Tuesday, October 27

The BCS Agenda Delivers the "Best"

It's time once again to take a look at the BCS. Many other bloggers, writers and pundits are playing "what if" with Iowa, USC, TCU, Boise State and others, which is ironic considering the entire system is designed to remove all chance. Last season we took a look at the computer polls, pointing out several of the flaws, while conceding the inherent problems of the polls, but now it's time to take aim at the whole of the system. Often times people will refer to BCS voters having an 'agenda,' here's a look at what that just might mean.

The BCS is the sports version of American Idol minus the teenie boppers voting on their cell phones. It's one big popularity contest. Some talking heads lament the possibility of the dark horses in the National Championship, 'Do you really want to watch Cincinnati vs. Alabama? Ugh', but that's not the way sports works (or should work). We didn't get LeBron-Kobe even though it would've gotten better ratings, because the Cavs lost. We haven't had a Manning Bowl, Yankees-Dodgers world series since 1981 or an all-Canada Stanley Cup Final in twenty years, because sports has no script. The great fallacy of the BCS and why some are tricked into believing the system is either a) working or b) is "better than what we had" lies in the desirability of the match-up. While various fanbases get upset annually, by and large the masses are pleased due to the marquee nature of the Championship Game. Look back at the Finals teams from all the major sports in the last decade. Every one of them has Tampa Bays, Georgia Techs, Carolina Hurricanes, Arizona Cardinals and New Jersey Nets sprinkled through out them and yet the BCS has never had a team that's not one of the winningest or iconic programs of the last twenty years. Look quickly at the list of teams that have competed for the crystal football since the BCS came about: Oklahoma (4x), Ohio State (3x), Florida State (3x), Florida (2x), Miami (2x), USC (2x), LSU (2x), Texas, Nebraska, Tennessee and Virginia Tech. Not one dark horse program and of those only Virginia Tech is not considered football royalty, but in addition to being one of only two BCS conference teams undefeated that season (going into the bowl) they also had a once-in-a-lifetime dynamic player in Michael Vick. On the flip side, consider the lesser teams that have been part of the discussion, but ultimately left out of the game: Kansas St., Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Auburn, Wisconsin, and Louisville among others. Even among the power players there's a pecking order, with several seemingly deserving teams being hurdled by late season voting shenanigans. There's a reason. College football is the golden goose of sports and the select few who get those golden eggs annually are not interested in sharing.

Another primary difference between the BCS and American Idol; the BCS voters have a vested interest in the outcome. It's difficult to assess how much being a voter for the national championship is worth, but it certainly has value. Being voters for the National Champion gives the pollsters' opinions weight, generates more exposure for them and their employers and therefore puts more money in their pocket. Inserting a non-BCS conference team into the national championship may not be the death knell for the current system, but establishing the precedent could lead to the erosion of the system that gives the writers the current stature they enjoy. Not to go all conspiracy theorist, but the BCS polls being released midway through the season is no coincidence. College football enjoys the most passionate fanbases of any sport in America, other rankings provide us with a general lay of the land week to week and the top teams know from this point on the must win out in order to ensure their place in a BCS bowl. So why do they need to be released? College basketball doesn't seed March madness weeks out and inform us who's in and who's out. Could it not be argued that the BCS is unwilling to take a multi-million dollar gamble by preventing the pollsters from seeing how the rankings stack up before the final week? Let's say Iowa stays perfect and finishes ranked third in the polls behind the SEC and Big 12 champions, but as it stands the computers love the Hawkeyes and could potentially push them into the National Championship game. If you stood to make millions more on a marquee national championship game, particularly in a down economic time, would you take the chance that Iowa could unseat Texas by not releasing the results until the final day? This way pollsters are able to see which teams the computers will eliminate (Boise State) and conversely the pollsters can see which teams the computers love and need to be wary of, so they can justify them down slightly in the polls. Consciously or subconsciously, pollsters will do what they think is needed to ensure the "best" national championship match-up. We saw this manipulation at work last year with Oklahoma receiving a late push in the polls on the strength of the margin of victory over Texas Tech.

Even more so than the voters, the primary TV networks benefit from always having a chalk match-up in the title game. ESPN and CBS both root for the SEC and ESPN has contracts with all of the BCS conferences. If a Mountain West team were to play for a national championship, it would be a tremendous boost to the Versus network. While it seems ludicrous to suggest at this point, but having the National Champion of college football and (dare I say) the NHL would provide a tremendous foothold for Versus towards creating a dent in the juggernaut that is ESPN and we know they don't like competition in Bristol. ESPN loves their "bracket busters" in college basketball, but why not in college football? They want to protect their interest in the big conferences. ESPN stays out of the picture when it comes to non-conference scheduling in college football, but they regularly pitch ideas like the ACC/Big 10 challenge in basketball, because they know those games will be money makers and the conferences need not worry about the impact on teams making the NCAA tournament. In college football, they don't have that luxury and playing such games (after the Kickoff Classic) only serves to potentially hurt their investments. When listening to the talking heads at any of these networks, remember that they themselves are in invested in these conferences and seeing someone else's team in the national championship making the other guy money instead of them, isn't in their best interest. (That said, I believe you will see ESPN slowly turn up the heat on the possibility of a college football playoff, but that's a discussion for another day.)

Discussing the "what if" scenarios of college football through out the season can be equal parts fun and maddening, but in reality few if any of those scenarios have any chance of coming to fruition regardless of the outcomes on the field because they just don't fit the agenda. The big six conferences rely on their guaranteed money from BCS games and are not eager to share and both the voters and the TV networks have vested interests in delivering what those conferences want. Unfortunately, the best sport America has is currently run like Olympic figure skating. Style points and what flag you play under are just as important as performance. There is a man behind the curtain and he has no interest in getting the right National Championship game, only the best one. It's the only way they can keep their money and the masses satisfied. That's the BCS, the Business of College Sports.

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