A few years ago in writing one of my myriad college football postseason proposals, I noted that while the general public supported a college football playoff as an abstract concept, the problem was that no one could agree upon what the playoff should look like. With the countless proposals that I’ve seen in the comments to this blog and online elsewhere (along with fierce debates as to what would be best), that has certainly proven to be the case.
However, as the powers that be of the college football world gather around at the BCS meetings in Hollywood, Florida starting Wednesday to discuss a college football playoff, it seems that the top people following the business of college sports (Teddy Greenstein from the Chicago Tribune, Brett McMurphy from CBS Sports, Pete Thamel from the New York Times, Ralph Russo of the Associated Press and Mark Schlabach of ESPN.com) have come to a general belief that there will be a 4-team playoff with the semifinals hosted at neutral sites (which could be either current bowls or bid out to other venues). The most progressive proposal of having semifinal games being played at on-campus sites from the Big Ten and Jim Delany (who also proposed the supposedly reactionary proposal of the 4 Teams Plus format that would have sent the Big Ten and Pac-12 champs to the Rose Bowl no matter what) seems to be dead. A proposal that only conference champs would be included in the playoff also seems to be on life support. Instead, we’ll likely see some type of format that will take the 3 highest ranked conference champions and then the next highest ranked team as a wild card (who could be a conference champ, non-champ or independent).
Now, pretty much all of the reporters and their BCS sources caveat their statements that different proposals are still in play, whether it’s the unseeded plus-one (where the bowls are played with traditional tie-ins and then the national championship matchup is decided thereafter) or the 4 Teams Plus. As Brett McMurphy noted, the unseeded plus one would actually be the format that would cause the least amount of consternation for the commissioners themselves, yet the public has been conditioned so heavily with the expectation that there will be a 4-team playoff that anything less than that is going to receive massive blowback. In previous years, the commissioners might not have cared, but the atmosphere is such that they want to get a system into place that will have enough public support that discussions about the postseason format can legitimately be avoided for the next decade plus.
The critical question for me (and likely for the powers that be) continues to be revenue… or more importantly, how the college football playoff revenue is split. As I’ve stated several times before, the fact that a playoff system might garner two or three times as much TV money as the current BCS system is meaningless unless we have an understanding as to how such revenue is distributed. Let’s put it this way: the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12, Big 12, ACC and Notre Dame aren’t giving up the 90/10 split in postseason revenue that they have today in order for the non-power conferences to receive all of the financial upside of a playoff. The challenge is finding a system that provides guaranteed income advantages to the power conferences that makes contractual sense and without sounding off blatant antitrust alarm bells (even if the legal reality is the chances of the power conferences losing an antitrust case are remote).
I place the emphasis on guaranteed income because university presidents, even ones in conferences that have had a lot of on-the-field success such as the SEC, would rather guarantee themselves a baseline level of income in down years as opposed to shooting the moon in years where they win the national championship. As a result, don’t expect there to be super financial rewards (if any) for conferences that make the playoff compared to what a league would receive would receive for making the Rose Bowl or other BCS (or whatever the equivalent will be) bowls. Highly variable pay based upon on-the-field performance of individual teams (or whether the placekicker hits a field goal in overtime) simply isn’t how university presidents roll, folks.
That issue of how to split revenue is why I don’t believe we can completely take an unseeded plus-one or a variant of the 4 Team Plus format off the table, even if neither would make much of the general public very happy. For instance, think of a scenario where the 4 Team Plus format was altered where it wasn’t just the Big Ten and Pac-12 that were guaranteed Rose Bowl access. On top of the Rose Bowl, the SEC, ACC and Big 12 champs could have “contractual tie-in” spots (since auto-qualifier status is technically being eliminated) in the other quasi-semifinals (let’s say that they’re rotated among the Sugar, Orange, Fiesta and Cotton Bowls) along with a wild card that is the next highest ranked team other than those champs. Would SEC commissioner Mike Slive still have the same negative reaction in that scenario? How about the ACC and Big 12? I don’t think this scenario would end up happening, but also don’t believe it’s that crazy if you’re thinking like the commissioner of one of the power conferences.
To be clear and reiterate what I’ve said previously, what I’d personally like to see is the “BCS Final Four” proposal that I wrote about nearly a year and a half ago, which is pretty similar to the 4-team playoff with neutral semifinal sites proposal on the table. The main difference that I proposed then was that the semifinals would be rotated among the BCS bowl venues but would be separate from the BCS bowls themselves. The semifinal sites in any given year would then get preferences to host the conferences that they have contractual tie-ins with if they are in the top 4. So, in the years where Pasadena is a semifinal site, the Rose Bowl (the venue, NOT the game itself) would get assigned a semifinal matchup with a Big Ten and/or Pac-12 team if applicable. We could even make Pasadena a permanent semifinal site where it could host both a semifinal and the Rose Bowl annually. This as a way to at least throw something towards the Big Ten/Pac-12/Rose Bowl triumverate that preserves their relationship but doesn’t take away a permanent Big Ten-Pac-12 matchup in the Rose Bowl (the game) itself while still allowing top 4 Big Ten and Pac-12 teams regular trips to Pasadena for semifinal games.
As someone whose high school and college years spanned the Clinton era in the 1990s, I have fantastic memories of listening to Tupac Shakur and watching the old traditional Big Ten/Pac-12 Rose Bowl when it was the biggest college football game of the year, but I can understand if many people don’t want either of them to come back onstage in 2012. I have a melancholy feeling about all of this since I’ve pushed for a playoff for such a long time on this blog, yet I also don’t want to see the Rose Bowl unalterably become a consolation game. It’s the price of progress in college football.