The season that just ended should be entering its penultimate phase. January could be, should be, as mad as March. We're a culture that has blasted into a new century, with the newest, shiniest, fastest, most up-to-date everything. We're at a point where today's thingamajig is tomorrow's museum piece, and sports is always on the edge of the cutting edge of innovation.
Except, that is, for college football. Well, not all of college football, just big-time college football, the game controlled by a few dozen or so old men who would like to drag the game back to the 1950s.
Any argument against a Division I-A playoff is simply Neanderthal at this point. A 10-minute phone conversation with Jim Wheeler of a company called International Sports & Leisure would offer up so much evidence in support of a playoff that it would convince most any forward-thinking person this is the only way to go.
Wheeler's company is a global marketing force. It does multi-billion dollar business with organizations that include the IOC and FIFA, and for that matter, the Big Ten, stuff like matching sponsors with the world's biggest sporting events. ISL would love to broker a January college football equivalent of March Madness. Eight teams, three weekends, one huge championship game the weekend before the Super Bowl. Not only would the major bowl games be saved, they'd be used to stage the seven playoff games. Wheeler wouldn't be specific about money, but word in college football circles is that ISL's deal would guarantee approximately $3 billion over eight years. That's about 2 1/2 times what the bowl games are paying to schools now.
The whole thing isn't that complicated. Eight teams would play on, say, New Year's Day in four bowl games. The winners would advance to the semifinals, where they'd play in two bowl games a week later. (For example, this season, we could right now be ready to watch Florida State vs. Wisconsin in one game, Virginia Tech vs. Nebraska in the other.) Then, the two finalists would meet in a week or two--on the Sunday before the Super Bowl or on a Monday night in prime time if the networks so desire.
Personally, I think a college football playoff might quickly grow to be as big as March Madness for the simple reason that football is bigger in America than basketball. Wheeler, ISL-USA's vice president for college sports, says his company's research shows, "College football is the second or third most popular sport in the country. . . . College basketball is fifth or sixth. The only problem [with college football] now is that the ending is so anti-climactic. It's such a letdown. It just doesn't have that huge ending."
So let's see if I've got this straight: the schools that play Division I-A football would make more money (under ISL's proposal) than they do now. The networks, to use Wheeler's words, are "ready to go." The bowl games that actually have mattered over time would host games of significance instead of these chump deals they've been putting off on people in recent years. The first two games would be played when a great number of students are out of school on holiday vacation. So what's the problem?
Egos. Control. Not much else. Oh, I'll get phone calls today from the same people spinning the same junk we've heard the last 20 years, like Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, who was a primary opponent to a playoff system. The players would miss too much class time, too much travel is involved, the regular season would be rendered meaningless, blah, blah, blah. It's nonsense. More and more teams are adding a 12th game to their schedules anyway, dragging their seasons closer and closer toward final exams. And the people who talk so protectively of the players missing class time are forgetting that Division I-AA and II football players as well as Division I baseball players, basketball players, field hockey players, wrestlers, etc., compete in postseason tournaments. Their classes are not important?
Limit all schools to 11 regular season games. The finalists would play a maximum of 14 games, which is only one more game than some teams are playing now. And only the finalists would have players away from campus after the first 10 days of January.
You want a good laugh? In the minds of some of the school presidents, a multi-billion deal for a football playoff would be objectionable because they've already allowed the commercialization of college sports to run rampant. This powerful sentiment comes after allowing Nokia, FedEx, Tostitos, AT&T, Outback, Insight.com, Southwestern Bell, OurHouse.com, Axa, Culligan, Chick-Fil-a, Wells Fargo, Toyota, EA Sports, Jeep, Sylvania and Micronpc.com to turn bowl season into one long holiday billboard. Who do these guys think they're kidding?
No, this is about control. The Big Ten, Pac-10, SEC, Big 12, ACC, Big East and Notre Dame, "those are the guys who control the postseason," Wheeler said. "Those are the signature parties of the BCS contract. These are power and control issues. Who would run it? How would it work?"
There is the issue of the Big Ten/Pac-10 contract with the Rose Bowl until 2006. But as Wheeler pointed out, there is a 60-day escape clause that would stop the contract after two more games.
This can be done. But it probably will take a lot of lobbying and browbeating the next couple of years. "They have to have an option put in front of them," said Wheeler, who is preparing one. "We have to show them this would dramatically increase interest in the regular season. . . . "
But when I asked Wheeler how he expects his proposal to be received, he said, "We are pushing uphill."
It shouldn't take that. I was sitting in a French Quarter restaurant Monday night full of Florida State and Virginia Tech fans. They couldn't agree on much of anything, except that they'd like to see a postseason playoff. Even these fans, their bowl dreams fulfilled, could see the bigger picture. We can only hope university presidents and conference commissioners who may have been dragging their feet will somehow come to see it, too. You know why professional wrestling works? Its promoters understand what people want, find the sponsors to pay the freight, and give it to them. You would think university presidents and conference commissioners would have that much savvy, wouldn't you?