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Creating The Perfect Playoff Plan (Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The BCS)

I want a college football playoff. Let’s say that right up front. I think it’s ridiculous to think that there is one sport in all the world that is NOT decided by a playoff format, by a true a championship game.

Yes, there is a BCS title game every year, but there have been numerous third-place teams that legitimately deserved a shot at the title. Southern Cal, Auburn, even Texas this season.

The current set-up leaves too much power with voters and computer hard drives.

Oh, I’ve heard all of the arguments made against a playoff: too much time away from class (though baseball and basketball players spend more time out of class than football players), too many games as it is (though presidents jumped at the chance to add a 12th regular season game), too commercial (though no one seems to mind such monstrosities as the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl).

On and on you can go with the reasons against a playoff, but the only real reason a playoff doesn’t exist is the one reason that college presidents never discuss: the BCS conferences control 90% of the bowl money and they don’t want to share it.

So in lining up a playoff, I knew I had to find a system that would serve a lot of masters… with the most important being those 65 or so presidents at BCS schools.

This was a challenge to create a REAL playoff system that would be so perfectly laid out that college presidents couldn’t say no. Bowls would sign off on it. Television networks would drool over it. And corporate sponsors would throw millions of dollars at it.

To make sure I was covering all my bases, I elicited the help of sports marketing expert Bill Schmidt. Schmidt was the Vice President of Worldwide Sports Marketing for Gatorade in the days of the original Gatorade post-game shower and in the era of those omni-present Michael Jordan ads.

He was the Vice President of Sports at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and he also served for a while as CEO for Oakley. He still serves as a consultant and deal-maker for professional sports teams across the country.

Quite simply, the man has been involved in some of the biggest sports deals in history (in terms of both publicity and cash).

Schmidt’s role in my process was to serve as an experienced media player and, frankly, as a skeptic. I needed to build a plan that would be bulletproof. Schmidt would be the guy shooting holes in my system.

In fact, right off the bat, he made it clear that even a “perfect” system might still get the cold shoulder from the college football power-brokers. Regardless of the cash a playoff system might generate.

“You’re talking about athletic directors and presidents who have never run businesses,” Schmidt said. “It’s academia you’re having to win over. If they brought in people from their business schools to help with these decisions, you might have a better chance of convincing them to change.”

“There’s a lot of politics involved in something like this. What makes sense from a dollars standpoint doesn’t necessarily matter.”

Indeed, presidents could go to a 13-game regular season schedule now if money was their only goal. But academicians feel the need to make as much money as possible, while APPEARING to put scholastic interests at the forefront.

In fact, the biggest money issue involved is rather simple: don’t LOSE money. BCS presidents don’t want to give up their massive piece of the post-season revenue pie.

If you recall, the BCS existed for several years as a four-bowl system. Only when the smaller non-BCS schools started to threaten litigation and legislation did the BCS presidents create a fifth game – the BCS championship game – that would allow one bowl site to host two games each year.

That first game would be open to a non-BCS school if it qualified in the BCS rankings. Teams like Utah, Boise State and Hawaii have taken advantage.

If a playoff is to come about, Schmidt believes those non-BCS schools might have to serve as the driving force again.

“Little schools have forced issues before,” Schmidt said. “Scholarship limitations, for example, certainly weren’t driven by the big schools.”

But that’s big picture stuff. Let’s focus on creating a realistic playoff plan that would work.

In breaking down my system (and Schmidt’s response to the plan) I’ll give you the shortest description I can. But keep in mind, this is a detailed set-up. It had to be if we were going to have a serious discussion. So here are the basics:

I’ve always felt that a four-team playoff – a so-called “Plus One” format – would work just fine. In most years, there would not be a fifth-ranked team deserving of a shot at the title.

But this year would be the exception. Utah, Boise State, Texas Tech, Southern Cal, Penn State, Texas and Alabama all finished the regular season with one or no losses. So, based on this year’s action, I decided to propose an 8-team playoff system.

Who’s Behind It?

Anyone but the NCAA, that’s who.

If a true NCAA-sanctioned playoff were created (like in every other division of college football), the revenue from the tournament would have to be split among all of the current FBS teams.

BCS presidents, as I said earlier, are not interested in losing money. They would rather have 1/65th of the pie than 1/119th of the pie. Even if the second pie is a little bit bigger, their slice would be smaller overall.

“You can’t package this as an NCAA championship game,” said Schmidt. “Something like the ‘Gillette BCS Playoffs’ would be a lot easier to sell. That’s not far off from the current BCS system in which each game has its own sponsor.”

“Cut the NCAA out of it. Just as they are out of it now.”

Indeed, the Bowl Championship Series does not produce an official “national champion” in the way that the NCAA basketball tournament does. Or any other NCAA playoff in any other NCAA sport does, for that matter.

In setting up a playoff system along these “unofficial” lines it would still leave open the possibility that the Associated Press could vote a non-playoff team #1. It would be a rare occurrence, but the possibility would exist for an undefeated non-BCS conference member to finish #9 in the country, not make the playoffs, and still win a piece of the national title.

And that might happen once in a hundred years. So that’s not a major concern.

What About The Conference Championship Games?

There’s no way in the world that the SEC, Big 12, ACC and Conference USA would do away with their cash cows, so those games would stay in place.

They would be played on the first weekend of December, just as they are now.

Who’s Invited?

We’re going for buy-in here, so the idea has to fly with those aforementioned BCS presidents. So why not make things as familiar for them as possible?

In my system, the current BCS formula (which favors the big-name BCS teams) would still be used to select the eight teams involved.

And, yes, before you say it, “that leaves a lot of power with voters and computer hard drives.” But nowhere near as much as the current set-up.

A left-out ninth place team would have less room to complain than a left-out third place team. And in this system, teams three through eight would get a chance to prove their worth on the football field.

The champions of the six BCS conferences would receive automatic bids into the tournament IF those teams are ranked in the Top 10.

So, using this year as the example, automatic bids would have gone to:

#1 Oklahoma (Big 12 champion)

#2 Florida (SEC champion)

#5 Southern Cal (Pac-10 champion)

#8 Penn State (Big Ten champion).

Cincinnati (Big East champion) and Virginia Tech (ACC champion) would not be in the playoff because they did not rank in the final Top 10.

That would leave four “wild card” slots to be filled by rank:

#3 Texas

#4 Alabama

#6 Utah

#7 Texas Tech.

Sorry Boise State fans. The Broncos would have been left out of the playoff just as they were left out by the current BCS system.

As you can see, the BCS conferences would still land seven of the eight bids, with only Utah sneaking in for the little guys. The BCS presidents would approve of that.

The Lay-Out

An eight-team playoff would require three rounds of games.

The first round would be played on the third weekend of December. Starting at that point would give all teams at least two weeks off between their conference championship games (if they play in one) and the playoffs.

That just so happens to be finals time on most college campuses, too, so there would be no complaints about missed schoolwork (funny how that never comes up in March).

Also, that date would allow the season to end on the exact same date as this year’s bowl system. That disarms the argument so often tossed out by college presidents: “We don’t want to stretch into a second semester.”

Campus sites would be used for the four first-round games.

This would a) give presidents the possibility of hosting another home game (and making millions more in gate, concession, and souvenir sales) and b) it would make late season games even more meaningful as teams jockey for home-field advantage.

It would be impossible to create an eight-team playoff using seven bowls. That’s simply too much travel for college presidents to support. And first round bowl games wouldn’t like the fact that most fans would save their cash and travel to later round games, anyway.

No, with an eight-team format, home fields would have to be used.

With that in mind, the four highest seeded teams (Oklahoma, Florida, Texas and Alabama) would get home dates. Teams would be seeded in the obvious 8 vs. 1, 7 vs. 2, 6 vs. 3 and 5 vs. 4 format.

Two first round games would have been played on Friday the 19th.

Game 1: #7 Texas Tech at #2 Florida – 4:30pm EST

Game 2: #8 Penn State at #1 Oklahoma – 8:30pm EST

West Coast fans wouldn’t be happy about a 1:30pm PST start time on a Friday, but you can’t please everyone. Most viewers are on the East Coast and this is exactly how the networks would want to set things up.

It falls in line with the schedules for other events – bowl, tournaments, pro games, etc.

On Saturday the 20th, the remaining teams would face off in their first-round battles.

Game 3: #6 Utah at #3 Texas – 4:30pm EST

Game 4: #5 Southern Cal at #4 Alabama – 8:30pm EST

“That schedule works well from a television standpoint,” Schmidt said. “And the idea of extra revenue from an additional home game is a good carrot for the schools.”

Moving forward, the second round of the playoffs would be played on New Year’s Day. Again, let’s keep things as close to “traditional” as possible.

Just as the current set-up features several morning and early afternoon bowls feeding into two BCS bowls in the evening, my system would feature morning and early afternoon bowls leading into the semi-finals of “The Gillette Bowl Championship Playoffs.”

(I’m just using Gillette as an example, and I hope they appreciate the free pub.)

Assuming the top-seeded home teams would win the first-round games, the New Year’s Day line-up would look like this:

Game 5: #2 Florida vs #3 Texas in the Sugar Bowl – 4:30pm EST


Game 6: #1 Oklahoma vs #4 Alabama in the Fiesta Bowl – 8:30pm EST

The Fiesta Bowl, the Sugar Bowl and the Orange Bowl would rotate the playoff semi-final and finals games every year.

For example:

2008 Semis: Fiesta and Sugar… 2008 Finals: Orange

2009 Semis: Sugar and Orange… 2009 Finals: Fiesta

2010 Semis: Orange and Fiesta… 2010 Finals: Sugar

And so on.

This would satisfy the schools as this round would serve as their bowl week. Players would get to experience a week of steer-ropin’s and orange-squeezin’s just as they do in the current bowl set-up.

AFTER the first-round match-ups are complete, every effort would be made to keep the highest-rated teams in their traditional bowl games.

For example, top-ranked Oklahoma, winners over Penn State in their first round game, would be slotted into the Fiesta Bowl, the normal landing spot for the Big 12 champion. Florida, the #2 team in the country, would be sent to the Sugar Bowl, the SEC’s traditional dance partner.

What About The Rose Bowl?

The Rose Bowl has made it abundantly clear that they value their Big Ten vs. Pac-10 match-up as much or more than an occasional national championship game.

This season, with Southern Cal and Penn State winding up in the playoffs, the Rose Bowl would feature Ohio State vs. Oregon State… a match-up that the bowl, the Big Ten, the Pac-10, Ohio State and Oregon State would be happy with.

The Bowls

Bowls would go along just as they do now. There’s no reason to believe that a Humanitarian Bowl type of game would be any less interesting because of a college playoff. How COULD it be less interesting?

College presidents, as you well know, are in love with the bowl system. With 34 games, more than half the teams in America can take part in post-season action. So keeping the bowls is a must.

In my system, very few bowls would be affected by a post-season playoff. And three bowls would be incorporated into the system (Sugar, Fiesta, Orange).

There would need to be some re-shuffling among the bowls with conference tie-ins, but those are small changes.

If anything, one or two bottom-rung bowls would cease to exist (due to a lack of teams), but that is very much a possibility due to our nation’s economy anyway. I would be surprised to see 34 bowl games next year.

The “Championship Game”

The “Gillette Bowl Championship Playoffs Title Game” would be played on the same date on which the current BCS title game is played… January 8th.

Game 7: #2 Florida vs #1 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl – 8:30pm EST.

In the current set-up, a college football team can play up to 15-games per year (12 regular season games, a non-conference game at Hawaii, a conference championship game and a bowl game). Fourteen is the usual max for top-tier teams, because only so many teams can play the Rainbow Warriors in a given year.

Under my playoff plan, four semi-finalists might play one additional game and two finalists would play two additional games.

Last year, LSU won the BCS title with a 12-2 record. To win the title in a playoff scenario, they would have had to have finished 14-2.

Some could still use this as a sticking point, but when only two teams are affected by playing extra games, it’s hardly a legitimate sticking point.

Will This Plan Fly?

So that’s the lay of the land. Personally, I believe that system is as close as anyone can come to a realistic plan that would satisfy fans, bowls, conferences, television networks, corporate sponsors and BCS college presidents.

So what does our marketing expert think?

“To make this happen, ABC and ESPN would need to bring the pressure. Because the big dollars for this system would come from tv, not from corporate sponsors.”

Let’s look at the television side of that answer first. ESPN/ABC just paid $500 million to carry the BCS games from 2011 through 2014. That’s $125 million per year.

ESPN reaches 98 million homes.

Fox, the current BCS network, was willing to pay $100 million per year, but they reach 114 million households.

In other words, the BCS conferences were fine with reaching fewer homes, cutting out about 20 million over-the-air viewers, if it meant they would pocket more money.

This is a big change for sports in America. Most major championships have been decided on network television, not on cable television. A willingness to select money over viewers shows what kind of power (cash) ESPN/ABC wield.

However, while tv ad revenue will be great, we shouldn’t assume that ESPN/ABC believe they’ll make all their money back just on ads in those four bowl games.

“Sports is a lost leader,” said Schmidt. “The games get you in the door with media buyers, but sports themselves aren’t a big money-maker. The value is that those games allow networks to sell primetime spots as well.”

Packaging sports buys with regular network programming is the name of the game. Sports are also a tremendous promotional platform for a network.

NBC and CBS have both passed on the NFL in recent years because of its pricetag, only to eventually come running back. The NFL might cost a lot of money that the networks can never recover in NFL-only ad buys, but the league also allows those networks to package their other programming with the NFL.

ESPN, for example, won’t just look at the BCS bowls as a way to sell BCS ads, they’ll see them as a way to sell ads across all of their properties.

“Buy 10 ads in the BCS and we’ll sell you these 20 ads in the NBA semifinals for half-price, these 50 in Monday Night Football at half-price, etc, etc.”

Also, having the BCS bowls will probably cause some of those households in America that don’t subscribe to ESPN to pony up the cash and finally purchase it.

There’s big value in owning a property like the Bowl Championship Series (or a playoff system), but exactly how big is that value?

More Corporate Dollars For A Playoff?

Now, back to the second part of Schmidt’s answer: “the big dollars for this system would come from tv, not from corporate sponsors.”

How is that the case? Most people (myself included) have assumed that a college football playoff would bring in exponentially larger sums of cash than the current bowl system.

Corporate sponsors pay ridiculous sums to be tied to bowl games. They pay big bucks to have their ads in bowl games. Wouldn’t they pay more to be involved in a playoff? Not necessarily.

“There are some companies who blow their whole year’s ad budget on the Super Bowl, ” said Schmidt. “There might be some companies that would be willing to do the same with a college football playoff, but smart companies wouldn’t.”

“I would rather buy ads and sponsorships in a 17-week NFL regular season than in one Super Bowl. That’s how you brand your company. Smart businesses would view a college football playoff the same way.”

“If I were still handling Gatorade, a company that brings in $6 billion dollars a year, I would be better off spending $50 million a year with the SEC than buying the title partnership of a playoff series. One purchase covers a whole season, the other covers seven games.”

What this tells us is the following: there might not be that much more money in a playoff system than there is in the current BCS system.

“Where’s the monetary value to do this,” Schmidt asked. “Is it great enough for all these different groups to set aside their objections?”

The Real Problem

Money would be huge. Whether it would be big enough to lure presidents into breaking new ground is debatable, but let’s say, for our purposes, that the money would be enough to spark change.

Then our system has answered the money issue, the scholastic issues, the “BCS conferences maintain control” issues. It’s been set-up with tv in mind. From a scheduling standpoint it adds few games and ends on the same date as the current bowl system.

And it incorporates the bowls and allows the Rose Bowl to maintain a Pac-10/Big Ten match-up.

So I’ve created the perfect system, right?

“What about the losers of the first round games,” Schmidt asked me.


“Gate receipts from an additional home game don’t outweigh a New Year’s Day bowl trip for college presidents.”

And there’s the rub.

An eight-team playoff would require one round of home games. I viewed that as a positive for the four teams hosting the games. But let’s look at this a bit more closely.

Take Texas Tech, for example. The Red Raiders, in our scenario, would be sent to Gainesville to take on Florida in the first round of the “Gillette Bowl Championship Playoffs.”

Let’s say they lose that game.

No bowl game. No bowl trip. No trip to Disney World or to a dude ranch. No New Year’s Day exposure. Just a road loss to close out their season.

“Most schools don’t make any money off of their bowls because they’re paying for so many boosters and donors to make the trip,” Schmidt said. “And that’s the real value of the bowl games. They create excitement.

“That trip to Orlando or Miami helps to sell season ticket packages for the next year, helps to increase athletic donations, helps to drive the program.

“The potential home game revenue is not incentive enough to make up for lost future revenues if you lose that first round game.

“And face it, if you live in Norman, Oklahoma, you’re looking for a bowl game just to get out of town anyway.”

Dang. That was a biggie that I wasn’t expecting. And it’s 100% correct.

And in Texas Tech’s case, the school wouldn’t even get the added benefit of hosting a home game. There would literally be no incentive.

Wouldn’t Tech be better off if they had ranked #9 in the BCS standings and gone to the Cotton Bowl for a million dollar payout and a New Year’s trip for their boosters?

Double dang. This was a real kick in the rear. I quickly started to think of work-arounds.

“What if consolation games were held? What if the losers of the first round games were to meet in a pair of New Year’s Day bowls to be played before the playoff semi-finals? That would give those players their fun, the schools their cash, and those boosters their trip.”

Clearly, I was grasping at straws.

“Who would be excited enough to pay money to go see a team play in a consolation game? Fans just wouldn’t be up for it.”

And there’s another pretty big hole in the consolation game theory. A team like Alabama could go 12-0 in the regular season, lose in their conference championship game, lose in the first round of the playoffs and then lose a consolation game on top of that.

That would be a three-game losing streak to close out the year.

Think coaches and university presidents would be in favor of a system that could leave them in such dire straits?

Nope, the “what about the first-round losers” question was a deal-breaker.

Cutting My Losses

I’ve got to admit that it was more than a little frustrating to have planned out a system that worked on every level but one.

After 20 minutes of discussion and debate, it became clear to me that an eight-team playoff is simply not feasible. And you 16-team playoff folks can REALLY forget about it.

But rather than throw in the towel, I went back to the often talked about “Plus One” plan.

Sure, teams like Southern Cal and Penn State would be left out, but last I checked, they’re not included in the BCS Championship Game, either.

Four is better than two if you ask me. So would a four-team model work?

“Where’s the monetary incentive,” Schmidt asked again.

Well, you might draw larger television ratings.

A Fiesta Bowl that might not mean anything to a Florida fan would take on larger importance if the winner of that Fiesta Bowl would face Florida in a playoff title game. Those additional viewers might drive up ratings and, therefore, ad revenue.

I knew I was reaching.

“But you would be going from five BCS games now on television to just three playoff games,” Schmidt astutely pointed out.

His astuteness, by this point, was becoming a drag.

“Ask yourself this, ‘Why would the conferences go for this?’ There’s just not enough increased revenue here to make a playoff viable at the moment.

“You’ve basically got the same games, you’re just changing the significance of what the teams are playing for.

“So why do it? For the fans? The people that run college football don’t care about the fans.”

Admission Of Defeat

To get an idea for how I felt during my conversation with Bill Schmidt, cue up the scene in which Kevin Costner talks to Donald Sutherland in “JFK.” Costner is left feeling that he’s got too big of a mountain to climb.

And that’s really the trouble with the whole “let’s start a playoff” debate.

Most fans want a playoff system. Some coaches and a tiny number of presidents feel the same.

But the vast majority of those involved in the college football business like the status quo. They’re making money off of the status quo. They hold the power in the status quo.

It’s just too big of a mountain to climb.

To get all of those groups to make a drastic change will require one of two things:

One) a perfect, flawless system that cannot be argued against (and as I just found out, that ain’t happenin’)

or Two) an enormous amount of cash coming from an untapped revenue stream.

Schmidt suggested something like a pay-per-view playoff system. Now, he realizes that most fans would balk at that, but his point was sound.

For college football power-brokers to create a playoff system, someone will have to come up with a totally new revenue stream that out-produces the current tv revenue and corporate sponsor model.

And that will be very, very hard to do.

So I’m sorry playoff fans.

I thought I had an answer for you.

But there are just too darn many questions. It’s just too big of a mountain to climb.

And I never thought I’d be saying that.




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