The More Things Change, the More Things Stay the Same: Thoughts on BCS Bowls as Semifinal Sites and a 12-Team Event

Posted by    |    May 3rd, 2012 at 5:30 am

In an update to last week’s news that the powers that be in college football are finally instituting (or more precisely, are submitting to their respective university presidents for approval) a 4-team playoff system, both Mark Schlabach of ESPN.com and Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated have reported that the early leader for the format for such playoff is the use of the contractual conference tie-ins for the 4 current BCS bowls to slot the semifinal games. For example, if a Big Ten team is ranked #1, it would host the #4 team in the Rose Bowl, while an SEC team that is ranked #2 would host the #3 team in the Sugar Bowl. This is a way to preserve the relationship between the Rose Bowl, Big Ten and Pac-12 (and for that matter, the relationships that other conferences have with their respective bowls) while still having a 4-team playoff. I wrote a college playoff proposal last week that incorporated this concept. Mandel has also reported that the powers that be would like to elevate two more bowls to BCS status (or whatever status we’re going to call it when the term “BCS” is dropped, which is a 99% certainty). In practicality, this would really only add 2 more BCS bowl bids to the system with 12 bids for 6 games (compared to 4 BCS bowls and national championship game currently providing 10 bids).

A few thoughts on this:

1) Get ready for the Big Ten and SEC to start agreeing a lot more – Many of the media reports regarding the formulation of a college football playoff have positioned Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and SEC commissioner Mike Slive to be massive rivals. However, Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports indicated that they were generally in agreement regarding the major principles of a playoff system during the BCS meetings. In reality, there’s very little reason for the Big Ten and SEC to be far apart. While Delany and Slive might have differences in opinion regarding how to implement the playoff system at a high level, they fundamentally have the same financial and fan base underpinnings (which is why both of those leagues are so powerful compared to the rest)*. For instance, as much as the Big Ten might prefer on-campus semifinals, the use of bowls as semifinals protects the Rose Bowl, which the countervailing interest of the conference. On the flip side, the SEC would have received a larger benefit from the use of on-campus semifinals than any other conference over the course of the BCS era. The point is that the Big Ten and SEC can work well in either format since they both have great home game attendance yet also travel well to neutral sites and bowls.

(* Think of this as the equivalent to competition between Wal-Mart, which happens to be based in SEC country, and Target, which is headquartered in Big Ten territory. They are rivals and the two largest players in their market by a large margin, but when you break it down, they make their money the exact same way by leveraging their large footprints to control costs with suppliers in order to provide discounted prices to their customers. Wal-Mart and Target might be high profile competitors in the marketplace, but on big picture economic, trade and labor issues, their interests are completely aligned. It’s the same way with the SEC and Big Ten regarding the college football postseason. The SEC is Wal-Mart and the Big Ten is Target.)

It’s really the Pac-12 that needs the benefit of the Rose Bowl even more than the Big Ten since the Pasadena connection masks the fact that the West Coast league has the worst bowl lineup top-to-bottom compared to any of the other power conferences. (Yes, even worse than the ACC.) If the Rose Bowl were eradicated tomorrow, the Orange, Sugar and Fiesta Bowls would still fall all over themselves to get a Big Ten tie-in, but the Pac-12 isn’t in that same position. That’s why the supposedly “reactionary” Jim Delany was more open-minded in his comments regarding a playoff last week than the typically-lauded “visionary outsider” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott (who took a much more strident and hardline view about the Pac-12 protecting its Rose Bowl connection).

Regardless, when the discussion turns to how the playoff revenue is split and which conferences get multiple BCS bowl bids (which will make any differences between the FBS conferences up to this point look like minor spats), the Big Ten and SEC are going to be brothers-in-arms. They have the same approach: “Bowls want us, so we should get the bids and the revenue.”

2) Multiple BCS bowl tie-ins are possible (if not probable) for the Big Ten, SEC and Big 12 – Is it possible that the BCS could actually add more bowls yet still cut down the access to the non-power conferences (which may or may not include the Big East now)? Absolutely.

Mandel indicates that there’s a proposal that there would be 6 BCS bowls with at-large bids needing to meet some type of rankings threshold (e.g. top 15 in the final BCS rankings). There would also be a cap of 3 teams receiving bids each year from any single conference. The Cotton Bowl is usually assumed to be next in line for elevated status and I’d bank a Central Florida bowl (either the Capital One or Outback) getting a nod, as well. (See my reasons in point #3.)

Thinking like a free marketer here, is where any reason for the Cotton or Capital One/Outback Bowls to pay a massive amount to receive elevated bowl status but actually get worse matchups (in the eyes of a bowl organizer that needs to sell tickets and a TV network executive that needs viewers) than they do now when they have desirable Big Ten, SEC and Big 12 teams locked in today? That really doesn’t make much sense if you’re actually running those bowls. Outside of a chance at getting Notre Dame every once in awhile, the Capital One/Outback Bowl is going to want Big Ten and SEC teams while the value of adding the Cotton Bowl is diminished almost completely if a Big 12 team isn’t playing there. Access to Pac-12, ACC and non-power conference teams really doesn’t do anything for them (and they certainly don’t want to be losing the Big Ten, SEC and Big 12 teams that they would have received in the current system to other bowls in the new system while having to simultaneously increase their payouts).

In fact, the main benefit to the Cotton and Capital One/Outback to getting elevated to BCS status is to be guaranteed the teams that they have been contracting for over the past several years but haven’t been getting in reality. For instance, the Capital One Bowl is supposed to get Big Ten #2 vs. SEC #2 under its contract, yet it has actually received Big Ten #3 vs. SEC #3 every single season since 2005 because both the Big Ten and SEC have sent a second team to the BCS bowls annually. So, the Capital One can pay up to guarantee to get those Big Ten #2 and SEC #2 tie-ins back every year, which is an acceptable trade-off for likely not getting to host any semifinal very often as that’s going to be an extremely high profile bowl matchup. (Under this system, the phantom 2010-11 Sugar Bowl matchup between Ohio State and Arkansas, where the win has since been vacated and both participating head coaches have been fired, would have been played at the Capital One Bowl. Who wouldn’t have wanted that game?!)

On the flip side, why would the Big Ten, SEC and Big 12 give up high profile bowl tie-ins that they already have guaranteed in hand today and send them up for grabs in an at-large system? That doesn’t seem too likely, either. Even if the Big Ten and SEC in particular would benefit the most from a flexible at-large arrangement in the majority of seasons, it’s still not the same as having guaranteed tie-ins.

As a result, I’d envision that the BCS bowl system would look like the following:

Rose Bowl: Big Ten #1 vs. Pac-12 #1
Sugar Bowl: SEC #1 vs. at-large
Fiesta Bowl: Big 12 #1 vs. at-large
Orange Bowl: ACC #1 vs. at-large
Capital One/Outback Bowl: Big Ten #2 vs. SEC #2
Cotton Bowl: Big 12 #2 vs. at-large*

(* The Cotton Bowl currently shares the SEC #3/4 tie-in with the Outback Bowl. If the SEC has to choose to drop a tie-in, I believe it would let go of the Cotton as opposed to one of the Florida-based bowls since pairing up with a Big Ten school is more lucrative and the Sunshine State is unambiguously an SEC market. In contrast, the state of Texas has a strong SEC representative in Texas A&M but is still a Big 12 state overall. Now, if the new system allows the SEC to have a third contractual tie-in, then more power to them and they could and should take advantage of that in a heartbeat.)

3) The likelihood of a Central Florida bowl getting BCS status – Expanding on the prior point, here are a few reasons why I believe either the Capital One Bowl or Outback Bowl is going to be elevated to BCS status:

a) Big Ten and SEC tie-ins – These are the conferences running the show and the main common relationship that they have is that they love Florida-based bowls. To the extent that the semifinals are going to be played outside of the Midwest, the Big Ten is going to have a lot less heartburn with using the Central Florida bowls that are the conference’s strongest tie-ins outside of the Rose Bowl compared to, say, using the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta. Both the Big Ten and SEC can get on board with this (and I’ve said before, when they agree on something, that’s usually what gets done).

b) People WANT to travel to Central Florida during Christmas break regardless of whether there’s a bowl – The Capital One Bowl has had horrific facilities for many years, yet they’ve still managed to attract both of the best conference tie-ins (Big Ten #2 vs. SEC #2) and provide the highest payout outside of the BCS system since the very beginning of the BCS era. Why? Because it’s freaking Orlando! The wife and kids would rather go to Disney World than Dallas, college kids would rather go to Daytona Beach than Atlanta, and retired alums would rather be in warm weather Florida (where they probably already live) than cold weather Indianapolis. Central Florida is the easiest sell in terms of the overall vacation experience during the holidays of any bowl (and that’s why the Capital One has continued to receive such great funding and tie-ins despite the horrible facilities). Just like a mansion in a terrible neighborhood won’t be as valuable as a tiny apartment in a great neighborhood, the greatest stadium in the world in a less than desirable winter vacation destination can only do so much competing against subpar facilities in a place that most people love traveling to. Location, location, location.

c) ESPN (owned by the Walt Disney Company) is likely paying for this new playoff - Why is this important? Well, have you ever been to Disney World on New Year’s Eve? I went almost every year with my family growing up and one thing that you’ll notice is that a significant portion of the people going to the parks, staying at the hotels and generally emptying their wallets on all things Disney that week in between Christmas and New Year’s happen to be football fans attending the Capital One, Outback and Gator Bowls, all of which are an easy drive from Disney World.

So, do you see why ESPN is currently willing to pay a premium for the Big Ten and SEC tie-ins for the Capital One, Outback and Gator Bowls and then have them played all at the same time on New Year’s Day? These are massive fan bases that travel from out-of-town (note that local teams aren’t necessarily the best thing for the primary purpose of bowls, which is to attract out-of-town tourists) and spend tons of money at Disney World while people at home watch the games on Disney-owned ABC/ESPN/ESPN2. It’s a synergy of one big business for Disney (college football on TV) with another big business (theme park admissions and hotel revenue during the holidays).

I think both of the Central Florida bowls already have large enough financial war chests to win a bidding war for a BCS bowl slot regardless of any ESPN consideration, but rest assured that its helps significantly if Disney happens to be pushing one site over another when they’re spending $600 million to $1 billion per year on a playoff. It’s going to be a contest between the better stadium in Tampa and the more attractive vacation destination in Orlando.

4. Revenue sharing will likely be about bids to the “12-team event” overall instead of the semifinals specifically – Let’s have a quick reminder about how much of a bonus that a conference receives when it has a team that makes the national championship game today: $0.

To be sure, such conference will receive an amount equal to a BCS bowl bid (or if such conference already has another BCS bowl bid, then a partial additional share for the national championship game bid), but the point is that LSU garnered the exact same amount of revenue for the SEC last year in the national championship game as Wisconsin got for the Big Ten by going to the Rose Bowl and Alabama netted the exact same payout for the SEC as Michigan earned for the Big Ten by going to the Sugar Bowl.

Thus, when I see proposals from fans online suggesting that a conference that makes it to the semifinals will receive $50 million while a conference that doesn’t make it will only receive $10 million, I shake my head and wonder how many fans actually learned how college sports money works after witnessing massive conference realignment moves over the past two years. Simply put, what has happened in the past is a pretty good guide to what will happen in the future, and what the past says is that the power conferences want very little to do with variable pay based on merit and, instead, want to maximize guaranteed dollars for themselves whether their respective champions in a given year are ranked #1 or #100. Even in the mighty SEC, which would have been a beneficiary of a variable pay system over the past several years, wants guaranteed money as opposed to shooting the moon in a season like last year when it had the top 2 teams. A school such as Mississippi State needs to be able to pencil in x amount of guaranteed postseason dollars at the beginning of every year for budget purposes, which it can’t do if most of it is based upon whether one or more of its conference-mates end up in the top 4 at the end of the fall. Do you think the SEC wants a system where the difference between receiving $50 million or $10 million could be dependent upon a freshman placekicker hitting a field goal in an overtime game so his team ends up at #4 instead of #5? Would the Big Ten want that? Any of the other power conferences?

University presidents are already a risk averse group by any normal standard, so this scenario simply won’t fly, especially when the current system has such clear revenue guarantees. Contrary to the belief of most fans, schools aren’t looking to hit a massive jackpot in the years that they win the national championship. Instead, schools want to know that they are going to receive a large sum of money whether they are 12-0 or 0-12.

As a result, the most likely revenue sharing approach going forward is likely to be effectively the same as today: all bids to the new 12-team event, which encompasses the semifinals will be treated the same financially (just as all bids to the current 10-team event, which encompasses the national championship game, are treated the same financially). This obviously puts a massive premium on having contractual tie-ins, since any conference with a contract with a BCS bowl is going to receive a full share of the new postseason money, whether it sends a team to the semifinals or not. It also shows, once again, the elimination of AQ status is really only a matter of semantics for all of the current AQ conferences except for the Big East (which currently doesn’t have a contractual tie-in with any BCS bowl and most likely won’t be getting one in the future). The Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12, ACC and Big 12 are all going to receive at least one full postseason share annually (and if they have multiple bids or tie-ins, then they’ll get multiple shares) no matter what, while the non-AQ conferences would only receive full shares if they actually make it to semifinals or receive an at-large BCS bowl bid*. The non-AQ conferences will receive more money in total compared to today’s BCS system, but no one should expect the revenue disparity to change much from the current 90/10 split between the power leagues and non-power leagues**.

(* My educated guess regarding the Big East is that it will be treated as a “tweener” for revenue purposes. The Big East would no longer receive an amount that’s equal to the other power conferences since it does not have a contractual tie-in, but still get an amount larger compared to the other non-AQ conferences based upon the fact that the Big East is a “founding member” of the BCS system.)

(** I’ll repeat an analogy that I’ve used before: think of the semifinals as the Oscars and the other BCS bowls as movie theaters. The Oscars should be based upon merit regardless of box office revenue, where movies such as “The King’s Speech” and actors like Daniel Day-Lewis get rewarded. Likewise, the college football playoff semifinals should be based upon merit without regard to conference affiliation or popularity. However, a free market society should also not force movie theaters to show Daniel Day-Lewis movies when Tom Cruise vehicles and terrible Transformers sequels sell 1000 times more movie tickets. By that same token, bowl games that exist for the purpose of selling tickets, drawing TV viewers and bringing legions of tourists into their towns should be able to freely choose teams and conferences that, well, sell tickets, draw TV viewers and bring legions of tourists into their towns. Many fans have tried to assign a higher purpose to the bowls, which is a mistake.)

Now, there might be a bonus for the conferences that make it to the national championship game since that’s technically a separate “bowl” game beyond the 12-team event. However, based on the tea leaves that I see along with past actions, that bonus is likely going to be relatively small compared to the guaranteed revenue in the 12-team event. The very fact that the leading proposal is to use the traditional BCS bowls with their tie-ins supports the notion of guaranteed revenue as opposed to variable pay. The Rose Bowl would only find out in December whether it’s going to be hosting a semifinal or not, so it can’t feasibly come up with a payout that’s worth twice as much within a couple of weeks if a Pac-12 or Big Ten team happens to be ranked #1 or #2. That points to all BCS bowl bids (which includes the semifinals) being worth the same.

Those are all of my thoughts for now. I’ll be back soon with new posts on the WAC being the worst victim of conference realignment (along with shuffling among Conference USA, the Mountain West Conference, the Sun Belt and Colonial Athletic Association) and tweaks to my latest college football playoff “flex wild card” proposal.

P.S. My long-time readers and Twitter followers know that (1) I’m a massive Chicago Bulls fan and (2) Derrick Rose is my man crush to end all man crushes. So, when D-Rose went down for the season on Saturday with a torn ACL, it was legitimately one of the 5 worst sports moments of my life (if not in the top 2). The last time I had ever felt a pit in my stomach that badly sports-wise was when Illinois lost the 2005 NCAA National Championship Game to North Carolina, but even then, I could reconcile that the Illini had their chance to get to the very end without outside factors intervening (along with providing the best sports memory in my lifetime next to the last minute of Michael Jordan’s performance in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals). The Bears losing Super Bowl XLI to the Colts was fairly terrible personal experience for me, too, yet I could also comfort myself in knowing that the Colts were the better team overall and that there was the Chicago crutch of Rex Grossman at quarterback. (Unleash the dragons!) My 2007-08 Rose Bowl trip was more like playing with house money – the Illini weren’t expected (and probably didn’t deserve) to be there and even a thrashing at the hands of a bunch of ineligible USC players can’t kill the buzz of actually getting to be in Pasadena at that time of year. (While I’m a playoff supporter, I also fully understand and appreciate why the Big Ten and Pac-12 protect the Rose Bowl so much. Comparing the Rose Bowl to the other BCS bowls is the equivalent of comparing The Masters to the PGA Championship – they might technically have the same major status, but they are no way, shape or form equal in stature and prestige.)

In the case of the Bulls, though, they had a legit championship-caliber squad (which doesn’t come around very often) that won’t even have a chance to even attempt to fulfill its potential. Maybe the Miami Heat would have ultimately beaten the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals, but the fact that there won’t be any opportunity at all to see both teams go at it at full strength is shame. (The Bulls could certainly get past the Sixers in the first round and maybe hang with the Celtics or Hawks in the second round. Even without Rose, the Bulls are still the best defensive team in the NBA, which is going to keep them in games. Beating Miami over the course of 7 games without the offensive firepower of Rose, though, would be a miracle. I’ll certainly be cheering for it to happen, but I’m also going to be realistic about it.) Even worse, I’m now going to have to worry whether Derrick Rose is ever going to have the same type of athleticism when he comes back from his injury. Frankly, the only sports-related discussions over the past few days that haven’t made me want to lock myself in a dark room alone and nurse bottle of Jameson have been the comments on this blog, so I thank all of you readers out there for that.

As bad as I might be feeling right now along with other Bulls fans around the world, I could only imagine what Rose himself might be feeling right now with the long road ahead. Let’s pray for his speedy recovery (and somebody somewhere to knock off the Heat).

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

(Image from Yahoo!)