BCS Unlikely to Change

Despite rumblings earlier this season of a Plus-One, or even playoff format proposal to determine college football’s champion, all indications are the current BCS system will remain in tact for at least another season.

Multiple roadblocks continue to stall any proposed changes, notably the separate Rose Bowl contract with the Pac 10 and Big 10 and lack of consensus on the best method for choosing a champion. Fox’s $320 million BCS contract is up for renewal this year, they have a one month exclusive negotiation period in September though other networks have also expressed interest in bidding, while the Rose Bowl-ABC contract runs through 2014. The Big 10 and Pac 10 conference commissioners remain staunch opponents of any format changes, unlikely to change course at least until that contract expires, giving the rest of college football enough leverage to sway them.

Each proposed system has its flaws. The current BCS creates controversy because teams are often rewarded or punished based on their schedules and its too often left in the hands of computers to determine the two best teams. A plus-one format pushes the problem out from the argument of who deserves number two, to who deserves number four, and number gets snubbed. Opponents of an NFL style playoff system cite scheduling issues, damage to the entire bowl system, and travel problems, among other shortcomings.

From a revenue standpoint, college football stands to lose money by remaining status quo. Outside of January 2006, television ratings for the BCS as a whole continue to slide annually. Each of the past two seasons the championship game posted a solid 17.4, however only the Rose Bowl reached a 10 or higher, with none of the other three games even registering an 8 this season. Matchups and schedules are the biggest culprits.

The BCS renders all but the BCS Championship Game meaningless, and the system leads to unattractive matchups from both an appeal and competition standpoint – case in point Kansas-Virginia Tech and Georga-Hawaii, two of the three lowest rated BCS games this decade. A plus-one system adds importance back into at least two more games, possibly the entire BCS depending on how the system is structured – either using the top 4 seeds play, winners advance method, or the play all the BCS games, then determine the 1-2 based on ratings after those games. Better games, more interesting for the casual fan, more competitive, leads to better ratings.

Playing these games over the course of five days hurts college football in the end. For years, bowl games owned New Years Day, an American tradition. They still dominate the landscape on January 1st, but quickly lose fan momentum after that, especially when competing with the NFL playoffs. THe BCS games played after January 1st, before the BCS Championship Game, become a slight afterthought, then after the NFL takes over for the weekend, college football loses at least some buzz, especially with the casual fan, heading into the championship. Bowl games need to leverage the American persona, take back New Years Day, and keep up the momentum. One idea, play a BCS triple header on January 1st, bumping the other bowl games to early start times or to New Years Eve, or play a double header on January 1st and January 2nd. Condense the time between games to keep the fan engaged. Then hold the championship game one week later, creating the lead-in that the NFL does for the Super Bowl.

Pac 10 and Big 10 officials need to get over this Rose Bowl issue. The tradition went out the window in 2002 when Miami and Nebraska played in Pasadena for the championship, the first non Big 10-Pac 10 matchup. Instead of clinging to something no longer present, these conference commissioners should embrace a new system and contribute their ideas rather than posing threats. However, until college football can unify the television contract of the Rose Bowl with the rest of the BCS, creating a unified system, change remains unlikely.

Without change, ratings will continue to slide, and the conferences will lose out on potential revenue from a more valuable television contract, new marketing opportunities, and sponsorship deals. Expect the downward ratings trend to continue.

In the upcoming BCS renewal, when Fox bids again, the commissioners should find a way to get the network involved during the season. Fox has no presence all year, then suddenly pops up on New Years Day – new announcers, new graphics, new hosts than fans saw all season. Developing a presence throughout the season allows for more appropriate promotion, and creates a community with the fans. It also makes the TV package more valuable.

Fox does own the digital rights during this contract, though they have yet to leverage those rights to the fullest extent. It remains to be seen what they have planned for the final two years on the current contract. The BCS needs to force the networks to deliver a digital strategy at the bargaining table, then place a value around those digital rights. New media remains a mystery to most. However, its clear that digital will play a big role in sports coverage. The NBA recently bundled digital rights into its deal with TNT. Without precise pricing models, its hard to place an exact dollar value on the rights, other than knowing it sweetens the pot.

Lack of consensus among the conferences will likely prevent any changes heading into the next BCS contract. The longer it takes to change, the more controversy swirls, the more money the schools leave on the table. College football should use NCAA basketball and the NFL playoffs as model.

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