thanksgiving special. An NFL media spokesperson told the New York Post, “The segment was pulled because the movie included content related to gambling on NFL games.”

I’m going to keep an eye on whether the league distances itself from this film, including whether it discourages partners or teams from advertising the film on-air during games or in-venue.

> SALUTING STERANKA: Finally, a personal tip of the cap to outgoing PGA of America CEO Joe Steranka, whom I have always admired for his love of the sport and attention to his craft. He has been a tireless advocate for both PGA professionals and the golf courses where they work. He presided over the PGA during the recession, which of course made his task far more difficult and led to a downturn in the number of rounds played — a killer for his PGA pros and their courses. But the PGA responded with grassroots initiatives to drive rounds back up and grow the relevance of the game in the U.S.

I also liked Joe’s willingness to embrace alternative and experimental ideas for golfers — sizes of the holes, shortening the course — which can be rare in a sport so rooted in tradition.

Joe, who is being succeeded by a 2009 Forty Under 40 winner, the talented Pete Bevacqua, is not leaving the scene totally. As he told us earlier this year, “I can’t imagine this was my last job. I haven’t taken two weeks off, much less two months off. But I am going to take the next few months and work on my short game. I look forward to joining a private club, play some member-guests, take some special trips with [wife] Joann.” All of which is well-deserved for an all-around solid individual who loves the sport he served.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.

When the leaders of college athletics convened at the Intercollegiate Athletics Forum last year in New York City, the industry was in the process of weathering a host of controversies, from the Penn State scandal to conference realignment, recruiting scandals and the ever-present issues with the BCS.

Chris Plonsky of the University of Texas best captured the sentiment at that time when she said, “I think it’s very critical, more today than ever before, that we see some collegiality in whatever moves forward for college athletics. This has been a painful, stinging two years.”

The year that followed brought record TV deals, new television networks and more leadership change at the top of the NCAA. As the Forum kicks off this week, college athletics has weathered a period of unbelievable transition, and now is the time for marketers to re-evaluate the landscape and determine the right approach for their business.

Here are five suggestions for brands looking to tap into the passion of college sports fans.

1. Take advantage of aggregated rights.

Thanks to the efforts of IMG College and other rights holders to consolidate assets, never before has the entire landscape of college sports media and sponsorship been more aggregated or easily identifiable. Brands can scale a program based on individual business needs, by sponsoring individual schools, slicing and dicing regionally, or covering the entire country, all through one source.

The settling and regionalizing of media rights and conference networks, as well as the consolidation of digital rights along with broadcast, makes identifying supporting media and placing one buy to support a platform as simple as it’s ever been.

2. Think more broadly about the NCAA.

The College World Series provides an alternative for collegiate sports marketers to reach an engaged audience.
Photo by: ICON SMI
College athletics has far more value than just the Final Four or BCS championship. While those events provide the media exposure and awareness levels brands may be looking for, the ability to tap into the passion of college sports fans extends to 23 total sports and 89 championships across all three NCAA divisions.

Take an event like the College World Series in Omaha. It draws more than 350,000 fans over the course of its 10-day run at TD Ameritrade Park, ESPN provides first pitch to final at-bat coverage, and masses of fans engage with brands throughout the Fan Fest. Highly engaged alumni, fans, families, students and members of the surrounding communities attend in droves to support their favorite schools.

The same holds true, albeit on a slightly smaller scale, for other NCAA championships like women’s volleyball, women’s softball, men’s lacrosse, the Frozen Four and wrestling.

3. Make an authentic connection.

Whether it’s student athletes, the general student body, alumni or special moments, the story lines to create a connection for brands are there to be had. Start with your brand identity and primary business need to find your unique space and then own it.

A great example of this is what Enterprise, an NCAA corporate partner, did this past year. Leveraging the NCAA tag line that “most college athletes go pro in something other than sports,” Enterprise created a campaign highlighting employees of their own who are former NCAA student athletes.

While many other companies have former student athletes on the payroll, this campaign directly addressed a strategic business need for Enterprise, as they are one of the largest recruiters of new college graduates in the country.

4. Tap into coaches, former student athletes.

Issues with athlete likeness (as witnessed by the Ed O’Bannon-EA Sports lawsuit) and with eligibility will continue to make it difficult for marketers to leverage current student athletes, but there are other personalities that embody the values of collegiate athletics and resonate just as strongly with fans.

There are countless great examples, one being UPS, the NCAA’s official logistics partner, which tapped into successful coaches Geno Auriemma, Brad Stevens, and C. Vivien Stringer, to create a campaign emphasizing how logistics drive success on the court, just like they do in business.

5. Market outside the school’s DMA.

What began with affinity credit cards to tap into alumni databases has turned to a sophisticated fusion of on- and off-campus marketing that delivers results in DMAs far outside of the school’s market. New York City and Washington, D.C., are the cities with the two largest populations of active Duke alumni — not Raleigh-Durham, N.C. Similarly, sponsors of the University of Michigan (or any Big Ten school for that matter) should be leveraging that sponsorship in Chicago, which has one of the largest concentrations of Big Ten school graduates in the country.

This opportunity will continue to grow as conferences like the Big Ten continue to broaden their footprint by adding schools like Rutgers and Maryland that provide exposure to markets like New York/New Jersey and Washington, D.C./Baltimore.

The recent news, and subsequent debate, regarding additional conference realignment proves that while college athletics has weathered a period of turmoil over the last two years, it’s naive to think there won’t still be challenges to face.

Controversies over recruitment, realignment and criminal activity should not be forgotten or overlooked, but neither should the fact that the vast majority of schools and student athletes are doing it right, that there is an incredibly passionate and diverse legion of fans, and that the growing sophistication of marketing within the college sports space can deliver against most business objectives. n

Steve Dupee ( is senior vice president, client management, at GMR Marketing.