Why We Shouldn't Celebrate the College Football Playoff Just Yet

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This afternoon, the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee will meet in Washington, D.C., to hear – and possibly approve – a proposed four-team playoff plan for college football. For many fans, if the playoff plan is approved, the mere fact that we now have a “final four” of college football will sufficient to quell years of BCS hatred.

It is indeed a big day and long overdue. Simply consider the lead of this 1967 AP article: “A plan of five of the nation’s leading football coaches, all of them bowl veterans, agreed Tuesday that a plan could be devised to determine the national collegiate championship without hurting the existing bowl games.” Well, after nearly five decades, the powers-that-be have finally come up with a plan for a limited playoff that protects the sacrosanct bowls. But at what cost?

Most of the discussion about plan that is finally approved will focus on the selection committee that will determine the four teams and the possible controversies that will likely ensue. And there will be some discussion of how the system will (likely) incorporate the bowl games into the semifinals and where the final games might take place. But there will be virtually no discussion of the fact that hundreds of millions of dollars are being left on the table.

Rather than bidding out the two semifinals game – as will happen with the final game – college football is poised to simply hand over these must-watch games to the bowls. Rather than maximizing the revenues flowing back into public universities and schools by staging these two semifinal games as actual playoff games (as is done in every other NCAA sport), college football’s powers-that-be are turning down hundreds of millions of dollars in order to protect the “traditions” of the bowls. This at a time when state and school budgets are being slashed. Worse, it’s happening at a time when student debt is exploding, in part because of the fees paid to subsidize college athletic programs.

Take Northern Illinois University, whose president, Dr. John Peters, is on the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee. NIU students kicked in $8.8 million in 2011 to subsidize the athletic department and the university and state kicked in another $8 million. That means 69% of NIU’s $24 million athletic budget last year came from students and the public. Why are they being asked to subsidize a system that is so willing to turn down hundreds of millions of dollars? This is a question that Peters himself could – and should, but likely won’t – ask his fellow committee members today in Washington.

The cozy relationship between the bowl organizations and the conference commissioners who are actually running college football continues. And the universities lucky enough to play in the semifinal games will likely continue to lose money by playing in the games, forced to buy up large blocks of expensive tickets and stay in expensive hotels receiving kickbacks from the bowl organizations. The conferences will cover the losses because the money will head back to the conferences first rather than directly to the schools.

It didn’t have to be this way. The two semifinal games could have easily been played at the home stadiums of the higher seeds, as they do in the other divisions of NCAA football. Visiting teams wouldn’t be required to buy up large blocks of expensive tickets because home fans would have immediately scooped up any remaining ones. The games would have brought millions in revenue to a couple college communities per year. But there was virtually no actual campus-level discussion as was promised.

This aspect of the process is extremely disconcerting and warrants Congressional investigation. When tax-exempt universities are turning down hundreds of millions dollars per year and instead shouldering the costs on students and taxpayers, how is it not Congress’ job to ask how this happened?

So while most fans are celebrating the official announcement of a four-team playoff (which is indeed better than the system that has preceded it) keep in mind that college football – and by extension, college athletics and our entire system of higher education – remains firmly in the control of a cartel that cares more about protecting its own profits than fairly and equitably maximizing revenues for the benefit of all.

The BCS lives in spirit, if not name, going forward. Rumors of its death are greatly exaggerated.

Ed. Note: Due to a site glitch, this article ran about 12 hours later than it was supposed to. Our apologies.

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