Proposals for more bowl games causing controversy across the board
Posted: Wednesday April 28, 2004 3:03PM; Updated: Wednesday April 28, 2004 3:04PM
It was nothing but smiles and back-patting that Sunday in late February when college presidents announced their agreement for a fifth BCS bowl. Presidents from the so-called "non-BCS" conferences congratulated themselves for achieving better access. Presidents from the big six conferences congratulated themselves for reclaiming control of the sport. NCAA president Myles Brand congratulated both sides for somehow bettering higher education.
If only it were that simple.
Behind the scenes, in the weeks that followed, it became clear that the presidents were the only figures in college football happy with their creation. Execs for the four current BCS bowls were none too pleased at the possibility of waiting an extra year each turn to host the national title game. Execs for ABC, the BCS' current TV partner, were none too pleased at not being consulted. And commissioners for the six BCS conferences, frustrated that such a major decision was made not by them but the presidents, were none too pleased about a scenario that very likely would cut into their respective shares of the loot.
Such was the backdrop when all three parties convened Tuesday at a resort outside Phoenix for a meeting that showed the issue of college football's postseason future is far from settled.
Apparently ABC, which claims to be losing money on the current BCS deal, is not keen to the presidents' proposal. According to numerous reports, Loren Matthews, ABC's senior vice president for programming, proposed a plan Tuesday that would create not only a fifth bowl game but a much-discussed championship game after the bowls in January, the kind that would have allowed split champs USC and LSU to meet last season.
The reasons are obvious. ABC does not see adding a game that includes a lower-profile team such as Tulane or BYU as a ratings-getter. Therefore, it's not willing to pony up extra dollars for the right to televise such a game when its current contract expires in two years. By both keeping the fifth bowl but adding a title game -- something an overwhelming majority of the public is believed to desire -- the BCS could both appease the smaller conferences while still adding value to their product.
Ah, but what the public wants and what the BCS wants isn't necessarily the same thing. Presidents for at least one conference, the Pac-10, are adamantly opposed to such a concept because it too closely mirrors that of a "playoff," and "playoff," as we've learned, is a dirty word in academia. Most I-A presidents are reluctant to sign off on anything that would extend the football season into a second semester, lest they be regarded as cheapening academics in favor of big-business sports even more than they already have.
Here's where we have a problem. While the conference commissioners are obliged to succumb to the wishes of their leagues' presidents, they don't necessarily agree with them. Read between the lines and you can tell they don't have a whole lot of confidence in the financial viability of a fifth bowl.
"The Pac-10 presidents are very strongly and unanimously opposed to any extension of the bowl season into January," Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen told the Arizona Republic. "... It's not about money with our presidents. It's strictly a philosophical decision."
But, he goes on to add, "If the five-bowl model isn't attractive in the market, then they'd have to reconsider."
That's the key word: market. When the presidents announced the fifth bowl in February, they did so with a caveat: "If the market supports it." They claimed to have tested the proposal with TV consultants and were confident of its viability.
Reality is a different story. Annual revenue for the four BCS games is about $90 million, which is shared among the participating conferences. To add a fifth bowl while maintaining present payout levels, the new TV deal would have to garner a 25 percent increase, or about $22.5 million annually. That's highly unlikely what with the market for televised sports in general tapering off in recent years.
BCS officials have said one way they may get around that is to divide up the package among multiple networks, the idea being that a CBS or FOX will be so eager to get in on the action they'll pony up top dollar. But the proposal Matthews put forward Tuesday calls for continued ABC exclusivity, likely for another 10 years. Depending on how lucrative an offer -- details reportedly were not yet discussed -- it will be awfully tough for the commissioners to pass up such a sure thing in favor of testing a shaky product in an uncertain market.
So, the commissioners have their work cut out for them. By the time negotiations begin in earnest this fall, they have to convince the presidents that a "plus-one" game is not so evil, and that a fifth game without a new title game could lead to their financial ruin.
If not, we could be looking at an unbelievable scenario in which even more people are unhappy with the next BCS than are the current one.
Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.