ESPN Should Apply Mid-Major B-Ball Approach to Football

Spurred by increased media coverage, some talent dilution at top programs from players leaving school, and a run of NCAA tournament upsets mid-major hype hit new levels in college basketball the past decade. It led to an increased national platform, more money, improved recruiting, and overall, a more level playing field with the big boys. Mid-majors will never be on equal standing with BCS conferences, but we have reached the point where it’s not unheard of for mid-majors to get 1, 2, or 3 seeds in the tournament, and never mind surprise, its sometimes expected to see them knock of middle tier teams from big conferences.

These leagues fought an uphill battle and come tournament time always faced with defending what amounts to an easier schedule relative to big conference teams. Never one to miss a made-for-TV opportunity during a lull in the annual sports schedule, in stepped ESPN earlier this decade with Bracket Buster weekend. The premise – match up the best mid-majors across the country to help them boost their profile with a strong non-conference game. ESPN clears out the schedule and showcases these games the entire weekend, brands them, posts attention on the website, dedicates the studio and road show to these games, and gives it the 360-degree ESPN white-glove treatment. It guarantees that as a group the mid-majors get an RPI boost to combat a weak conference schedule and a bunch of them get wins.

College football needs this same event now. Mid-majors have followed a similar trajectory the past five years or so, a few teams paving the way into national prominence, not only breaking through to major but winning. Critics continue to point at the weak schedule these teams play and the current BCS system is biased against these teams playing for the national championship and against having multiple non-BCS teams play in major bowls.

ESPN should pick a weekend around this time of year, preceding the conference championship games, and call it BCS Buster. Schedule 3-5 neutral sites (or at least pick the sites in advance of the season) in different regions and create match-ups among the top non-BCS teams. If only TCU or Boise legitimately has a chance, let them play each other to help the winner get a better shot at a top two spot. Besides the wins and losses, it raises the profile of the leagues and adds legitimacy to both teams. If ESPN applies its hype machine – Gameday crew, primetime audience, top story on Sportscenter, commercials and teasers on radio and TV all week, web integration, the whole nine yards, Boise would not need to hire a PR firm. If it’s better for the two best not to play, the likes of Houston, BYU, and Utah still create a formidable lineup. Outside of the primary matchup, it gives each team a chance to improve its bowl standing, helps recruiting, and starts to create momentum for the following season.

Clearly, the college basketball and football postseasons are two completely different animals, and the nature of scheduling a football differs from a basketball game. That said, the key point here is that football is at the point they need to apply this concept and who better than ESPN to make it happen. I can’t tolerate too many more Indiana-Iowa, Florida-Mississippi State Saturday doubleheaders now that baseball is over.

College Football Kickoff: An Old Idea Rekindled

Atlanta is the unofficial home to this weekend’s College Football Kickoff between Clemson and Alabama. It’s the first year of an idea the CMO of the Chick-Fil-A Bowl hopes to turn into an annual weekend long event in the coming years. So far, so good. Many experts say it’s the toughest ticket in Atlanta sports history. Proving again that football is king in the Southeast, considering many Braves World Series games failed to sell out, while a college football opening game is garnering such interest.

Ticket sales aside, the vision is to mimic hat the NFL has done with opening weekend, create an event around the football game. This year Atlanta has a Fanfest at Centennial Park and two perfect teams for the region. Their goal is to expand it to a full weekend with a big college game at the start and end, a high school on the Friday night, a concert mixed in, with full fanfest activtivies, similar to a bowl game, or opening weekend version of the Final Four.

A few stumbling blocks exist. First, teams need to give up a home game. Gary Stokan, mastermind behind the event, solved that problem with a structure that generates similar returns to home games for big schools. The next two problems are not as easy: will big teams risk losing a neutral field game so early in the season and will teams outside the region create as much buzz for an Atlanta-based event. Stokan wants to target the Ohio State’s and Texas’ of the world. Those teams typically travel well, but can they carry an entire weekend of activity in Atlanta. College football is do-or-die almost every week, with one loss possibly eliminating championship aspirations, so some big name teams prefer not to play another top team this early in the season and risk losing right off the bat. Further, scheduling takes place a few years in advance so its hard to guarantee the teams playing will be good, though a few programs are almost always a sure bet to create the “big game” feel.

Conceptually, its a great idea with big revenue potential. Chick-Fil-A is on board as the sponsor,  complete with logo and all, which creates new merchandise. The game has brought in a number of other big sponsors through both ESPN and the bowl game. Tickets sold before even going on sale. ESPN has the Gameday crew on site, generating additional buzz. If the entity becomes similar to a bowl, it could feasibly sell media rights to a network to yield additional revenue.

The revenue potential is inarguable. College football popularity warrants holding the event. THe biggest stumbling blocks are the college scheduling format (12 games), the BCS format that magnifies each loss, and if Atlanta, or any city, can serve as a national college hotbed, or if it’s truly a regional draw. Having an SEC team involved and holding it in Georgia will always guarantee a sell out.

No Playoff, More Bowl Games – Where’s the Logic?

Last week’s meeting of the minds between the 11 NCAA Division 1-A football commissioners, and Notre Dame’s AD Kevin White, ended with no changes to the flawed system for determining college football’s national champion. The consensus is, well, there is no consensus on how to do it. The sport continues to thrive, two distinct television contracts exist for the bowl games, further complicating any changes, and two current commissioners are staunch opponents. Though I disagree, and strongly feel the NCAA would reap tremendous monetary and popularity benefits from a playoff, or plus-one system, enough roadblocks exist to understand why now is not the best time.

Yet, at these same meetings, the NCAA approved two more bowl games, the Congressional Bowl in Washington D.C., and the St. Petersburg Bowl in Tampa, increasing the bowl slate to 34 games. This is the last thing college football needs, more bowl games. The system is already flawed. Too many games, too many undeserving teams, empty stadiums, low television ratings.

Critics brutalize the NBA and NHL for devaluing the season because too many teams make the playoffs. However, approximately 50% of each league qualifies for the playoffs, while over 56% of Division 1 football programs will play in bowl games next season. The regular season remains relevant and exciting because one loss by a championship contender can end their season, but how many teams does that effect the last 4 weeks of the season, ten maybe? Earning a bowl berth should mean something, a reward for a good season. If more than half the teams get one, some with a mediocre 6-6 record, it becomes more of a participation trophy, less an achievement.

BCS bowl games and other major bowls are big business, for the bowls, the cities, and the schools, but smaller bowl games may lose money. Attendance, regardless of the paid attendance number listed, is poor. Watch that Meineke Bowl or the Papajohns.com Bowl, half the seats are empty. It’s more of a friends and family gathering. What’s the appeal of these games?

The new Congressional Bowl pits Navy against the ninth-place ACC team – ninth-place! Who wants to see a team that finished near the bottom of the conference play almost two full weeks before New Years Day, when interest peaks, when the game means absolutely nothing. Bowls need more than students and alumni to support the game. 6-6 seasons don’t warrant rewards.

ESPN does a great job of covering every bowl under the sun, however the ratings for the early bowl games are terrible. The hype is not there, they compete with Christmas and the NFL for eyeballs, and the draw, the appeal, does not exist. College football owns New Years Day, always has, people want college football on New Years. ESPN has done a solid job drumming up interest for its Bowl Week leading into New Years, but those games played before and around December 25th are a stretch. Even during bowl week, few fans will tune in to catch a mid-week afternoon tilt between two schools that had mediocre seasons, and likely lack star appeal. Eventually, I envision ESPN shifting low-end bowl programming to its digital platform.

College football stands to benefit more from improving the BCS system than adding low-end, minimal interest bowl games, watering down the brand further. They did reject a possible 35th bowl in Utah, but how long until that resurfaces. What will happen first, a true college football champion, or a sub-500 team playing in a bowl game?

121, 56%

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.