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The BCS Mess
November 29, 2004
The Bowl Championship Series is facing the same old problems--and a few new ones. How did it all go so wrong?
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November 29, 2004

The Bcs Mess

The Bowl Championship Series is facing the same old problems--and a few new ones. How did it all go so wrong?

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The name was an afterthought, devoid of inspiration. Bowl Championship Series. By the winter of 1998 a cluster of bowl game officials, television executives and conference commissioners had completed the most sweeping changes in the history of postseason college football. When it came time to give their creation a title, they were almost too tired to try. "We picked Bowl Championship Series because it was easy," says Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese. "The TV people mentioned other possibilities, but this was the simplest." � It is simple no more. Six years later the words have been replaced by their initials--BCS--which are held up every autumn as a symbol of bureaucratic ineptitude, power-conference greed, lip service to academic ideals and pompous disregard for the public's hunger for a playoff. The BCS founders couldn't have imagined that websites would be created to trash their brainchild, that an entire genre of jokes would be spawned, that Congress would find time to belittle the BCS (as it did last year) or that one day a recruit would tell Utah's Urban Meyer, "Coach, I like your offense, I like your facilities, I like your school. But you're not in the BCS." The three letters have become shorthand for the moat that separates the wealthy in college football from the impoverished.

A year ago the system notoriously matched LSU and Oklahoma in its championship game, even though USC was ranked No. 1 in the AP and the ESPN/ USA Today polls. The result was a split title, the very thing fans assumed the system would prevent. This year the BCS nears implosion again. USC, Oklahoma and Auburn are unbeaten, and there's a strong possibility they'll remain that way, guaranteeing that one worthy contender will be left out of the Orange Bowl, ostensibly the national championship game. Meanwhile a mediocre Boston College team (8--2 after beating Temple last Saturday) from the mediocre Big East needs one more win to earn an automatic spot in one of the BCS bowls. Payout: $14 million to $17 million.

Last Saturday, Utah's 52--21 win over Brigham Young virtually ensured that the undefeated Utes will finish in the BCS top six, becoming the first team from outside the Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac10 and SEC to earn a place in one of the BCS games. In the aftermath of the Utes' victory, Meyer got a ride on fans' shoulders as he waved a sombrero, signifying a likely Fiesta Bowl invitation. The reasons to celebrate weren't all obvious. "Not long ago the NCAA legislated out the $750,000 free throw [by implementing revenue sharing for the NCAA basketball tournament]," said Utah athletic director Chris Hill three days before the Utes played BYU. "Well, on Saturday we're playing a $14 million football game."

Such issues will earn the BCS another December's worth of slings and arrows, but last weekend member schools solved a much bigger problem when they signed a new, four-year television contract with Fox. The situation had reached a critical point, underscoring the BCS's unsteady foundations, when current rights holder ABC pulled out of the negotiations last Friday. ABC, which had already renewed its contract with the Rose Bowl through 2014 for an increase in fees, offered 11% less annually for the other BCS bowls over the four-year life of the proposed deal, largely because of the addition of a fifth game that will increase access to non--BCS conferences but that BCS insiders and TV executives fear will water down the product. Fox will pay upwards of $80 million annually for the four non--Rose Bowls, a 4.5% increase in the total package but a drop in per-game average from $25.5 million to around $20 million. "People complain that we make decisions in the BCS based on money," says one BCS insider. "Well, of course it's about money. We're all running businesses: our bowls, the athletic directors, the television networks. Tell me what business accepts being told that over the next four years you'll have no revenue growth."

To understand the system, enroll in SI's three-part BCS 101 class.

LESSON I: How We Got Here

The process that led to the creation of the BCS in 1998 began seven years earlier, when college football was in the midst of a massive overhaul. Notre Dame had signed an exclusive contract with NBC. Onetime independents Florida State, Miami and Penn State had joined conferences. The SEC expanded to 12 teams and added a lucrative championship game; the Big 12 would soon be formed and do likewise. An air of insecurity hung over the sport, and bowls and conferences scurried to solidify their postseason tie-ins, forming first the Bowl Coalition (1992--94) and then the Bowl Alliance (1995--97). Those were improvements on the old system, under which deals for bowl berths were often struck in early November, but they didn't include the Rose Bowl and its partners, the Big Ten and Pac10.

In 1996 ABC, which owned the rights to the Rose Bowl, persuaded the Tournament of Roses, the Big Ten and the Pac10 to join the other four major conferences in a postseason system beginning in '98, then enlisted SEC commissioner Roy Kramer as coordinator. This arrangement--the BCS--increased the likelihood of getting No. 1 and No. 2 together in any given year, but that was just part of the value.

"One big factor was that this would be a system controlled by the commissioners and the major conferences," says a person who was involved with the '96 negotiations and spoke on condition of anonymity. "There was noise back then about the NCAA getting involved in postseason football, and that was something nobody at the commissioner level wanted. This gave them control over where their teams went and how the money was shared."

Kramer, now retired, says, "There were several purposes, but clearly we wanted to preserve conference stability and the bowl structure." Those underpinnings continue to motivate the BCS powers.

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