Monday, January 18, 2010

Devising a College Football Playoff System

It seems like after every college football season a number of fans lament about the fact that at least one team was not properly afforded the opportunity to participate for the National Championship. This lament frequently results in the desire for some form of playoff system bolstered by the citation that almost all other sports at both the collegiate and professional level have playoff systems, thus it is only rational that the most popular college sport have one as well. However, most individuals enjoy the comfort of their opinion to have a playoff without bothering to think about how to establish one and more importantly how to neutralize the obstacles that would prevent the adoption of a playoff system.

The first step in addressing the playoff issue is to avoid putting the cart before the horse, not designing a playoff system before understanding how that design will eliminate the problems in the transition between a single BCS Championship game to a playoff system. The largest problem in transitioning between systems is also the element that is rarely addressed in-depth, the level of money involved for the schools and the conferences due to their participation in the bowl system. Currently there are 34 bowl games (5 BCS level games and 29 non-BCS level games) with 2 games (the Yankee Bowl and the Dallas Football Classic) to be established in the next two years. The total payout distributed to college universities from these bowls games amounted to approximately 148.16 million dollars in 2008 with an additional possible 6 million from the two potential aforementioned future bowls.1 A playoff system would have to recoup some if not all of that money depending on how the future playoff system was designed with respect to the bowls.

However, the money involved in the bowl season is not as clear-cut as most people believe. Universities only receive a small fraction of the money that is awarded for a specific bowl appearance, not the millions of dollars a bowl reportedly awards a team. The reason for this is that all of the universities affiliated with a specific conference pool all of the awarded bowl money and then distribute it based on the given formula for the particular conference (revenue sharing among teams). For example most conferences take all of the money awarded to each of their affiliated teams playing a bowl game and create a single payment fund. From that fund, based on a pre-determined rules established by the conference, each team participating in a bowl game receives an expense account determined largely by which bowl the team is attending. Once all expense account money is distributed to bowl participants, the remaining money is distributed to each team affiliated with the conference as prescribed by the conference. Typically this distribution is equal between all teams regardless of whether or not they are participating in a bowl game.

Rather than use real conference information because it varies from conference to conference, the following example should suffice as a clear descriptor of the above distribution process. Suppose generic conference A has 10 teams and 5 go to bowl games. The conference champion team A goes to bowl game A which pays out 17 million dollars, but is not the National Title game; the conference runner up team B goes to bowl game B which pays out 3.5 million dollars; the next two teams, team C and team D, go to bowl games that pay out 1.5 million each and team E goes to a bowl game that pays out 750,000 dollars. All of that money is accumulated in a 24.25 million dollar pot. Then based on the bowls each team is attending money is distributed for expense accounts. Conference rules typically generate of fixed amount based on the range of bowl payout similar to the one below:

- If a team goes to a bowl with a payout/receipts of 1.4 million dollars or less the team will receive a 650,000 dollar expense allowance;

- If a team goes to a bowl with a payout/receipts between 1.4 million and 2.5 million dollars the team will receive a 1 million dollar expense allowance;

- If a team goes to a bowl with a payout/receipts between 2.5 million and 4 million dollars the team will receive a 1.5 million dollar expense allowance;

- If a team goes to a bowl with a payout/receipts greater than 4 million dollars the team will receive a 2.25 million dollar expense allowance;

- If a team goes to the National Championship Game the team will receive a 2.3 million dollar expense allowance;

Note that there are also additional funds awarded for an expense account based on a dollar per mile ratio ($250 per mile that needs to be traveled to reach the bowl location). However, in the above example these dollar per mile ratios will not be explicitly included.

Thus under such rules Team A would receive an expense account of 2.25 million dollars, Team B receives 1.5 million dollars; Teams C and D receive 1 million and Team D receives 650,000 dollars. After subtracting those amounts from the total pool of awarded money, the conference then divides the remaining money among all of the teams (note that some conferences keep a share of the money for general conference business). So assuming that Conference A does not keep a share, the money received by each institution due to the bowl payouts are:

Team A – 4.035 million dollars;
Team B – 3.285 million dollars;
Team C – 2.785 million dollars;
Team D – 2.785 million dollars;
Team E – 2.435 million dollars;
Team F – 1.785 million dollars;
Team G – 1.785 million dollars;
Team H – 1.785 million dollars;
Team I – 1.785 million dollars;
Team J – 1.785 million dollars;

The payout for Team A is a far cry from the 17 million dollars that was awarded by the bowl to the conference. Also someone might argue that most of the lower bowls only payout 1 million or less thus most of the money made from the bowl season goes to the power teams even in this distribution scheme which seeks to maintain a standing of ‘the rich get richer and poor get poorer’. However, such a mindset is not accurate. The team payouts in the above example are only the gross payouts, not the net payouts. Remember Teams A – E still have to attend their bowl and attending bowls cost money.

A large part of the money spent by universities traveling to bowl games involves transporting the team, the band (300-500 people right there), cheerleaders, important boosters and other individuals. These expenses can run high enough that some teams participating in the lower payout bowls (≤ 1,000,000 dollars) have a significant probability of actually losing money by attending a bowl because their expense accounts are low due to the caliber of bowl they qualified for. The second whammy when it comes to going ‘bowling’ is that universities have to meet certain, predetermined by the bowl, ticket requirements. Basically the university has to buy x amount of tickets and then the university turns around and sells those tickets to fans. Any tickets they do not sell they have to ‘eat’ the costs of from their own expense account. Typically tickets are sold ‘at cost’ from the university to fans, so there is no real probability for profit for the university from ticket sales. Of course there are also voluntary expenses like various forms of entertainment for players in the city hosting the bowl. Thus it is quite possible that a team can make more money not going to a bowl than going to a bowl. However, rarely will a team affiliated with a major conference turn down a bowl bid because although the particular university may incur a loss the conference as a whole nets a gain.

So what about the little guy, the non-BCS affiliated conferences, how do they fair in the current system? Non-automatic qualifying Division I conferences (WAC, Mountain West, MAC, Conference USA and Sun Belt) receive approximately 9% of the net BCS escrow revenue if no team receives a BCS bowl bid.2 If one team receives a BCS bowl bid the revenue received doubles (another 9%).2 If two teams receive BCS bowl bids the revenue received increases another 4.5%. The distribution of these funds among the five conferences typically follows which conferences receive which bowl bids. Recently the Mountain West and the WAC have taken the most money regardless of whether or not they receive a BCS bowl bid ($3.1-$3.5 million without a BCS bowl bid to $9.1-$9.8 million with a BCS bowl bid).1 Conference USA typically receives $2.5 million, the MAC receives approximately $1.6-$2 million and the Sun Belt receives $1.4-$1.8 million.1 The Football Championship Subdivision receives approximately $1.8 million which is evenly distributed among all 8 of their conferences (each conference receives $225,000).1

Then there are specific institutions that have their own rules for revenue sharing. Due to its current lack of conference affiliation, Notre Dame receives 1.33 million dollars when not participating in a BCS bowl, which is about 1/66th of the net revenue to automatic qualifiers (due to the fact that there 66 automatic qualifying schools).2 If Notre Dame participates in a BCS bowl it receives 4.5 million dollars which is equal to what is awarded to a second qualifier from a BCS affiliated conference. Until 2006 Notre Dame received a full BCS share (similar to that currently awarded to an automatic qualifier) if it was invited to a BCS bowl. [Remember if a BCS conference has two teams playing in BCS bowls only the automatic qualifier receives 17 million dollars, the ‘at large’ qualifier receives 4.5 million dollars]. Military academies, Army and Navy, receive 100,000 dollars each.1

With all of that revenue distribution it is important to identify where money is going to come from in a new playoff system. For example some have proposed that the playoff system be implemented into the bowl system in some respect. One of the more popular proposals uses 8 teams where of the 7 games that would comprise the playoff 5 of them incorporated the BCS bowls. The typical mindset under such a proposal is that the BCS bowls would payout at least the same amount of money that they do under the current system, which would significantly alleviate any financial losses involved in the transfer between systems.

A quick side note: it is highly improbable that a playoff system of 4 or fewer teams would be implemented solely because such a playoff does not offer the level of inclusion required to solve the problem of the current system, uncertainty; if the team that won the championship was really the best team in college football. A plus-one system is similar to a four team playoff in its lack of usefulness, not from an implementation standpoint, but in the solving of the original problem as previously discussed. For example suppose a plus-one system were implemented where the initial BCS bowls broke down as followed:

1 plays and defeats 6 by 3;
2 plays and defeats 9 by 6;
3 plays and defeats 5 by 7;
4 plays and defeats 11 by 17;

After these results a plus-one system would demand a new BCS ranking to determine the championship participants, but with these results how does a plus-one system resolve any conflict? What if 1 only defeated 6 by a single point? Should 2 and 3 jump 1 and play in the National Championship Game? To reiterate the fact is that in a majority of situations a plus-one system does nothing to resolve the core issue in the debate between the current system and a playoff, eliminating reasonable doubt regarding what university deserves the National Championship.

Returning to the issue of incorporating current BCS games into a playoff there are two significant problems with this base idea. The first problem is that the incorporation of the playoff system would destroy the tradition of each of the long-standing BCS bowl games. The Rose Bowl was established in 1902, the Sugar Bowl and the Orange Bowl in 1935 and each have only deviated from their traditional fixed conference match-ups a handful of times. (The Fiesta Bowl was established in 1976, thus its tradition is not nearly as important). A playoff system would make it difficult to adhere to the traditional match-up, which would leave a bad taste in the mouth of purists especially for the Rose Bowl. The one thing a playoff system cannot do is screw over the Rose Bowl as it accounts for approximately 20-25% of the total revenue taken in over the generic bowl season.1 Basically any playoff proposal that screws with the Rose Bowl is doomed to fail. Take note of how long the Tournament of Roses Association took before allowing the Big-10 or Pac-10 champion to participate in the BCS National Championship game. Most playoff advocates belittle this adherence to tradition largely because it stands in the way of what they want regardless of whatever reasons one might have for respecting the tradition and the history of a given bowl.

The second problem is fan fatigue. The rational to why this issue is a problem can be seen in the ‘at-large’ selection bowl selection process. One of the common questions uttered by pundits with regards to bowls selecting who to invite when no direct conference obligations exist is the issue of how well does a team travel. The reason such a question is important is ticket sales. This fact is stressed upon most universities as typically the universities have to guarantee a certain number of tickets. Although universities are assigned a certain minimum number of tickets, bowls do not want universities to ‘eat’ those tickets, they want universities to sell those tickets so people will come to the bowl game. One of the chief means of making money for the bowl sponsors/city hosting the bowl is to make sure that a large number of people attend the bowl spending money not only on tickets to the game, but on food, hotels, souvenirs and other tourist destinations.

Unfortunately for fans the cost of attending football games have increased over the years. With this reality it is likely that the first round of the playoffs may sell well, similar to a normal high level bowl game. However, the second round would demonstrate the first wave of fan fatigue as it would be more difficult to sell a number of tickets equal to or greater than the number sold for the first round game leading to the university ‘eating’ the remaining costs. The championship game would be an interesting question regarding fan fatigue. Once again it would be difficult to sell a number of tickets equal to or greater than the number sold for the first round game (which is the number akin to that sold for a current bowl appearance) to team partisans, but because it is a championship game there is the possibility to pick-up some non-affiliated fans. However, the total amount of this pick-up is unknown and it is unlikely that bowl sponsors would estimate this unknown quantity optimistically.

Another element to most of the proposed playoff systems is that they use a seeding system similar to the playoff system used by Division I - AA where the higher seeded team hosts the game and then later rounds are held at specific locations. This strategy may reduce some of the burden of fan fatigue, but it still does not reduce the average number of games that team x will take part in during the average playoff season, thus the total reduction of fan fatigue would be minimal especially if the opposing teams are a significant distance from one another. Interestingly fan fatigue acts as a limiting factor that almost forces any type of playoff system not to exceed 8 teams. Any argument that Division I – AA uses 16 teams, thus so should Division I – A is moot because of the sheer difference in money involved. Take a look at most of the games in a Division I – AA playoff, there are a lot of empty seats, something that would not fly for a Division I – A playoff series. Thus, with 4 teams not being enough to avoid questions of uncertainty and more than 8 teams more than likely failing due to fan fatigue, 8 teams seems to be the only workable number for a playoff system.

Another strategy that some argue would eliminate any money gap between the current system and a new playoff system is negotiations for new television contracts involving the playoff system citing the amount of money that the annual college basketball tournament garners. Unfortunately such a strategy is rather illogical because the college basketball tournament has been packaged as “March Madness” for a long period of time and was not piecemealed together from various outside sources/bowls. This piecemeal approach is exactly what would occur in the establishment of a college football playoff that includes BCS bowl games, which limits the amount of money that can be collected in its first years, the most important time frame when establishing a new system. Recall that television contracts already exist for each BCS game and depending on the anticipated match-ups for future games, contracts may actually go down. Also the first years are important generally because of the realm of uncertainty. There are no guarantees that contracts will go up in the future, thus most conferences would be wary about accepting less money in the short-term with promises of greater non-guaranteed payoffs in the future.

Some argue that it is in the best interest of the BCS to avoid starting a playoff system in order to maximize their per game profits. Basically this argument boils down to using simplistic economic theory revolving around supply and demand. The argument establishes those running the BCS as a cartel (which in large respects is true) thus it has sole control over the distribution of ‘high-quality’ bowl games. Therefore, instead of a positive slope for the supply curve, the cartel status allows for the generation of a vertical supply curve. The figure below illustrates the above situation.
* Note that the demand curve represents interest in watching or attending a BCS bowl game, which would later generate a total level of revenue from this interest;
With a vertical supply curve and a static negative slope demand curve theoretically it is risky business to increase the supply because the revenue per product ratio will decrease as shown below:
Looking at the above graph one may initially conclude that it is not in the interest of future BCS profit to increase the number of BCS Bowls or add a new playoff system. However, there are two significant problems with this theory and line of thought. The first problem relates to the percentage of decline in the revenue per product ratio. There is no debate based on the scheme of the above graph that increasing the number of bowl games will result in a decrease in revenue earned per bowl game. However, it does not distinguish by how much the ratio drops, which is a very important element in proving the main point of the theory.

For example suppose in scenario 1 an environment with 5 BCS bowl games generates 15 million dollars of profit per game. The addition of a sixth game reduces that number to 10 million dollars of profit per game. Clearly it is silly to add the sixth game as the BCS makes 75 million dollars (5 x 15) in a 5 game environment and only 60 million (6 x 10) in a 6 game environment. However, what if in scenario 2 the addition of a sixth game reduces the dollars of profit per game from 15 million to 13 million? In this scenario it makes sense to add a sixth game for in a 6 game environment the BCS makes 78 million (6 x 13) vs. 75 million in a 5 game environment. There in lies the first problem, there is almost no empirical evidence to demonstrate how the revenue per product ratio will change in response to an increase in the amount of product, thus no one can say whether or not it is in the interest, from a profit perspective, of the BCS to add additional games. With that uncertainty, one might question how the above discussion is useful. Fortunately the second problem with the above theory renders the first problem moot.

The critical problem with the above analysis is that although the supply curve was changed to accommodate the presence of cartel control, the demand curve was not changed. When supply is isolated to a single supplier, the behavior of those that want to purchase that product changes as well. In such a situation potential customers in general are more willing to accept an unchanging price despite more units of the product being available because of the price power of the cartel. Such a mentality changes the demand curve. The figure below illustrates how this change in demand curve changes the situation.

With this change in the demand curve with respect to the total supply controlled by a single supplier there is a higher probability that increasing the amount of the supply will not result in a decrease in the revenue per product ratio. Thus, it does not seem rational to presume that there is little probability that the BCS would reject a playoff season solely or even in part due to the concern that increasing the number of ‘BCS caliber’ games would reduce total revenue. In a real world example total revenue did not decrease, but actually increased when increasing the number of BCS bowl games from 4 to 5.1

Note that a proportionally linear decline in the demand curve also makes little sense in reality even if the theory were sound (which it is not). Do people really have such strict internal quotas for college football BCS bowl games? Does an individual say to him/herself, ‘Gee I am only going to watch 4 BCS bowl games this year even if there are 6 BCS bowl games played this year’? Of course not; the total number of BCS bowl games available has almost no influence on whether or not individuals watch.

The demand structure of the curve also relates back to television ratings. Some opponents of a playoff system make the claim that the public may talk a lot about wanting to see the ‘little guy’ (non-BCS affiliated teams) get his chance, but when push comes to shove they prefer watching the power conferences. Although direct analysis of the television ratings supports this conclusion there are other issues in play.

The chief issue is that most pundits continue to believe that the ‘little guy’ is inferior to the BCS conference teams regardless of what reality may indicate and continue to press that message, which has an influence on whether or not individuals select to watch games with these teams. Perhaps institutions like ESPN could try an experiment where their analysts do not automatically assume that the non-BCS team is inferior to the BCS team and will be crushed and then see if the ratings for these games change. For example the way most analysts speak of non-BCS teams it would shock them to realize that the Division I team with the best record over the last 4 years is Boise State at 49 – 4, not Florida, not Alabama, not Texas, not Ohio State, not LSU, not USC, but lowly Boise State who is also 2 – 1 against BCS teams in that span. Basically commentators generate a self-fulfilling prophecy where they imply that viewers should not watch game x because the BCS team will crush the non-BCS team, thus watching it would be a waste of time. Then they crow about low ratings justifying their position that no one watches non-BCS teams.

One final note on ratings: anyone who tracks ratings realizes that the National Championship game and games in which the Big-10 participate are the only real ratings superstars year in and year out in the bowl season. If the ‘little guy’ is actually given adequate opportunities to prove themselves over a consistent period of time rather than sporadic periods that typically only occur during the bowl season then a genuine attitude can be formed about the worthiness of these teams and whether or not their games should be watched instead of an artificial attitude pushed by individuals with bias agendas.

Another concern with most of the proposals for a playoff system is that they incorporate ‘at-large’ bids into the system. It is rather humorous to listen to individuals discuss the fairness of a playoff system over the current system, especially to non-BCS conference affiliated schools, when their ‘at large’ bid proposals offer very little chance of participation for non-BCS affiliated conference schools. For example almost never will two undefeated teams from a non-BCS affiliated conference have an opportunity to participate in a playoff system. In fact realistically only one would even have an opportunity, especially if the ‘at large’ bids were decided by a BCS ranking type system due to the on-going bias against non-BCS conferences in relation to BCS conferences.

A superior system would eliminate all ‘at large’ bids and instead focus on conference champions. For example the playoff would consist of 8 teams, the 6 conference champions from the 6 BCS conferences and the 2 highest ranked conference champions from non-BCS conferences determined by a BCS ranking system. Of course some may argue that his/her team only had one loss in a given year and also deserves to be in the playoff even though that team did not win their conference. Such an argument is utterly meaningless because if a team cannot win its own conference it is clearly not the best team in the nation and has no business being in a tournament to determine the National Champion. The counter argument regarding how a 3 loss conference champion from Conference A is more deserving than a 1 loss team from Conference B that did not win its conference is made through the acknowledgement that different conferences have different levels of quality depending on the year. It is not hard to come to the conclusion that the 3 loss conference champion may have played higher caliber teams than the 1 loss team from Conference B.

Also a conference championship only requirement ensures that the regular season still has significant meaning, a reality that would be diminished if ‘at large’ bids existed. This factor is important because one of the major complaints regarding the establishment of a playoff system is stripping away the importance of the regular season where a single loss may be the difference between going to the National Championship game and not going. In any proposed playoff system with ‘at large’ bids a team could get into the playoff with 1 to 3 losses and no conference championship, hardly a team deserving of the National Championship. For example in a playoff system with ‘at large’ bids, the 2009 SEC championship game between Alabama and Florida would have had almost zero meaning because the loser would have simply claimed one of the available ‘at large’ bids in the playoff leaving an undefeated TCU or Boise State (more than likely Boise State) out in the cold. However, in a playoff system with no ‘at large’ bids that SEC championship game still would have had all of the meaning it had originally.

One significant flaw to the above set-up is the probability of an undeserving team making the playoffs through a conference championship game. With respect to the above system, ideally the conference champion would be determined similar to how it is determined in the Big-10, Pac-10 and Big East where every team plays a vast majority of the teams in the conference and then the conference champion is determined through conference record or if needed a series of tie-breakers.

Unfortunately in the above regard the Big-12, SEC and ACC determine their conference champions through a single championship game due to the fact that these conferences have elected to divide their conferences into two sub-divisions. The decision to create this division is largely driven by the money the conferences receive through sponsorship and television rights to the championship game. However, such a system creates a problem with the ‘purity’ of a playoff in that in such a system a team with 4 losses from one of the divisions could defeat a team with 0 losses in the championship game and claim that conference’s spot in the playoff. Overall such a situation leaves a bad taste in the mouth because on the strength of a single game a team with a mediocre record would be able to compete for the National Championship which would eliminate significant meaning from the regular season.

Hopefully this problem will be solved, but as it stands it would have to be solved through the use of the current championship game system because the aforementioned 3 conferences are making too much money through those games to abandon them. One possibility would be to take the two teams from the conference with the best records regardless of which sub-division they are in and have them play in the conference championship game. This strategy would at least ensure a higher probability that a deserving team came from the conference in question. However, it does raise another concern in that if the teams already played during the regular season why should they have to play again to determine the conference champion?

The application of the above playoff qualification structure could also go a long way to solving the money question in that the playoff system could exist apart from the bowl system. Instead of using the BCS games as part of the playoff system, the playoff system would exist alone which would allow a separate set of sponsor and promotional contracts for the playoff system and the BCS Bowl system. To accommodate such a system the BCS would have to give up playing champions in those bowls and drop each position in all remaining bowls by a single place. For example the Rose Bowl would no longer host the Big-10 champion and the Pac-10 champion, but instead would host the Big-10 runner up and the Pac-10 runner up. Similar changes would occur for all other continuing bowls. Overall in such a system the tradition of conference match-ups for each bowl will be continued, which as previously mentioned is important to powerful people, and due to the depth of each BCS conference, bowl quality should not drop significantly.

Note that this system works well monetarily for each conference because of how bowl money is distributed. Recall that conferences distribute bowl money from one lump sum accumulated by all of the teams in the particular conference that went to a bowl. Therefore, it does not matter if the conference champion plays in the respective BCS bowl or the conference runner-up as long as the money awarded from the playoff and the BCS bowls fall within at least the same tier of expense account for a given conference. Thus as long as the conferences are still represented in their respective bowls they still receive their money. The amount of money awarded for teams and their respective conferences that participate in the playoff would be scaled based on how far the team advanced and reflect a significant portion of the money generated from the sponsorship and promotional contracts generated from the playoff.

Of course the addition of what can be viewed as seven new bowl games would increase the total number of bowl games to 42 (if one counts the 2 anticipated future games and eliminates the current rotating National Championship BCS Bowl game which would be unnecessary in a playoff system). Realistically 41-43 bowl games could be viewed by a sufficient amount of people as just too many. Thus, if a playoff system without incorporating the BCS bowls was established it would probably be prudent to eliminate some of the lower totem pole bowls. These ‘low totem pole’ bowls can be identified as those bowls that have the more recent establishment dates and/or the lowest payouts with payouts being a higher determining factor. Also preference should be given to bowl matching 6th and 7th place finishers in a BCS conference over 2nd or 3rd place finishers in non-BCS conferences. Prime candidates for elimination would include: the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl; the St. Petersburg Bowl; the New Orleans Bowl; the Emerald Bowl; the Hawaii Bowl; the Papa John’ Bowl;

After determining the conference champions, an 8-team playoff would require a methodology for determining the match-ups. There are two schools of thought for seeding if no BCS bowl tie-ins are utilized. The first option is rather popular in that qualifying teams are seeded 1-8 according to their BCS ranking with 1 playing 8, 2 playing 7, 3 playing 6 and 4 playing 5. Although such a methodology is standard some may object to such a system because there is a very high probability that the two teams from the conferences not affiliated with the BCS will always draw the 7th and 8th seeds whether or not they are deserved due to BCS conference bias in ranking. Therefore, these non-BCS teams will frequently be placed at a disadvantage, hardly the fair shake that some believe a playoff system should be.

The second option would involve a random draw to determine the seeding, similar to the World Cup. The first and chief objection one would have to a random draw system would be the possibility that the two highest ranked teams in the BCS would meet in the first round. Such a pairing could be disastrous for a playoff system in what some would regard as the best game being played earlier than it ‘should’ be. Fortunately when ignoring the hysterics one realizes that there is only a 14% chance of such an outcome. Also rarely is there a college football season where the top two teams in the BCS rankings are clearly regarded as head and shoulders above all of the remaining teams in quality. Such a trend is why there is a demand for a playoff in the first place. Therefore, there is no reason to panic and instantly eliminate the potential for a random draw as the determining mechanism through citation of a possible watered-down championship. Heck, a watered-down championship happens almost every year in the actual BCS system due to uncertainty.

The playoff draw would be determined the following Sunday after the conclusion of the last BCS affiliated conference championship game. First round games would begin two Saturdays from the last regular season game. Note that if the random draw procedure is used to determine pairings for the first round, the draw will not determine where the teams play versus a seeding system that would likely lead to a home field advantage reward location system. The lack of efficiency in the expenditure of money restricts using the random draw to determine game location. For example suppose TCU is matched up to play against the University of Texas in the first round. It would make little sense for those teams to travel to the Orange Bowl to play the game instead of Texas Stadium. Game start times will follow the obvious rationality of East to West where East Coast games are played prior to West Coast games.

There are two strategies regarding where these games are hosted out of a random draw system. First, games could be hosted at a series of pre-determined neural sites throughout the country. For example based on the timing of the games, six common sites for first and second round playoff games could be the Rose Bowl, University of Phoenix Stadium, the Cotton Bowl or Texas Stadium, the Orange Bowl, the Georgia Dome, and the Horseshoe or the Big House. The championship game could be played at a rotating site between those six or an entirely new site determined later.

Note that the above sites are merely suggestions based on an attempt to maximize the potential for ticket sales, ease the question of fan fatigue and create an ambiance that an attending, television and Internet viewing audience would expect for a playoff. One may argue that the above suggestions create too much of a possibility at favoritism for a specific team due to proximity, but such concerns have hardly been raised in the past. Where is the outcry that the Big-10 and Big East almost always have to go on the road for their Bowl Games. Heck the Rose Bowl is played at Pasadena in UCLA’s home stadium and a hop, skip and jump from USC. Overall there is the potential for home field advantage issues, but the committee staffed with creating the draw and the respective playing locations should do their best to neutralize this issue as much as possible.

To better illustrate how such a selection process would transpire suppose in 2020 a playoff system similar to the one above is in place.

Conference champions are as followed:

ACC – Florida State;
Big-10 – Michigan;
Big-12 – Texas;
Big East – Pittsburgh;
Pac-10 – Oregon;
SEC – Georgia;

the two non-BCS affiliated qualifying conference champions are:

Mountain West – BYU;
WAC – Boise State;

the random draw generate the following match-ups:

Boise State – Michigan;
Oregon – Georgia;
Texas – Pittsburgh;
BYU – Florida State;

Based on these match-ups the committee would then determine the most appropriate playoff locations for both the first round and the potential second round match-ups. In the above example the selection of the following locations would be appropriate:

First Round:

Boise State – Michigan [University of Phoenix Stadium]
Oregon – Georgia [Texas Stadium]
Texas – Pittsburgh [Georgia Dome]
BYU – Florida State [Horseshoe]

Second Round:

Top Bracket Winners – Rose Bowl
Bottom Bracket Winners – Orange Bowl

Through its location assignments the selection committee attempts to assign games to the most neutral sites at the closest joint proximity to each school to ease fan and team travel expenses. Note that if workable the second round locations could be delayed until the teams that are playing in the second round are determined. For example in the above example if Texas and BYU both win it would make more sense to host that game (the bottom bracket game) in the Rose Bowl instead of the Orange Bowl.

Based on the stadium selections the first round would begin at 11:00 am EST moving East to West with a 3 hr buffer between the start of each game. Due to two fewer games the second round could have a little more flex time between games allowing for more elaborate halftime performance or pre/post game preparations. Thus in the above example the official line-up would be:

Boise State – Michigan [University of Phoenix Stadium @ 8:00 pm EST]
UCLA – Georgia [Texas Stadium @ 5:00 pm EST]
Texas – Pittsburgh [Georgia Dome @ 11:00 am EST]
BYU – Florida State [Horseshoe @ 2:00 pm EST]

Top Bracket Winners – Rose Bowl @ 2:00 pm EST
Bottom Bracket Winners – Orange Bowl @ 7:00 pm EST

The second solution to the playoff location question is to utilize the aforementioned seeding system. The advantages of the seeding system is that more than likely on a universal scale fan fatigue is lowered vs. selection of a neutral site. However, this reduction possesses a higher standard deviation in that fan fatigue will be inversely proportional to the seed of the given team. Basically the better the seed the lower the fan fatigue. There is also another potential concern relating to how the money from ticket sales are distributed. Does the hosting school keep the funds or are they funneled back to the sponsor/BCS? How is the bowl payout influenced by the decision regarding ticket sales? Overall instrumentation of a seeding system would probably require transparency to avoid bias.

As previously stated the championship game would be either at a pre-determined rotating site between the six original sites or at an entirely new site. A rough schedule of events for the bowl/playoff season in college football would look like:

Dec 5th – ACC, Big-12 and SEC Championship games
Dec 6th – Final BCS Ranking to determine the two non BCS-affiliated conference champion participants and the draw is determined through whatever prescribed methodology;
Dec 19th – First round of playoff games
Dec 20th – New Mexico Bowl;
Dec 22nd – Las Vegas Bowl;
Dec 23rd – Poinsettia Bowl;
Dec 26th – Second round of playoff games;
Dec 27th – Meineke Car Care Bowl; Music City Bowl;
Dec 28th – Independence Bowl;
Dec 29th – Champs Sports Bowl; Eagle Bank Bowl;
Dec 30th – Holiday Bowl; Humanitarian Bowl;
Dec 31st – Texas Bowl; Armed Forces Bowl; Sun Bowl; Bowl; Chick-fil-A Bowl;
Jan 1st – Outback Bowl; Capital One Bowl; Gator Bowl; Rose Bowl; Sugar Bowl;
Jan 2nd – Cotton Bowl; Liberty Bowl; International Bowl; Alamo Bowl;
Jan 3rd – GMAC Bowl; Fiesta Bowl; Orange Bowl;
Jan 4th – National Championship Game;

One of the final issues that needs to be addressed is the number of games that college football players will be expected to play in a playoff system vs. the current system. Currently top quality programs (those that would qualify for a playoff in the first place) play 13-14 games when including the bowl game. In an 8-team playoff the teams playing in the championship game will have played 15-16 games at its conclusion, which is basically an NFL season and is clearly too many games. The chief concern is increasing the probability of players suffering from physical injury, especially as the season drags on in which player fatigue increases and recovery time decreases. With the way players play in the modern era, increased probability of suffering a concussion should be of special concern with the expectation of playing additional games.

There are two rational possibilities that jump to mind to alleviate this concern. The first solution involves lengthening the season to generate more down-time to stimulate recovery ensuring a lower probability for injury. Unfortunately this solution is not very viable because the college football season is already fairly long and generating this extended rest very well could push the season in late January or even early February which would significantly impact the viewing audience and would probably negatively influence the academics of the players.

The second solution would be to remove a number of games from the schedule to compensate for the potential increase in games from the playoffs. This solution seems to be the better of the two, but the immediate issue is how to go about removing games from the schedule? The type of game removed would heavily depend on the playoff qualification structure. For example in the above playoff example qualification occurs through acquisition of a conference championship. Therefore, the typical 3-5 non-conference games played by teams each year are irrelevant in determining eligibility for the playoffs for BCS affiliated teams and excessive for non-BCS affiliated teams. Thus it would be easy to drop the number of non-conference games by 2 in order to accommodate the potential playoff games.

Another side benefit of this system is if non-conference games no longer influence whether or not a BCS team enters the national championship playoff, there is no need for these teams to play generally inferior quality teams out of a concern that they could lose an early game to another high quality team and be out of the National Championship picture. Instead such a system would encourage high quality teams to play other high quality non-conference teams in order to generate a better understanding of how their teams are developing and to prepare for the conference season by playing teams that may be better than most of their conference opponents. Such a system should increase the probability of more USC-Florida match-ups over Florida Atlantic-Florida match-ups.

Noting academics in general the current scheme of the playoff as outlined above should probably not interfere with student academics because athletes, especially football and basketball players, have a greater level of flexibility in when they can take their tests. There should be enough free time with the time before the start of the playoffs and the time in-between the second round and the championship game for players still playing to take care of any academic business regarding finals and the like. However, each university may have different policies which would have to be considered.

In closing the first step to opening a discussion regarding the potential of a playoff system to determine a college football national champion is to understand that there is no logical reason for the BCS to reject a playoff on a financial basis. However, the sword is two sided in that a playoff cannot be viewed as manifest destiny for college football. Although a playoff can follow many different methodologies there are some critical elements that must be addressed by each different strategy if it is to have any probability of success.

1. Do not forsake the Rose Bowl or its handlers the Tournament of Roses Association; in a given year the Rose Bowl generates 20-25% of the total BCS revenue.1 It does so through its tradition, pageantry and quality. It is highly probable that any attempt to initiate a playoff will fail if the tradition of the Rose Bowl is not upheld. Therefore, the Rose Bowl must either host the Big-10 and Pac-10 runner-ups because their conference champions move to the playoff or it must be one of the first round playoff games where the Big-10 champion faces the Pac-10 champion each and every year in the first round regardless of BCS ranking.

2. The problem of fan fatigue must be solved. The expectation of fans to follow their team for up to three playoff games is unrealistic, especially for college students in an environment where college tuition continues to increase. Depending on the size of the promotional/television contracts that are acquired for a playoff one possible strategy for neutralizing fan fatigue is for a university to ‘eat’ the costs of the tickets for each game and donate the tickets to fans, so they only need to provide for their travel. Another option is if the venue is within 500 miles, the university could provide bus transport to the game site for the fans. Any steps the university can take to alleviate the cost of attending playoff games for fans without resulting in a loss for the university would go a long way to supporting the generation of a playoff system. Overall a playoff system that stood alone from the other traditional BCS bowls would probably have more success in this arena than a playoff system that incorporated the BCS bowls due the a greater windfall of monetary awards.

3. The playoff system must allow for the participation of teams from conferences not currently affiliated with the BCS. One of the driving reasons behind the movement to establish a playoff is the thought of unfairness in the current system because the ‘little guy’ is not afforded the opportunity to consistently erase or confirm the bias against it by playing the ‘big guy’. A playoff system that does not increase the probability of BCS vs. non-BCS match-ups is no better than the current system.

Overall the possibility for a playoff is viable, but its proponents must be more extensive in how they would go forward in establishing such a system. The analysis and example presented here is just the minimum of what should be presented as an argument by supporters. A vast majority of playoff or even anti-playoff arguments do not even scratch the surface of what elements will be required for the playoff or the maintenance of the current system. If one is not going to do a reasonable job at presenting an argument what is the point of presenting one in the first place?

1. Bowl Championship Series Five Year Summary of Revenue Distribution 2004 – 2008.

2. BCS revenue sharing: It's pretty simple.

No comments:

Post a Comment