Ratings are proof the addition of fifth BCS game officially a failure
The first BCS games played this week were among the lowest-rated ever
The addition of a fifth BCS game has made a watered-down slate of games
Despite the ratings, officials have made it clear a playoff is not on the horizon
Whenever BCS officials defend their oft-criticized postseason system, they like to point to the "overall health of college football," as measured by increased attendance and TV ratings. They're talking, however, about the regular season.
In terms of the BCS itself, preliminary Nielsen ratings for the first three BCS bowls played this week show that viewer interest has never been lower.
The Cincinnati-Virginia Tech Orange Bowl played on New Year's night drew a paltry 6.1 overnight rating for FOX, shattering the previous low of 6.98 set by the 2007 Wake Forest-Louisville Orange Bowl. By point of comparison, the Dec. 27 Florida State-Wisconsin Champs Sports Bowl drew nearly the same-sized audience.
Meanwhile, the Utah-Alabama Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2 garnered a 7.8 rating, an 11 percent increase from last year's Georgia-Hawaii game. Even so, the game ranked seventh-lowest among the 45 BCS games played to date.
Only the USC-Penn State Rose Bowl on ABC garnered its typically high rating of 12.6, up from 12.0 for last year's USC-Illinois game. But even that number marked the third-lowest of the 11 Rose Bowls played during the BCS era.
Presumably, Monday night's Texas-Ohio State Fiesta Bowl, what with its primetime slot and the presence of two marquee programs, will draw a significantly larger rating for FOX than its first two broadcasts, while Thursday's Florida-Oklahoma BCS Championship Game is expected to draw the sport's largest audience since the 2006 USC-Texas Rose Bowl.
Even so, BCS officials can't be pleased with these early returns. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the addition of a fifth BCS bowl can officially be declared an abject failure.
Seven of the nine lowest-rated games of the BCS era have now taken place over the past three seasons. That coincides with the beginning of the current cycle in which the BCS added a fifth game and turned the national championship game into a stand-alone event.
By removing the top two teams from the existing BCS bowls (Rose, Fiesta, Sugar and Orange), the remaining lineup gets unavoidably watered-down. And with the "double hosting" model -- in which the city hosting the title game gets last choice of teams for its regular bowl -- it almost assures there of being at least one dud matchup. This year, that was the Orange Bowl, which was contractually obligated to take ACC champ Virginia Tech (which came in 9-4 and ranked just 21st in the AP poll), while the other bowls all passed on Big East champ Cincinnati (ranked 12th).
It's not like the BCS commissioners didn't see this coming. After all, it wasn't their idea to go to a five-bowl system in the first place.
The BCS' current model was formed out of a "compromise" brokered by a panel of university presidents in response to pressure from the non-BCS conferences for increased access to the big games. Only one such team, 2004 Utah, qualified under the old parameters during the BCS' first eight years of existence.
The arrangement has worked out magnificently so far for the previously disenfranchised parties, with one of their teams qualifying for a BCS bowl in each of the first three years (Boise State in 2006, Hawaii in '07 and Utah in '08) and the Broncos (against Oklahoma) and Utes (against Alabama) doing wonders for their credibility with historic upsets.
However, the appearances of said teams haven't exactly been good for business. The four BCS games so far to involve non-BCS teams have all been among the nine lowest-rated BCS games of the 45 played to date. The others have all involved an ACC and/or Big East team.
Obviously, the one certain way to increase interest in such games would be the inception of a playoff. Far more fans would be inclined to tune into Alabama-Utah were it to hold greater implications than which team goes home Sugar Bowl champion.
As officials across the sport have made abundantly clear, however, a playoff is not on the horizon, and in fact ESPN recently outbid FOX for the right to air the same five games for the 2010-13 seasons. It will be interesting to see how ESPN uses its significant promotional power if it intends to renew interest in the non-championship games.
For all the complaints about bowl season, the Disney behemoth has done a remarkable job of maintaining, if not increasing viewership for its "Bowl Week" coverage of the second- and third-tier games. At the same time BCS ratings have been sagging, eight of the 10 highest-rated bowl games in ESPN history have taken place just since 2005, including this year's Champs Sports and Alamo (Northwestern-Missouri) bowls.
But there's always going to be a segment of diehard football fans who tune in to those early games. The key to racking up what used to be far larger audiences for the BCS bowls is to draw in more casual fans -- the type for whom New Year's Day football has been a longstanding tradition.
That's another area where the BCS, and bowls in general, have erred. By spreading out the traditional New Year's games farther and farther each year (this year there were more games played on Dec. 31 than Jan. 1), the original appeal of these games has become irrelevant. The Washington Post's Michael Wilbon, who is 50, wrote this week that for the first time in his life, he did not feel compelled to watch football on New Year's Day.
"The Orange Bowl, the only game played in prime time on New Year's Day, featured two teams not ranked in the top 10," he said. "The Rose Bowl, as we all suspected going in, was a total non-contest."
My guess is ESPN will reverse the trend, at least somewhat, by using one of its most ubiquitous weapons: hype. Alabama-Utah, on the surface, might not sound appealing -- until Rece Davis, Mark May and Co. beat it into your head that is with never-ending breakdowns leading up to the game.
But there's only so much the networks can do to sell what is essentially a broken product. This is a BCS problem, not a TV problem, and if the BCS honchos don't want to stray from their current format, the least they can do is make some tweaks to improve it.
As I've written before, it's time for the BCS to think about revising its selection process in order to create more compelling matchups. Between the various conference partnerships, automatic berths and selection order, there's almost no flexibility when it comes to which teams the bowls can select.
If USC wants to leave Pasadena for a change -- in the case of this season, maybe for the chance to play No. 3 Texas in the Fiesta Bowl -- it should have that right. Similarly, there are a whole bunch of rabid, SEC fan bases chomping at the bit for access to the Rose Bowl. I know the folks in Pasadena are wed to their Big Ten-Pac-10 tradition, but how many more USC-Big Ten blowouts can they expect us to stomach?
As it is, there are presently no indications that the next BCS cycle will be any different than the current one. Which means the national-championship game figures to become bigger and bigger, while the other four bowls fade further into oblivion.