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Bowl Movement

As you may remember (or not) we’re taking a look at the idea of “National Championship”. So far, we’ve covered the following areas:

Now we move to the question: We’ve burned the couch- now what? Is there even a value for a “champion”?

Before we jump into a philosophical discussion of “champion”, I wanted to give a real quick update to the last post, which posited that bowls and such were mostly about money for colleges. Along this lines comes a 2008 article from Inside Higher Education, which discusses the magnitude of the financial issues impacting athletic departments nationwide. Quick summary- Athletic departments spend more than they bring in. Given that, you can see how ideas of changing one of the largest cash cows for many institutions (the current bowl system) is simply not going to happen.

In addition, recent survey by the “Open Secrets” organization indicates that the BCS itself has already spent $670,000 on lobbying efforts. In fact, Purdue spent $515,000 and Mich1gAAn spent $415,00 lobbying for the BCS (not sure why Mich1gAAn did this; it’s not like they were bowl elligible. It’s good to see that state dollars are being spent wisely). Yeah, this is the usual combination of politics and money. Or, in the case of Fiesta Bowl staff, both.

Finally, the Wiz of Odds highlights again how goin’ bowlin’ may actually be detrimental to an athletic department’s financial bottom line. Again, they highlight the cost to the universities involved (including a reminder that these institutions are tax funded), and that the big payouts are for the bowl committees and their representatives.  It will be interesting to see the numbers after this season; I expect the economy will significantly cut down the number of people going to games to see their teams play.  As evidence- When was the last time Ohio State had a public sale for BCS bowl tickets?

So- on to the idea of “champion”, which seems to be timely, given that we’re celebrating the eleventh year BCS-iversary. As an aside, it’s certainly interesting that the verbiage from ESPN regarding the need for a playoff has changed ever since they paid a bucketload of money to purchase the rights through 2014.

Let me first go on the record as saying that I am not one of these “let’s give everyone a medal” persons, or a “if we don’t keep score, then no one will be a loser” folks. I believe in winners and losers, holding firmly to two quotes from St. Woody– “Without winners, there wouldn’t even be any civilization.” and “There’s nothing that cleanses your soul like getting the hell kicked out of you.” Yup, if it’s worth playing, it’s worth keeping score.

So, the issue isn’t about ‘winning’, but about ‘champion’- What does that mean? Granted, it’s supposed to mean that you are the best in whatever for whatever time; best in football for this year, in this case. But what does it “mean”?

We’ve already discussed that this success impacts an institution financially at a great rate, with the trips and the banquets and the rings and whatnot. We could talk about how this is a wash- that these funds are recouped by the increased giving of newly proud alumni and such, but this is just not true (and in the case of basketball, the opposite may be true):

…researchers found that the success of the university’s football and men’s basketball teams had small and statistically insignificant effects on giving by non-athletes, and no effect — and in the case of men’s basketball, even a negative effect — on giving by alums who were not athletes in college. “[W]hen alumni see success among these teams, they may believe that the school is spending too much on the athletic program, and therefore reduce their giving,” the researchers speculate, echoing conjectures made by previous teams of researchers.

Pride of the Trojans

Reggie didn’t need to sell his

We could also talk about the “pride” that this brings student athletes, but this pride is fleeting- athletes are often more interested in moving to the next stage (NFL); or, failing that, attempting to recoup some money by selling their rings or other memorabilia on eBay.

Championships may bring “pride” or “bragging rights” to the legions of alumni or fans, but the reality is that even this is fleeting. It takes about twenty minutes before the talking heads at ESPN to put together their list of “top teams” for next year. Plus, it’s not like we get a tax break or discounts on doughnuts if we happen to cheer for the champs- All I have from 2002 are great memories, a couple of souvenirs, and a rarely worn shirt. Most people don’t even get to experience that most sacred of celebrations… not everyone can live in West Virginia.

To look at it another way- how do we even know what a “Champion” is?  Let’s go back to the NCAA tournament; was the 19-10 1985 Villanova team the top in the nation, or did they just match up well against opponents in a “win or go home” tourney? Was 26-7 Louisville the best team in the country in 1986, or did they just get “hot” at the right time? What about football, (pro that is)- Were the Giants the best team in 2007, or did New England just fall apart at the end?

2006 Regular Season Champs

2006 Regular Season Champs

See, again the problem comes with definitions of “Champion”- is it the best team throughout the year, before playoff/bowls? Is it the “playoff” winner? Both (many conferences have a regular season and tournament champ in basketball)?

If it’s the “playoff” champ, is a one game playoff the way to make the decision? Brian Kelly said (before bolting to bigger cash at Notre Ame) that his team could beat any other team in one game, but playing week in and week out in a tough conference was a different thing all together.

Personally, I think the only sports that get it “right” are baseball and basketball, where series are played to determine “champions”. Of course, there’s always the matter of home field, but still- at least it’s not decided by one team having an amazing night or a horrible performance.

For those who hold that a playoff is the answer, how are bids determined? Currently, we actually have a playoff that includes two teams- expanding it would be done how? Do you give every conference an automatic bid- taking the Sun Belt champ over an SEC team with one loss or the MAC title winner over a two loss Big T1e1n squad? If so, don’t you effectively disregard the regular season and make games against national powers irrelevant?

It’s important to think this through- the sacred NCAA basketball tourney that clogs office copy machines every March has gone from 32 to 65 teams in my lifetime, and is discussing bumping up to 96 teams. Of course this is about “fairness” and “champions” rather than finances, right?

I’ve even seen some suggestions for a football playoff that starts week one of the season and has the winners continue to play until only one is left standing- you’re telling me that a team that loses early will never amount to anything? Certainly makes me more excited for the Rose Bowl.

But you see the issue here- not only do we need to determine “How” we find a champion, we need to define what it actually means. In basketball, there’s some semblance of agreement- you win the tournament, you win the title of “champion”.  In college football, though, our problem is that we didn’t like the way we used to determine this delineation (polls: sportswriters/coaches) so we changed it (Bowl Coalition/Bowl Alliance/BCS). And now we don’t like that.

Ok, lets just try this...

Maybe this will work…

And let’s be honest- the frustration with the current situation is not about who is and isn’t the “champion”, it’s about the process by which that team is named.  It’s complicated, in my opinion, by the fact that we’ve tried to create something that just doesn’t work in some people’s minds. And, because we’ve tried, there’s an expectation that the issue will be corrected/fixed, when the reality is that there really isn’t a way to do this and it may not even matter.

Specifically, there was argument and debate and frustration back in the days of “shared champions”; even to the point that Sports Illustrated tried to find a solution.

So, the bowl amalgamations were created, and it made things even worse… “We need a playoff!” (we have one; a two team playoff) “Include the smaller schools!!” (did that, but it’s still not enough). See- the debates now are the same as they were pre-BCS, in tenor and frequency. It’s almost like our attempts have screwed things up even more.

And I’m not the only one who feels this way. First, on another Buckeye blog, “Around the Oval” there was this posting before they changed leadership: Why I don’t want a playoff in college:

(H)ow often can you say you’re sure the team that wins the NCAA tournament in men’s basketball was the best in the country that year? If they get hot at the right time and catch a few lucky breaks, a pretty mediocre team can make a run through the playoffs and win it all, while a team that crushed the competition throughout the year can fall victim to a bad call and be out in the first round. True, those are the extreme cases, but c’mon, we’re all college football fans here: I have argued extensively, with a complete disregard for logic, that Archie Griffin is the best athlete ever, simply because he won two Heismans. You think the Buckeyes losing a close game in the semi-finals is going to stop me from arguing that they’re the best team in the country? A playoff won’t settle these arguments. It’ll give the fans of the winners some pretty good evidence, but then the little crystal balls the BCS hands out are also pretty good evidence.

And who says crowning a national champion is something worth trying to do anyway? Can we really take one team from 119 and say, “Okay, we are absolutely certain this is the best team in the country”? It seems like an exercise in futility, designed to drive us all crazy. So why even try? Let’s go back to the old system. Every year, the Big Ten champ plays the Pac-10 champ in the Rose Bowl, the 2nd place Big Ten team plays in the Citrus Capital One Bowl, and so on. It won’t give us the best team in the country, but I have a sneaking suspicion that there’s no way we can conclusively determine that. So instead, we get the tradition back, and a system that at least makes college football less of a blatant cash-grab.

You would expect tOSU fans to feel this way; we’ve benefited pretty well from the current system. But I was surprised to read a UGa blogger (one of the best overall, by the way) say some similar things- as you remember, Georgia and U$C fans were among those who have had rightful issues with the BCS process (along with Boise State, Utah, Auburn, etc…). But Doug writes:

An old-school, unstructured Wild-West bowl system might not be preferable to a playoff, but in practical terms it’s certainly no worse than letting math geeks have this much say in who gets to play for the title. Basically, after ten years of the BCS, I think I’ve come to the conclusion that a split title, while certainly not the ideal situation, wouldn’t exactly be the end of the world; it’s when we have to slog through the aggravation of an arcane jumble of decimal points, and still arrive at a split title anyway, that I really start to feel like the sanctity of my favorite sport is being arbitrarily and pointlessly messed with.

Over on MotSaG, another huge issue (other than money) is highlighted: The major problem with the BCS, Bowls, and (ultimately) any playoff is the rankings and the polls-

The primary issue with the BCS is not that it’s unable to match up nos. 1 and 2 – it does that just fine. The problem is that it contains no institution to ensure that the teams ranked number 1 and 2 are in fact the two best teams in the country, as the BCS rankings themselves are compiled using a flawed poll system.

Still funny

Still funny

He goes on to argue, in part, what I’ve believed for years- there should be no pre-season polls. First poll should be at least a month into the season; how many times have there been teams who, while ranked highly, folded against the first real team they played? Or other teams who started out ranked really low but ended up holding the hardware? Although, to be honest, this would be a hard sell- there is a huge industry (money again) regarding pre-season predictions; hell, the 2009 season isn’t even over and we’re already talking about 2010 (whoo hoo!!).

Nope, the real beauty of football lies in three areas- On the field (including preparation, recruiting, practice, coaching, etc), in the stands (and on the couch in front of the tube), and everywhere else.

Why else would you dress like this?

Why else would you dress like this?

In this last arena, I would almost argue that a “champion” takes away from some of the joy for true fans… We can’t discuss/argue/debate/describe/fight about “greatest” with others whose loyalties we may question but whose dedication to the game is as fanatical as ours.

Actually, the truth of the matter is that we will have these arguments/conversations, even if if our team is not “standing atop the mountain” at the end of the year. Just check the comments here if you don’t know what I’m talking about.

But that is part of the joy of the fandom. And it’s time we learned to accept and appreciate it.

So, let’s bring this bad boy in for a landing:

  1. The NCAA has never had a national champion for college football
  2. Bowls have never been about championships or playoffs (only money; first from tourism, now from television)
  3. The NCAA is limited in their ability to change the bowl process and create a playoff now due to legal, historical, and financial precedents
  4. The money involved in bowls only benefits a few institutions; those who are already financially stable, typically larger schools
  5. Other schools’ bowl experiences are paid for with educational dollars (tax/tuition revenue)
  6. The real money in the bowl system is the tourism dollars, the “Bowl Committees” and “Boards of Directors”- These dollars are tax free
  7. Congress is “interested” in “fixing” things, but isn’t willing to do so in tangible ways due to their “boosters”- Bowl committees who give money to political re-election campaigns- unless it’s fiscally beneficial to do so
  8. Being a “champion” is incredibly difficult to define and even harder to determine
  9. The ways that we’ve tried to do crown a champion lately haven’t helped any more than any of the previous efforts
  10. Because of the money, there’s not a huge likelihood that anything changing anytime soon
  11. “Championship” doesn’t, in the long run, carry all that much weight
  12. Fans should learn to appreciate the “third zone”- the joys of discussion and debate with people who care as deeply as they do about the greatest game going, and that having a system which may or may not create a “champion” won’t really impact that at all

I’ve also thought some about what I’d do to fix this mess, and may post my recommendations after we make the big move.

After three rambling posts, I’m really interested your thoughts- this is an audience participation show, after all. Please also let me know if you’d be interested in diving into the “what might a playoff look like, if we could create it from scratch” debate in the new year as well.

Until then- let the games (and the “fanaticism”) begin.

Update: As I was having a friend review this for me, he directed me to a blog that spent way more time developing their thoughts on this matter. I highly recommend this series: National Championship Issue: The Playoff Debate.

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Questions & Answers (1)
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  1. Question

    Seems ironic to believe polls and sports media are blessed with the insight of projecting next year’s winners. Face to face is the only measure of winning. Better teams have to face off to say whose best. Advance scheduling has to be determitive. In a 13 game schedule, five must be ranked (top 50)teams from the previous year or they don’t count. It will require scheduling two fewer cupcakes. Conference wins will not mean much unless matched with good non confernce wins. That gets you to BCS post season. Every year conferences must be rated on their non confernce scheduling. The stronger the scheduling and subsequent wins gets you a tiered BCS post season method of deciding best leagues and best teams.

    Jack Harshberger

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