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More money, bowls' waning popularity driving push for a plus-one


Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick is part of a committee to 'fix' college football's postseason. (US Presswire)  
Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick is part of a committee to 'fix' college football's postseason. (US Presswire)  

The task is simple over the next few months. Twelve men with a combined three centuries of experience in college athletic administration must "fix" college football's postseason.

Simple? Those 11 Football Bowl Subdivision commissioners plus Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick might have it easier finding life on other planets. In both cases, the solution seems light years away.

"The idea that you're going to eliminate controversy," said Roy Kramer, the 82-year-old former SEC commissioner who invented the BCS 14 years ago, "if that's what you're thinking as a president, commissioner or athletic director, forget that. There will always be controversy."

Those 12 not-yet-angry men will take the next step toward reshaping that postseason this week when they gather in Dallas for the next round of BCS meetings Tuesday and Wednesday. The plus-one is all the rage -- essentially a progressive, seeded four-team playoff -- in the only sport where the NCAA doesn't conduct a championship. It is not a one-stop cure-all for what ails the sport, just the next logical step.

For decades the football's championship was mythical. But since the BCS debuted in 1998, those commissioners have controlled and profited from the BCS with oversight from a presidential overview committee.

Only lately has the majority of commissioners from most of the power conferences advocated for a plus-one format. SEC commissioner Mike Slive went from supporting the format in 2008 to telling me in January 2011, "No, I would not want to play another game."

That was shortly before Auburn won his conference's fifth consecutive national championship. This month in an email to the Chicago Tribune he said, "I am pleased to hear there is renewed interest in a plus-one format."

What changed? The money for one thing. talked to several industry sources about pricing a plus-one. Depending on how it is administrated, a four-team playoff could be worth $250 million to $500 million per season. On the high end, that would almost triple the $180 million distributed by the BCS in 2011.

Consider that $550 million is the total paid by ABC for the first eight years of the BCS (1998-2005). At $500 million per season, the next lucky winning rights-holder on the BCS wheel of fortune could be paying $2 billion over four years.

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"I'm sitting back here staggered by some of the prices I've seen," said one of the first men to formally propose a plus-one almost eight years ago.

In April 2004, then-ABC Sports chief college sports exec Loren Matthews walked into a crowded BCS meeting room in a luxury Phoenix hotel with two bold postseason ideas. One was a championship game played after the bowls -- what is now called an unseeded plus-one. The two participants would be chosen by a blue-ribbon human committee.

The second model was what he called a "Final Four" playoff of the top four teams in the BCS standings. Essentially, today's modern plus-one.

"Maybe the [added championship game] is a nice way of dipping the toe in," said Matthews, now retired in Charlotte, N.C. "After that maybe you go to a Final Four. After that maybe you go to an eight-team playoff. It kind of put it in everybody's stream of consciousness. Maybe we were a little ahead of our time."

In Matthews' mind, the BCS had stagnated. It was also undervalued without a change. But on that day he was rejected out of hand by former Oregon president Dave Frohnmayer almost before the words left his mouth. Soon after, ABC/ESPN basically passed on the BCS rights, allowing Fox to win the contract for four years (2006-09) before winning it back in 2010.

What changed? "Double-hosting" seems to have been an awkward interim step. Since 2006, the bowl staging the championship game has hosted two games -- the traditional bowl at that site and the title game. That added two more slots, -- five BCS games, 10 teams -- to provide more access. While TCU, Boise and Hawaii became inspiring underdog stories, double-hosting put a tremendous strain on bowl staff and tested viewers' patience.

Sugar Bowl president Paul Hoolahan admittedly chose familiar Virginia Tech for last month's game over more accomplished teams to lessen the administrative load on his small staff.

What changed? There is also a general weariness among BCS leaders. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany once called it "BCS defense fatigue." In December 2010, he said non-AQ schools and leagues were "really testing" if "you think you can continue to push for more money." He threatened that the power conference commissioners could break up the BCS and go back to the old bowl system, where the sport's have-nots barely got a sniff.

Left to their own market-driven desires, the commissioners themselves damaged the history and the tradition of the sport with conference realignment. There is a feeling that a plus-one could slow that process.

In the space of 14 months, Delany's postseason heart has softened along with what seems to be the rest of college football. NCAA president Mark Emmert has said multiple times a "Final Four approach" for football would be "sound."

"It's clear to me that the worm has turned," said one college sports consultant. "There is now going to be support for whatever you want to call it, a playoff different than the BCS structure."

The current BCS contract expires after the 2013 season (2014 bowls). For everyone to profit -- both theoretically and financially -- the postseason almost has to change. A playoff would be more compelling viewing even if it doesn't come close to solving all the BCS' problems. That same industry analyst put the value on three plus-one games (two semifinals and a title game) at $100 million each.

"When you start looking at values, a good place to look would be the NFL. ESPN pays the NFL [approximately] $100 million per game. That's a run-of-the-mill Monday Night Football game," the analyst said. "It strikes me that's kind of the zip code."

In terms of gross ticket revenue, was led to believe there would be a $350 average ticket price for plus-one games. Multiply that by, say, 75,000 seats. Now multiply that by three plus-one games. That's an additional $78 million.

Without deciding when and where the games are going to be played -- and who is going to televise them -- we're almost at $400 million per year. Or higher.

During last month's BCS meeting in New Orleans, commissioners didn't talk about specific models. Still, approximately 50 have been presented over the months since they asked their conferences for suggestions. That number will probably to be narrowed down this week. A new postseason format beginning in 2014 is expected by the summer.

If there is indeed momentum moving toward a plus-one, these models are emerging:

 The so-called Delany Model: Semifinals would be played on campus sites of higher-seeded teams. That's probably the least lucrative for college football and, at this point, perhaps the least likely.

  A plus-one that would be played in existing bowls. If that occurs, assume the inclusion of the Cotton Bowl, making it five major (what used to be BCS) bowls. In any given year, three of those five bowls be involved in deciding the national championship. The Rose Bowl would not want to be a national semifinal but would be in the national championship rotation.

  A neutral site bid process. This is probably the most intriguing and most profitable. Imagine cities bidding on the three plus-one playoff games, the same way cities bid on the Super Bowl. Dallas/Fort Worth would probably be interested with the backing of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and his state-of-the-art Cowboys Stadium. Also, figure Atlanta with the Georgia Dome. Perhaps Indianapolis with Lucas Oil Stadium. As Kramer mentioned, a plus-one would relieve a bit of the pressure on the current system, accounting for more deserving teams, although certainly not all. In 2010 and 2011 a plus-one would have included all the undefeated Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the regular season. In 2008 (Utah) and 2009 (Boise State), undefeated teams would have been left out.

A four-team playoff essentially moves the argument incrementally from No. 2 vs. No. 3 to No. 4 vs. No. 5. And there will be arguments. That's why Matthews suggested only that one of his models would have "whet the appetite" for more expansion down the road.

Critics say even a modest playoff would lead to "bracket creep" -- four teams would lead to eight teams that would lead to 16 teams that would eventually impact the greatest regular season in sports.

"You have to make sure you don't totally destroy the foundation of the sport for minimal gain," Kramer said.

The ultimate tipping point as a whole may have been 2011, a year full of scandal off the field and more lack of fulfillment on it. The BCS title game participants were decided by the closest margin since the formula was adjusted in 2004. Big 12 champion Oklahoma State, at No. 3, finished .0086 behind No. 2 Alabama.

For the first time in the BCS era, a team that didn't win its conference won the BCS title. Kramer favors a system that would reward only conference winners. Applying that model to the BCS, in 10 of the 14 years of its existence, at least one team that did not earn its conference's BCS automatic berth was in the top four. Last year there were two -- Alabama and Stanford.

"And to me, the laughable one is the coaches poll," Matthews said.

The 60 coaches who vote in the poll continue to have a direct hand in awarding themselves and their friends millions in BCS money. Will that change? Does it matter?

Those issues, it turns out, are the easy ones. There is the when to play the games. Most major colleges have exams during December. Yes, that argument sounds hypocritical. Yes, FCS (Division I-AA) Division II and Division III somehow find a way around exams in their playoffs. But FBS (formerly Division I-A) is different. There is more scrutiny. After all the abuses, the BCS presidents would be perceived as giving ground if they scheduled games during exam periods.

Networks would likely want the two semifinals played before Christmas to maximize advertising dollars. But once again there are the presidents who have indicated they want the season to end closer to Jan. 1. The 2011 BCS title game in Glendale, Ariz., was the latest end to a season (Jan. 10). We're talking more games in a smaller window.

A plus-one could possibly work on the 2012 calendar. The season ends on Saturday, Dec. 1. The two semifinals could be played two weeks later between Dec. 14-17. The championship game would follow on or close to Jan. 1. But what about butting up against the NFL? The BCS has traditionally played games on weekdays if NFL games were involved on Saturday or Sunday. But playing last month's Sugar Bowl on a Tuesday was one factor in there being 12,000 empty seats in the Superdome.

"An obvious time to me to play the championship game is the down week before the Super Bowl, but within driving distance of the Super Bowl," Matthews said.

Even that pie-in-the-late-January-sky idea may be on the table. The stewards of college athletics feel compelled to do something. As mentioned, it was not a good year with scandals popping up all over. On the field, lower TV ratings indicated that an LSU-Alabama rematch was a regional phenomenon, not one of particular national interest. West Virginia's blowout of Clemson in the Orange Bowl was the least-watched BCS game. Ever.

Those stewards also admit the chase for coveted BCS status has contributed to conference realignment. That's why it is almost a certainty that the Mendoza Line between BCS and non-BCS, drawn by the commissioners themselves, is likely to go away.

In short: There has to be something better.

"What has been the cause of it is this rampant commercialism in intercollegiate athletics," said Tulane president Scott Cowen. "And this shift from being an intercollegiate sport to the professional model. That exacerbated a difficult situation."

As Cowen probably noticed, the commercialization of college sports is well down the road. Thirteen months ago, Nike used laser technology to cast its logo on the side of Camelback Mountain in Phoenix in the lead-up to the BCS title game. One of the sidebars to that game was the corporate battle between Under Armour (which sponsored Auburn) and Oregon (Nike).

Nine years ago Cowen used the leverage of possible government intervention to get more access for non-AQ conferences (WAC, MAC, Conference USA, Mountain West, Sun Belt). What followed was a golden age of sorts as non-AQs Boise State, Utah, Hawaii and TCU played in major bowls.

That door cannot close with a plus-one.

"The most important thing we have now is the performance of the non-AQ teams," Cowen said. "That is more powerful than anything. The argument back in 2003 was, 'You guys can't compete in the major bowls at the same level we are.' That particular hypothesis has been soundly refuted."

Funny how poverty changes your perspective. Only a handful of the 120 FBS athletic departments actually make money. Operating expenses in football for the six BCS leagues was $240 million in 2010, an average of $40 million per conference. Football is the financial motor that funds everything from equestrian to volleyball. A plus-one windfall could begin to address those shortcomings.

Unlike previous years, a new postseason would bring multiple, and new, bidders with money to burn. By 2016, the Big Ten, Big 12 and Big East will have renegotiated new deals. Industry sources indicate that NBC Comcast desperately needs content for NBC Sports Net and its multiple cable platforms.

"There will be competitive dynamics [for a plus-one] -- three probably four, five interested bidders, no question," one industry source said. "NBC? Very attractive."

Think of all three playoff games on one network, or possibly parceled out to multiple rights-holders ala the NFL with Fox, ESPN, NBC and CBS. With the current BCS sagging, ratings are out there to be had with more postseason certainty. In the BCS era, college football has become the nation's second-most popular sport with a bullet.

No wonder the dollar comparisons are to the NFL, America's runaway No. 1 sport. For years, BCS leaders have been criticized for leaving money on the table in exchange for power over the non-automatic qualifying underclass. With the elimination of AQ status everyone, in theory, will have an equal shot at the plus-one. And money won't be a problem -- at least less of a problem.

Another issue will be distribution. Big Brother is watching. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan blasted the BCS during the NCAA Convention in January. He said the BCS contributed "zero" to student-athlete academic success. While that's far from the truth -- the likes of Florida and Texas write checks back to the university annually -- the rhetoric does intimidate.

Utah attorney general Mark Shurtleff is still planning on suing the BCS by the end of this month. Never mind that his state's flagship school, Utah, is now one of the BCS "haves" in the Pac-12.

"What happens with the new money? The new money shouldn't end up in the pockets of coaches and assistant coaches and athletic directors," said Matthew Sanderson of BCS watchdog, PlayoffPAC. "A good portion of the new revenues should end up in a fund for student-athletes."

Currently, the 55 schools in the five non-AQ conferences split 9 percent of that $180 million. The future promises more money as well as a bigger cut. Can the conference commissioners be trusted to build a more credible system despite themselves?

As the discussion heats up can those 12 not-yet-angry men stay that way?

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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