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Posted: Friday January 9, 2009 5:11PM; Updated: Friday January 9, 2009 11:02PM
Andy Staples Andy Staples >

Any way you cut it, a playoff makes practical -- and economic -- sense

Story Highlights

A playoff could bring in $400 million, more than three times the bowls' revenue

Most football schools are public universities, so we're talking about our money

The 12th game was about money; a playoff is more fiscially responsible

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BCS coordinator and ACC commissioner John Swofford admitted Thursday a playoff would be more lucrative than the BCS.
BCS coordinator and ACC commissioner John Swofford admitted Thursday a playoff would be more lucrative than the BCS.
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The Utah attorney general plans to challenge the BCS on antitrust grounds because Utah's football team got shut out of playing for a national title this season. A bipartisan consortium led by Texas Rep. Joe Barton intends to introduce legislation to replace the BCS with a playoff. The fan-in-chief himself, President-elect Barack Obama, continues to call for a playoff.

What do all these people have in common? They're elected officials who risk seeming petty by focusing on something so insignificant -- in the grand scheme of things -- as college football when the nation faces its worst economic crisis in decades. So instead of trying to bully the BCS conferences with legislation, they should take a new approach. They should attack an economic issue.

In an age when public universities can't afford to hire or give raises to professors, when schools are opening the admissions floodgates to increase cash flow while not providing the infrastructure to help all those incoming students succeed, when public dollars subsidize athletics, elected officials need to ask university presidents why they're leaving hundreds of millions of dollars on the table by sticking with the BCS instead of switching to a playoff, which could more than triple their money.

Florida and Oklahoma, the schools that played Thursday for the BCS title, make enough money to have self-sustaining athletic departments. At least three-fourths of the 120 schools in the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision do not. Of those 120 schools, 104 are public universities, that, if they don't make their budgets, must dip into tax dollars to pay for athletics.

At Washington, where the university is bracing for an anticipated $116 million budget cut over the next three years, the athletic department is asking for $150 million in King County tax revenue to pay for half of the planned renovations to Husky Stadium. At Florida International, each student pays $14.51 per credit hour to subsidize athletics. Whether that student cares about coach Mario Cristobal's football team is irrelevant.

Meanwhile, the presidents cling to the BCS, which, when the new contract with ESPN kicks in, will bring in $125 million a year in rights fees. Jim Wheeler, an Oklahoma business professor who has plenty of experience with this subject, ran a model earlier this week for The model found that a plus-one system would generate about $160 million a year. An eight-team playoff would generate $212 million a year. A 16-team playoff identical to the one used in all the other levels of NCAA football would bring in -- drumroll, please -- $400 million a year.

Wheeler runs Oklahoma's Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. In a previous life, he was the stateside pointman for a Swiss company called International Sports and Leisure. In the late '90s, ISL had Wheeler approach the lords of college football with an offer: $3 billion over eight years to stage a 16-team playoff. The schools turned him down. But that was the go-go '90s, when everyone's balance sheet looked great. Now, things have changed.

"For college presidents and athletic directors, their three most important jobs are raising money, raising money and raising money," Wheeler said. "The fourth job really isn't that important."

ACC commissioner John Swofford, the current BCS coordinator, readily admitted Thursday that there is more money in a playoff than in the current system. Then he spent almost 10 minutes enumerating the various excuses for why there isn't one.

"The community isn't there. In a nutshell, I think the reason is there are parameters that particularly the presidents want to see maintained," Swofford said. "You're looking at things like the number of games played. You're looking at things like the sport basically remaining a one-semester sport. You're talking about concerns over having playoff games during most schools' exam periods. All of those things come into play, as well as -- and I know you're getting tired of hearing this -- the quality and uniqueness of the regular season."

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