How The Playoff Can Fix College Football

The inaugural College Football Playoff has come and gone and to the surprise of almost no one, was a resounding success. The 2015 Rose Bowl and 2015 Sugar Bowl, this year otherwise known as the semi-finals, drew the largest two audiences in cable television history at the time, with each game attracting over 28 million viewers. The semi-final games drew more than any of the four BCS Championship games previously broadcast by ESPN.

“That was a pleasant surprise.” -Burke Magnus, ESPN Sr VP Programming & Acquisitions

Those records stood only for two days until the national championship game between Ohio State and Oregon drew 33 million viewers, making the three playoff games the three most watched programs in cable television history.

It’s now all but fact that all the previous bush league rationalizations for not having a playoff were a farce. Any informed observer knew that “preserving the sanctity of the regular season” or “protecting the integrity of the bowl season and experience” were hollow justifications from bureaucrats who knew they were getting away with murder.

Playoff Games Have Meaning

More important is to understand why a playoff was so much more broadly appealing than the heretofore BCS and Bowl system. The difference between the 2015 play0ff Sugar Bowl, which drew 28 million viewers, and the 2013 and 2014 non-playoff Sugar Bowls, which drew an average of 13 million viewers is quite simple. Playoff games have meaning.

After a bowl game, both teams’ seasons are over, regardless of who wins. It might as well be an exhibition. Or the NFL Pro-Bowl. Actually putting something meaningful on the line makes all the difference in the world. Anyone with knowledge of basic psychology could have predicted as much.

So the oversimplified answer to fixing college football is to make more games meaningful. The obvious first step is to expand the playoff to 8, 12 or 16 teams. The ratings bonanza of the inaugural playoff will likely make playoff expansion a reality. But that’s not the only BCS/Bowl era lie that needs to be remedied.

The BCS and Bowl System Benefited the Few At The Expense of the Many

Even before the playoff, everyone knew that the BCS and Bowl system were completely corrupt.

The BCS and Bowl system architects structured a system that essentially ensured that ~90% of the revenue would be split among ~50% of the universities (the Power 5 Conferences (P5), fka the Automatic Qualifier Conferences), more or less ensuring that the remaining 50% of the universities would be stuck in a financial death spiral, unable to compete with the cash rich football programs, many of which had a substantial and entrenched head start to begin with.

The BCS and Bowl systems, referred to as a cartel by the journalists who investigated and exposed them, were highly beneficial for the P5 universities, but have held the broader college football ecosystem back from reaching the kind of potential this inaugural playoff is suggesting exists.

Ending The Other BCS/Bowls Era Mistake

College football’s other problem is that so many regular season games don’t matter. On a given college football weekend, there are about 50 Division-1A football games and yet very few have real potential to affect a 4 team playoff. Far fewer still are the games between legitimate top 4 contenders. More common are 63–14 drubbings with declining television and live audiences.

Meanwhile, playoff contenders are forced to schedule some 63–14 drubbings because the margin for error in reaching the top 4 is so slim, and there’s no benefit to scheduling an out of conference team that might win. And top contenders make such a high percentage of revenue from their game day ticket sales, that giving up home games becomes untenable.

Worse, fans and alumni of the cash-starved 50% universities know that their team has no chance at participating before the season starts. There’s a reason that the non-P5 conferences have much smaller attendance and revenue figures. They are labeled second class citizens and told that the playoff is not for them. It’s hard to blame a Sun Belt alumni for staying home and watching a big time SEC matchup on TV rather than attending her alma mater’s game live. After all, the SEC matchup is the one where something meaningful is on the line.

If every conference champion had a bid to an expanded playoff, every game would have meaning. Just like in college basketball, every Division 1A program would have a realistic shot to participate in any given season. One of the primary reasons the NCAA basketball tournament is one of the world’s greatest sporting events is the presence of Cinderella. The images of students and alumni from smaller universities jubilant and rushing the court when a David takes down a Goliath remain one of the iconic images in all of sports.

College Football has systematically refused to allow underdogs to participate. Can you imagine March Madness if they had told Butler that they were not being invited because they didn’t play an big boy schedule? There’s nothing more maddening than sporting events being decided on paper.

A Policy Of Exclusion Restricts Programs and Fans

Sports Business Daily estimated the value of George Mason University’s 2006 Final Four run to be worth $676M in media exposure to the university. Baylor University estimated that Robert Griffin III’s Heisman season was worth $250M in total value. Texas A&M reported $740M in donations, a $300M increase over their previous best year, the year they joined the SEC and caught lightning in a bottle with Johnny Manziel. Based on those figures, is it a stretch to think that a university that becomes a frequent Division 1A playoff participant would realize $1 billion in value?

With the education bubble bursting, the value of many college degrees being challenged in changing times and online education options proving that a quality education can be obtained for a fraction of the costs, one could argue that a successful Division 1A athletics program is the most valuable asset a bricks-and-mortar college has in 2015.

But the exclusionary tactics the BCS and Bowl system architects implemented structurally ensured that the bottom 50% universities would not be able to compete, making many of them question a return on investment in their programs and leading others, like UAB, to shutter their program (note: I realize that there is more to the UAB story) or compete on a lower level.

If the non-Power Five conferences had equal and fair access to an expanded playoff, it would be in their respective interests to invest heavily into their programs, ensuring that more universities can put a quality product on the field. Some universities are already applying free-market principles to college athletics, with universities like UTSA and ULL who are making significant investments in their facilities in order to attract better athletes, even before they have guaranteed access to the playoff or a return on their investment.

These universities are stuck in non-P5 conferences which limit them to 1/20th of the television revenue of the premier programs, but if you allow them to recruit athletes who would have a chance to participate in a playoff, any university can justify a substantial investment in their program. Boise State and others have proven that any university can build a winner. And with the non-P5 football programs creating programs worth watching, future media rights contracts will reflect that value, helping to level the playing field.

Equal participation and opportunities for revenue will give universities the justification to make the financial investment and students and alumni of those universities the justification to make the emotional commitment. This will bring more parity, which will in turn raise both ratings and attendance.

An Abundance Approach

An expanded playoff that ensures participation from all Division 1A conferences will expand the size of the college football market. The BCS and Bowl system architects designed their deals as if there was a limited amount of money that should be hoarded.

This is the familiar and often false narrative of worrying about their slice of the pie rather than making the pie bigger.

The passion for football in this country seems to be insatiable, and this proves it out.” — Chris Bevilacqua, Sports Media Consultant

The fact is the pie is growing faster and larger than anyone could have imagined when these deals were originally conceived.

By making most or all college football games meaningful, both regular season and postseason, ratings and attendance will improve, and so will the bottom line for everyone in the college football business.

Cross-posted at Sportology