BCS Championship Is a Game Already Lost

By Sally Jenkins
Saturday, December 2, 2006

I was just sitting here staring with my hardened cynic's eye at an economic impact study that says the BCS national championship game will be worth $315 million in business, which got me to wondering, when did Ohio State become a content provider as opposed to a, you know, football team? And that in turn got me to thinking about licensing options, community portals, single-source partners, operating leverage and variable cost, all of which seem more important to BCS officials than playing a, what's the word they never use anymore, game.

Try to find some legitimacy in the Bowl Championship Series. Go ahead, try. Exert all of your ability, industry and intelligence toward the task. You can't do it. The fact of the matter is that the treasure called the college football postseason has become buried beneath corporate scams. All you need to know is that the Fiesta Bowl has a CEO. His name is John Junker, and when he testified before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce last year in defense of the BCS, he actually called the bowl games "independent business units" and referred to universities as "customers."

When a sports organization is more concerned with revenue distribution than with fair competition, it is asking for problems.

The annual debate about the BCS rankings is misdirected. Its error-prone formula and the silly complexity of its math are just side effects. The greater problem with the BCS is that it's a made-for-TV corruption and a heist by the Gang of Six conferences, and its emphasis on the dollar has fundamentally skewed the postseason.

No matter what matchup the BCS formula spits out after this weekend -- if USC beats UCLA today it will earn a title shot against Ohio State -- the two teams won't play the championship for six weeks, on Jan. 8. This is so that the college football audience can be assaulted by maximized ad messaging, and its pockets pried open by corporate partnering. By then, both teams (and we spectators) will be dishrags. Whatever momentum or championship edge they had likely will be lost.

Imagine how absurd a six-week delay would be in any other sport. "Hey folks, thanks for coming to the Big East basketball tournament. Make sure to come back in May when our convoluted system of popularity contests and quantum physics will pick two teams to play for the national title."

But there is another potential problem here, one far more serious. The BCS is a license to cheat. Where there is corporate excess, there is often crime. Look at it this way:

Teams that nab BCS bids will earn between $14 and $17 million in bowl payouts, to split with their conferences. The other schools in their league get a cut. What's to prevent them from lying down? Or paying off the officials to help out?

Just go to CoversExperts.com, an online handicapping service, and read what tout Ted Sevransky has to say in a piece entitled "Conspiracy Theory 101" about some suspicious ball spots by referees, who by the way are conference employees. "We can expect Boise [State] to get the benefit of the doubt from the zebras," he writes. "Would you want to be the ref who cost the conference an $11 million dollar payday?"

A bowl payout does a lot for a conference that isn't guaranteed one.

Personally, I'm not a conspiracy theorist. I believe in the basic integrity of the refs and the competitors. But millions of bettors believe in the fix. The BCS has created a perception of illegitimacy.

The NCAA should be deeply worried about what the BCS is doing to its reputation. Recently, the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), demanded that the NCAA justify its tax-exempt status, given the amount of money it receives from TV contracts and championship events. The NCAA claims it is "organized and operated exclusively for educational purposes." But that's hardly a persuasive stance when the BCS smacks of something between a rake-off and unrelated business income.

Let's be clear: There is nothing wrong with wealth in college sports -- TV and corporate largesse pays for countless athletes to compete in less visible, nonprofitable sports. It's naive to say money should be removed from the game, and anyway, cash and college football have always gone hand in hand. As early as 1890, 40,000 people paid $15 for tickets to see Yale and Princeton play at the Polo Grounds in New York on Thanksgiving day. The game was so hugely popular that church services were held an hour earlier, so New Yorkers could get to the game. Richard Harding Davis of Harper's Weekly once mocked, "There is only one man in New Haven of more importance than Walter Camp, and I have forgotten his name. I think he is the president of the university."

In 1902, Harvard grossed $54,243 for the season, and the gate receipts of that year's Yale-Princeton game alone totaled $33,000. You can follow the escalation from there. The first Fiesta Bowl in 1971 paid out $168,000 per team.

The problem is not the ever-swelling profits, but that they are flowing into a crooked, jimmy-rigged BCS system that stresses the bottom line over the lines on the field. Defenders of the BCS say it's better than nothing. But the BCS is worse than nothing. It's actively hurting the game.

If the NCAA really wants to demonstrate its educational purpose, it should go after the BCS and dismantle it. There are only two potential solutions: adopt a straightforward playoff system, or take a cue from the Ivy League and play the big rivalries on the last weekend of the season, and do away with the postseason entirely. To a certain extent, the BCS has marginalized itself, anyway. The real games already are over. Nothing the BCS can stage on Jan. 8 will be as important, or legit, as Michigan-Ohio State was in November.

Remember the old bowl system? It was imperfect, but compared with this, I sigh with nostalgia for it. At least most of the bowl officials were part-timers who wore their colored blazers only on weekends. During the week, they had real jobs. They understood the bowls were games.

Shut the BCS down.


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