The song and words made popular by Harry Nilsson in the 1969 movie, Midnight Cowboy, accurately describe the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) conference commissioners. Everyone is talkin’ at them and they don’t hear a word they’re saying.
The controversial manner in which the BCS conferences anoint a football champion – through a myriad of complex polls that would make a derivatives expert blush – is the basis for frequent and vocal criticism. Even President-elect Barack Obama got in on the act, threatening to “throw my weight around,” as he put it, in a post election interview on CBS’ 60 Minutes. Like so many other college football fans, Obama believes a national football champion should be determined by a playoff.
Such a concept isn’t unique. A playoff is held in every other football division and every other NCAA sport. But the BCS isn’t affiliated with the NCAA. The six conferences that comprise the BCS broke away from the governing body in the aftermath of a 1981 lawsuit brought by the Universities of Oklahoma and Georgia.
The major football schools wanted to divvy up the TV and bowl money among themselves, without contributing to the NCAA’s revenue sharing arrangement. Any reversal of course that includes a playoff system would most likely require the participation of the NCAA. Which makes the idea of a playoff a non-starter for BCS schools.
Now, I’m no fan of the NCAA. Their pious blatting about the welfare of student-athletes rings hollow when their actions over the years clearly prove otherwise. But in this case, there is no rational reason why the NCAA administers all national collegiate championships – 88 annually - save one.
BCS commissioners are quick to defend the status quo, arguing it protects the tradition and sanctity of the bowls. They even admit to leaving millions of dollars on the table by eschewing a playoff system. But if the extra money is distributed by the NCAA to non-BCS schools, the thinking goes, why bother?
Even worse than their unwillingness to share the wealth with their less fortunate brethren, BCS conferences don’t even maximize their own revenue potential under the current system. A survey of tax documents by Yahoo!.com uncovered what can only be described as gross overspending and mismanagement on the part of bowl committees, at the expense of BCS schools.
The Sugar Bowl, for example, took in revenue of $12.9 million in 2006 and paid only $6 million into the BCS pool (participating teams will receive $17 million for a BCS bowl appearance this season, but much of that amount is derived from TV contracts). The majority of the remaining revenue was spent on such “necessities” as entertainment, media relations, decorations, committee meetings, gifts, bonuses and employee compensation, including $453,399 to Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan.
The Sugar Bowl isn’t alone. The Orange Bowl took in over $17.9 million in revenue in 2007, and after their contribution to the BCS pool, spent most of the remainder. The Arizona Sports Foundation, which staged two BCS games in 2007, did the Sugar and Orange Bowls one better. They took in $19.7 million and still managed to “lose” a million dollars.
The reality is BCS conferences don’t need the bowls, whether they use the present system to determine a “national champion” or conduct a playoff. They proved as much when they began staging conference championship games - in effect creating their own “bowls” - which have turned out to be extremely profitable. To wit: The 2007 SEC championship game grossed $13.7 million in revenue and distributed almost $12 million to conference schools, according to Yahoo!com.
So why allow yourself to be ripped off by the existing bowls? The answer has nothing to do with tradition or the sanctity of the bowls. The current system suits the BCS conferences just fine. They get to decide who gets how much money and they don’t have to deal with the NCAA. In this case, power is more important than money.
Those who argue for a playoff, including the President-elect, be damned. Despite all the talkin’, the BCS commissioners don’t hear a word they’re saying.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Eastern New Mexico University, teaches the Business of Sports at the University of Wyoming, and is a contributing author to the Business of Sports Network. Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.