As we approach this year’s national championship game along with record low TV ratings for the Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl, the conversation around college football regarding massive changes to the current BCS system continues to heat up. SEC commissioner Mike Slive, who had presented a top 4 seeded plus-one proposal in 2008, has explicitly stated that he “does not think those changes are going to be tweaks.” Plugged-in Andy Staples from Sports Illustrated predicts that the conferences will agree upon a plus-one system and the elimination of automatic qualifying status for conferences this year. We have recently discussed various plus-one proposals here and here, while Inside the Shoe attempts to project what bowl tie-ins would look like if and when AQ status is eliminated. Some takeaways and predictions:
1. The Plus-One is Seriously Coming – Everything that I’ve seen and heard is that some type of plus-one system to determine the national champion is coming. However, as I’ve stated previously, it can’t be assumed that it will come in the form of a top 4 playoff. An unseeded plus-one where the BCS rankings are recalculated after the bowls to determine the national title game matchup or some type of semi-seeded format (such as the Halfway There Compromise) is certainly possible. Maybe we’ll still end up with the top 4 playoff that is what most people think of when talking about a plus-one (in which case, I recommend the BCS Final Four format), but my feeling is that an unseeded format is what will be put into place as a compromise for the Big Ten and Rose Bowl. Could the SEC and other conferences technically outvote the Big Ten on this issue? Absolutely. Will they choose to do so? I have my reservations on that front. We’re not talking about an objection from the WAC or MAC here that can be easily ignored. The people in charge really want all of the current AQ conferences unanimously on board. In my heart of hearts, I think Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is actually fine with a plus-one privately, but selling it to the Big Ten presidents is not an easy task, which is why he has the public position of opposing it entirely. Getting a true Big Ten champ vs. Pac-12 champ Rose Bowl back (plus lots of TV money for that plus-one championship game) could be the hook to obtaining presidential consent.
2. Eliminating AQ Status is About Three BCS Bowl Bids for Each of the SEC and Big Ten – Whatever differences Slive and Delany might have regarding a plus-one, they are completely on the same page about eliminating AQ status. Of course, it’s completely self-serving, as the SEC and Big Ten are the conferences seeking three BCS bowl bids each (or even guaranteed in a system where all of those bowls will have contractual tie-ins). If you look at the bowl payouts in the marketplace, you already see that SEC #3 and Big Ten #3 carry more value than the #2 teams from the Pac-12, ACC and Big 12 (and even those are skewed since those bowls are really selecting SEC #4 and Big Ten #4 as those two leagues are already all but assured of receiving two BCS bowl bids annually in the current system). You can also see it in the selections of the BCS bowls themselves, as they continuously pick SEC and Big Ten schools for at-large bids even if there are higher ranked teams available from other power conferences. So, this isn’t just about the SEC and Big Ten guaranteeing themselves 2 BCS bowl bids since they already have that in today’s format. Slive and Delany are looking for changes because they know that their leagues can get even more in either a market-oriented bowl system or removing the 2 BCS bowl bids per conference limit in a modified at-large selection process.
This is what the bowls want, too. The Sugar Bowl and TV executives aren’t looking at the 12,000 empty seats and low ratings for the Michigan-Virginia Tech matchup and thinking, “Boy, we should have really invited Boise State instead.” To the contrary, they’re thinking, “We need to change the system so that we could have taken #6 Arkansas as a third SEC team. Arkansas vs. Michigan would have been gangbusters!”
3. More Bowl Tie-ins or Floaters… or a Horse of a Different Color? – It’s still an open question as to how those top bowls fill in what are currently at-large BCS spots. The Inside the Shoe post linked above suggests different contractual tie-ins for those spots. Some commenters here have suggested the concept of “floater” spots (i.e. a bowl can take a team from a pool of several leagues), although that begs the question of how much different that would be from the current at-large selection system. From the bowl perspective, there seems to be a tension between avoiding the “undesirable” non-AQ and Big East teams that they have been forced to take under the current BCS system (which would suggest more contractual tie-ins with leagues like the SEC and Big Ten) and the desire to have some flexibility to take the best available teams (i.e. the second selection from the Big 12 isn’t that attractive if it’s Kansas State, but a bowl definitely wants a second selection from the Big 12 if it can take Texas or Oklahoma).
There also has to be an eye toward avoiding antitrust issues. I have long believed that an antitrust case against the current BCS system would ultimately be a loser partially because it allows for non-AQ conference access that would never have come to fruition otherwise. Therefore, even if there was collusion between the BCS bowls and AQ conferences, the non-AQ conferences wouldn’t be able to show any damages since eliminating the BCS system would actually take away revenue and access from them. Think of it as a college football version of the famous USFL antitrust lawsuit against the NFL: the USFL technically won the lawsuit by showing that the NFL was an illegal monopoly, but was only awarded $1 in damages (which is trebled for a Sherman Act violation, so it actually received $3). Eliminating the BCS system overall but then having the top bowls fill in at-large sports with “floater” teams that practically shut off access to non-AQ schools, though, is much more problematic from an antitrust perspective. The concept of floaters would almost certainly require some level of collusion between the bowls which, in this case, would truly be to the detriment of those non-AQ schools.
One way to circumvent antitrust issues while providing the BCS bowls with more at-large selection flexibility is to expand the merit-based quotient slightly. For instance, there could be 5 BCS bowls (assuming that the Cotton Bowl is added as the fifth game) for a total of 10 bids just as today. 5 of those bids would go to the 5 power conferences with contractual tie-ins. There could then be a provision that all schools in the top 5 of the BCS rankings would be guaranteed a spot in a BCS bowl (a slight uptick from the top 4 protection now). Maybe there would be 5 bids granted to current non-AQ conferences in one year and maybe there would be zero bids in the next year, but in either case, that type of merit-based allowance is likely what would allow that system to pass antitrust muster. This ensures that if there’s an “undesirable” team that must be included, it’s at least going to be a top 5 school that would have a legit shot at the national title in an unseeded plus-one system and then the bowls can pick whoever else that they want otherwise. A seeded plus-one, which would inherently grant auto-bids to the top 4 ranked schools, would also make things much easier for the BCS from a legal standpoint.
My gut feeling is that the modification to the current BCS system is ultimately more likely than a complete break-off between the national championship game and the bowls. The top bowls themselves still want a BCS designation (as it distinguishes them from everyone else) and would likely value more flexibility in filling what are currently their at-large spots than having straight conference tie-ins.
4. Are Non-AQ Conferences Exchanging Bowl Access for More National Championship Game Revenue? – One interesting aspect of all of these proposed changes is that the non-AQ conferences seem to be willing to give up access to top bowl games that they would have never received in the pre-BCS days. Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson is on the record that he would rather see AQ status eliminated across the board over even the MWC receiving AQ status for the next two seasons. The main argument is that the AQ and non-AQ labels have artificially created a caste system between the two designations. Now, that seems like a pretty weak position for giving up access to top tier bowl games. Regardless of whether there are AQ or non-AQ statuses, everyone is going to recognize that there’s a clear delineation between the power conferences and the non-power conferences. (We’ll get to where the Big East fits on that spectrum in a moment.) As much as the power conferences control the college football postseason, it would still be unusual for the non-AQ leagues to give up access after fighting for it for so long unless they’re getting something in return. What gives?
One plausible way that the non-AQs can get something out of a return to a more traditional bowl system is that they would give up major bowl access and revenue to the power conferences in exchange for equal shares of the revenue that is generated by the plus-one national championship game. This actually makes some sense. The bowls have always been designed to be extensions of their local tourism bureaus where selections are merit-influenced (as better teams generally have fans that are more likely to be motivated to travel and watch games) but not completely merit-based. The top games want a combination of strong traveling fan bases, brand names and TV drawing power, which is why they gravitate to the power conferences. Thus, if we define “fairness” as an adherence to free market principles (as opposed to redistribution of income or open access), it’s completely fair that the bowls pay more to the top leagues with the most popular teams. In contrast, the national championship game explicitly does not have any conference tie-ins (although SEC fans surely argue that they ought to have one). The national title game is something that should equitably be shared by all conferences because, at least on paper (if not in practice), every team has a chance to make that game based on pure merit. Thus, it’s inequitable that a #1 SEC team ought to get paid more than a #2 Mountain West team for making that game (which is actually what would happen in today’s system).
At least in my mind, it would be consistent to allow for the power conferences to receive all of the revenue for the top bowls (which have a heavy popularity component), but all conferences ought to share the national championship game revenue equally. Presumably, all parties involved would see hefty increases in revenue as a result of this allocation system and it property reflects their interests, where the non-AQ conferences can’t honestly claim equal status with the power conferences in terms of bowl desirability because that simply isn’t true, but ought to be able to claim equal status in terms of access to the national championship game that should be based purely on merit. (Any arguments that a non-AQ school getting to national championship game is almost impossible are noted, but that’s a practical consideration as opposed to a structural/contractual/financial issue. The “system” should eliminate the latter because that’s within its control. However, there’s only so much that can be done once it’s put into practice. This even applies to more “open access” systems such as the NCAA Tournament or FCS playoffs, where power conferences and programs have still emerged.)
5. Big East: The One That Wants the Status Quo – By most accounts, 10 of the 11 FBS conferences want to eliminate AQ status. The one holdout, not surprisingly, is the Big East. As I’ve stated in previous posts, “eliminating AQ status” is really a matter of semantics for the Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC, Big 12 and ACC because they all would still retain their contractual tie-ins with the BCS bowls. Whether or not there’s a delineation between AQ and non-AQ leagues, nothing will really change for the champions of those 5 power conferences. In contrast, AQ status means everything to the Big East since it doesn’t have any contractual tie-ins with the top bowls and likely couldn’t get them on its own. To have a chance at a tie-in with one of those top bowls, the Big East would probably have to make a deal with the devil and offer liberal access to Notre Dame, such as allowing a bowl to take the Irish if they are ranked higher than the Big East champion in a given year. Even then, that might not be enough. Considering that the Big East created a new coast-to-coast league including Boise State and San Diego State with an explicit eye toward ensuring that the league would meet any BCS AQ numerical criteria, all of that effort may have been in vain. Of course, the new Big East will still be better off for TV purposes than if it had solely added more geographically-friendly (but less sexy) schools east of the Mississippi River, so it was an expansion that the league had to do in the wake of Syracuse and Pitt defecting to the ACC and West Virginia leaving for the Big 12. It’s just that an automatic tie-in to a top bowl (and the revenue that comes with it) is no longer assured for the Big East. In a college football world where there’s largely a clear line between the upper class elite and the lower class, the Big East is the one middle class conference.
Changes in college football have come in very small increments. It’s easy to forget that there has only been national championship game for the past 13 years, with the Bowl Alliance and Bowl Coalition being precursors and a sole reliance on polls prior to them. This might be the year where a giant step is made.