The sports world has been throwing me some curve balls over the past week, with my Bears and Illini combining for only 3 fields goals worth of offense, the Lakers trying to tell the public with a straight face that Mike D’Antoni is a “better fit” as a coach for their team than Phil Jackson, and the Marlins just handing over half of their team to the Blue Jays after fleecing Florida’s citizens out of public funds to build a brand new ballpark. Let’s try to digest what has actually occurred with the new college football playoff system by answering some frequently asked questions:
(1) What exactly is the new playoff and top tier bowl format? – For someone like me that constantly dives into the minutiae of these details, this seems like a basic question, but it’s apparent to me after reading a lot of questions from people out there that the powers that be haven’t really done a good job of explaining how the new postseason format is going to work very clearly to the public.
What we know is that there will be 6 top tier bowls, with 3 of them being “contract bowls” with contractual tie-ins (Rose Bowl with the Big Ten and Pac-12, Sugar Bowl with the SEC and Big 12, and Orange Bowl with the ACC and SEC/Big Ten/Notre Dame) and the other 3 being “host bowls” (likely the Cotton Bowl, Fiesta Bowl and Chick-Fil-A Bowl) that provide “access” slots (the equivalent of at-large bids in today’s BCS system). The major new news is that the FBS conferences just announced that one of those access slots will be allocated to the highest ranked champion of the conferences that do not have a tie-in with a contract bowl (the Big East, Mountain West, Conference USA, Sun Belt and MAC, who are generally referred to in the media as the “Gang of Five” and I call the “G5” here). Over the past month, the powers that be had considered adding a 7th bowl that would match up the top G5 champ against a team from the Big 12 or Pac-12, but the feedback from the marketplace was that such game would not be worth very much. Thus, the compromise was to incorporate that G5 access into the 6-bowl rotation.
A 4-team playoff will be played within the confines of those 6 bowls, meaning that 2 bowls will be designated as semifinal sites each year and the other 4 bowls are “normal” bowl games. In a year when a contract bowl is designated as a semifinal, the champions from each conference that it has tie-ins with are guaranteed a spot in one of the host bowls if such conference champ is not a semifinalist. For example, if the playoff were in effect last year and the Rose Bowl was a semifinal site, Wisconsin, as the Big Ten champion that did not make it to the semifinal, would have an automatic slot in one of the host bowls. On the flip side, when a contract bowl is not a semifinal, it is guaranteed to have teams from its tie-in conferences no matter where they are ranked. So, in another example, if the playoff were in effect this year where the Rose Bowl is not a semifinal site and Oregon is the Pac-12 champion and finishes in the top 4, the Rose Bowl would take another Pac-12 team to replace Oregon whether such team is ranked #5 or #50.
The 4-team playoff field will be determined by a selection committee, presumably with at least one representative from each FBS conference. That selection committee will also determine who receives the at-large host bowl slots and which G5 conference champ is the highest ranked.
(2) How will the revenue be split? – Some of it is very clear while other parts of it is up in the air. While every conference expects an increase in revenue on an absolute basis, a chosen few are going to receive the lion’s share of the gains. The contract conferences (Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC, Big 12 and ACC) will retain the media revenue from their respective contract bowls in the years that such bowls are not hosting semifinals. The Rose Bowl signed a TV contract with ESPN worth $80 million per year. The Sugar Bowl is believed to be making the same $80 million figure under an ESPN deal finalized today while the Orange Bowl is estimated to be worth $60 million per year. This means that all of the contract conferences are expected to make $40 million each in the years that their respective contract bowls are “normal” non-semifinal bowl games. The G5 doesn’t touch this money.
A separate pot that includes the national championship game, semifinals and host bowls has a tentative deal on the table from ESPN worth approximately $475 million to $500 million per year. This is where the revenue distribution issue gets a bit murkier. The FBS commissioners have said that a portion of that pot will distributed in the form of fixed annual payments to the various FBS conferences and independents, while another portion will be allocated based upon who actually attains bids to the semifinals and host bowls. It is unclear how those portions will be split up. The current understanding regarding the fixed annual payments is that the contract conferences will take the bulk of that money on top of their contract bowl revenue in equal shares among those 5 leagues, with a CBSSports.com report that it would be an overall 80%/20% split with G5 conferences compared to the current 85%/15% split in the current BCS system (although that “give” by the contract conferences is a quite misleading since that doesn’t include contract bowl revenue that the power leagues keep 100% of in the new system yet was shared in the current BCS system, so the net effect is essentially nothing in terms of overall percentage splits).
(3) Is the Big East a winner or loser in all of this? – I’ll give the lawyerly answer here: it depends. The new G5 access slot to a host bowl has been positioned by a lot of people in the media as a “win” for the Big East*, but whether it’s truly a win is different for each of the members of that conference.
(* Regardless of what anyone thinks about how much the Big East will be worth in the TV and bowl marketplaces going forward, a massive amount of credit has to be given to the league’s new commissioner Mike Aresco for completely managing the media in all aspects on this playoff issue along with the recent Notre Dame defection. If this announcement were made during John Marinatto’s tenure as Big East commissioner, the news stories would be talking about how the Big East is dead with the loss of an auto-bid as opposed to being anything close to a winner.)
The Big East is really the entity that is most affected by the changes in the postseason system since it went from being an AQ league where its champion was guaranteed a spot in a BCS bowl (the equivalent of a contract conference in the new format) to one where its champ is pooled in with the champs from the other G5 leagues to fight for one spot (the equivalent of a non-AQ conference in the current format). From that vantage point, it’s very difficult to call the old members of the Big East (Louisville, UConn, Rutgers, Cincinnati and South Florida) as “winners” since this is a clear downgrade. Even if they make more money in absolute dollars in the new system, they will be behind the power conference teams that they were once grouped with on a relative basis in terms of revenue and access. The old members of the Big East in the negotiations with the powers that be in the playoff negotiations were basically in the position of Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back, where Darth Vader told him, “I am altering the deal. Pray that I don’t alter it any further.” As a result, the best that you could say for the old members of the Big East was that it could have been worse, where the power conferences might not have provided any dedicated bowl slot to the G5 at all.
On the other hand, the new Big East members (Temple, Central Florida, Houston, SMU, Memphis, San Diego State and Navy) are definitely winners. They have received an upgrade in top bowl access (albeit not a great of an upgrade as they might have originally anticipated) and will take home multitudes more revenue compared to the current BCS system. There’s really very little downside for any of them, if only because they could only go up from where they are in the BCS landscape.
In theory, the Big East is in the best position to win this G5 bowl access slot year-to-year since it is the strongest conference of that group from top to bottom. That being said, I believe that theory only holds true where the Big East champ has the same record as any of the other G5 champs. The danger for the Big East is not necessarily other conferences passing them by, but simply when another team from one of those conferences has a hot year. For example, a 1-loss Louisiana Tech team is 1 spot ahead of 1-losss Rutgers and only 1 spot behind 1-loss Louisville in this week’s BCS rankings… and that’s while playing in a WAC league that will no longer be in existence when the new playoff starts in 2014. That seems to indicate that a 1-loss Louisiana Tech team would definitely jump 2-loss Louisville and Rutgers teams if the new system were in place today (and it’s already virtually dead even with all of them having the same records). At the same time, even though the Big East conference games will provide its league members with stronger strength of schedule rankings compared to the conferences games in the other G5 leagues, that can be mitigated by the fact that other G5 teams are more willing to take one-and-done guarantee games on the road with power conference teams. Using Louisiana Tech as an example again, they have stronger BCS computer numbers than both Louisville and Rutgers this year based on playing one excellent SEC team (Texas A&M) and two craptacular Big Ten (Illinois – ugh) and ACC (Virginia) teams in road one-and-done games. As a result, Big East teams can’t get very comfortable at all about thinking that this G5 slot is always going to go to their league. That might be true when all records are equal, but if the Big East champ has a worse record than one of the other G5 champs, then it’s a major risk.
(4) What other winners and losers are there? – The other G5 conferences are overall winners since they have managed to obtain better access and revenue compared to the current system despite generally having weaker leagues on the field due to defections with conference realignment. Of course, lest that you believe that the power conferences have been charitable, the Big Ten and SEC are definitely large winners, as well. In part of the announcements this week, the champions from the SEC and Big Ten will always play in one of the host bowls if they are not semifinalists instead of the Orange Bowl (which those leagues have a secondary tie-in with shared with Notre Dame). So, instead of, say, a #5-ranked SEC champ heading to the Orange Bowl when the Sugar Bowl is hosting a semifinal (thereby freeing up a host bowl slot for someone else), that SEC champ will go to one of the host bowls and the Orange Bowl can take another SEC team on top of that. Jim Delany and Mike Slive definitely pulled a fast one there, particularly when the media seems to intimate that this was some type of concession.
(5) What happens to independents, particularly Notre Dame and BYU? – Independents (excluding Navy who will be joining the Big East in 2015, these currently consist of Notre Dame, BYU and Army and will include conference-less Idaho and New Mexico State next year) do not have any prescribed access to the semifinals and host bowls outside of ranking high enough for the selection committee to choose them for those slots. However, Notre Dame has a contractual tie-in with the Orange Bowl, so host bowl access would have been gravy to them, anyway.
Most speculation about the impact on independents has centered around whether the new G5 bowl slot will spur BYU to join the Big East. As I’ve stated in other blog posts, I don’t believe that BYU will end up in the Big East because its interests are much more about providing maximum TV exposure for the football program and the LDS church as a whole, which is exactly what they get now as an independent with an ESPN contract, as opposed to making the most TV money possible. Now, I do believe that the bowl access situation will give BYU and LDS leaders (never forget that they are intertwined here) something else to chew on, but if you take a step back, you’ll realize that nothing has actually changed for the school in terms of top tier bowl access. As of today, the only way that BYU can get automatic access to any BCS bowl is to qualify for the national championship game itself, which is practically no different than BYU only gaining automatic access if it qualifies for a semifinal in the new system. Since BYU chose independence under the current BCS circumstances with virtually no prescribed access at all, no one should assume that the new G5 bowl spot will seriously alter their thinking. At the end of the day, I continue to believe that Air Force will end up as football school #14 in the Big East while BYU will maintain its independence.
(6) Any other unusual details? – Well, Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan has some loose lips, where he provided some quirky information from the BCS meetings to the Baton Rouge Advocate (h/t to Alan from Baton Rouge):
While the nonplayoff Sugar Bowls will be exclusively between SEC and Big 12 teams, much as the Rose Bowl is exclusively between Big Ten and Pac-12 teams, the semifinals can feature teams from any conference, although if an SEC or Big 12 team is seeded first or second, its game will be in the Sugar Bowl.
The rotation for the semifinals is yet to be set. Hoolahan said he did not know which year would be the first for New Orleans to host a playoff game but understood the Sugar Bowl would be paired with the Rose Bowl.
“That way, we’ll have an uninterrupted afternoon and evening of playoff games,” he said. “That’s going to be exciting.”
The first portion of Hoolahan’s info doesn’t surprise me, where the contract bowls would get preferences to host their respective conference partners when they are semifinal games. It makes complete sense that a #1 or #2-ranked Big Ten or Pac-12 team ought to go to the Rose Bowl if that game happens to be a semifinal site for that particular season. However, the second portion about how the Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl would always be semifinal games in the same year is completely perplexing to me. I understand Hoolahan’s point that the years when both of them are hosting semifinals would make for an exciting New Year’s Day, but the flip side is that there would now be no New Year’s Day semifinals at all in 1 out of every 3 years. A clear and logical annual setup of 1 host bowl being a semifinal on New Year’s Eve and 1 contract bowl being a semifinal on New Year’s Day seems to be thrown up in the air with this information. Usually, I’m able to understand the intent and reasoning behind various actions by the powers that be (even if I don’t personally agree with them), but I’m at a loss as to why the commissioners believe that this is a good idea.
All-in-all, there has been a flurry of progress over the past couple of weeks on the playoff front after a long pause in deliberations. Hopefully, we’ll get some final information about how the semifinal rotation will be set up, confirmation that ESPN will be the television partner, and where the national championship game itself will be played sooner rather than later.
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(Image from Sports Illustrated)