Playoff system not about fixing anything -- except big schools' wallets

by | National Columnist
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College football's power brokers are all smiles after announcing the new playoff format. (AP)  
College football's power brokers are all smiles after announcing the new playoff format. (AP)  

The incremental triumph of a four-team college football playoff seems to agree with most folks, and that's all well and good. When you hate the devil you know so much that the devil you don't has to be better by sheer process of elimination, then change is automatically good.

I just wonder about another old adage -- Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts.

And no, my Greek brethren and sistren, this is has nothing to do with your nationality, so calm the hell down.

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But this victory for the playoff lobby comes at a price -- namely, that the rich are getting richer, and fewer, and more powerful and less accountable, and that should be its own concern once the balloons and confetti get swept off the floor.

That's always been the under-examined piece of this palace coup. The cartel of the bowl games is not being replaced by a better way to present and operate the business of college football, but a bigger and ultimately meaner cartel. And the bowl system wasn't dealt this slow motion blow because they were a cartel, but because they were an inefficient one.

Put another way, when the ratings for most of the bowls dropped so precipitously, the schools recognized the crisis and decided to, well, re-monetize. In doing so, they will start squeezing better deals for themselves from the bowl committees, and ultimately some of these bowls will simply die for lack of viability.

But it was the money -- and the ratings -- that killed them, not a sudden come-to-Jesus moment for the football powers. They just finally figured out a better way to undilute their shares of the pie by becoming the cartel rather than merely participating in it.

(Along the way in this story, Dan Wetzel's book, "Death To The BCS," must be credited for helping expose the bowl system and jump-start a process that was going to happen eventually anyway. The book is near-required reading, especially the sex scenes with Big Jim Delany).

But here's the problem, and no, this is not a defense of the BCS, which history will find was merely a precursor to what comes next. The problem is that the power has now shifted to the big football schools, and when they find that four teams are not enough of a playoff structure, it will shift that way even more.

And the real argument will not be four teams, or eight teams, or 16 teams, or who picks them, anyway. It will be, as it has always been, how the money gets split, and the betting is as it has always been, that it will be split among the 64 or so members of the 2Big22SeCPac Conference, not among the more general populace, and not among the bowl committees.

In other words, the big and powerful got bigger and more powerful, and say what you want about the myriad flaws of the BCS, bigger and more powerful hasn't really worked to the benefit of the general populace very often.

That's the worrisome part of this -- that the power schools merely amassed more money and leverage, and have even less compunction to make the substantive changes that would actually be good for the players and fans. Theirs is the rising tide that raises only their own boats, and we will see soon enough how many boats get sunk in the process.

As for the other casualty in this, the story of the student-athlete, well, raising that issue is basically talking about a corpse anyway. The academic objection to a playoff system was always a hypocritical masterpiece anyway, because college football isn't best value-neutral and more often antithetical to education. It's about generating money, and the only difference in this new system, or the improvements to it that will come eventually, is that the presidents and commissioners and athletic directors will stop lying about it. They never cared, we never cared, and the players who did care were long ago weeded out in most places.

No, what happened Tuesday was that, after seeing a groundswell of disinterest toward most bowls, and the way many bowls got paid, the big schools rose up and snatched the bowls from the top end. They'll either snatch the others or kill many of them off, depending on whether it pencils out economically. The rich united, applied their leverage, and ended up richer.

Which isn't exactly the same as the revolution from below this is being described as being. The business of college football trimmed its toenails and declared it a heart transplant. It created a way to cut out a few more middlemen, and will cut out more as the process evolves.

And that's not a revolution. That's just layoffs.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast Sports Bay Area (CSNBayArea.com)

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