Track and Football, Part 2: Bowls Suck

I think the headline captures my opinion in a nutshell. I’d much rather see a playoff, but for different reasons than most who share my opinion.

There’s growing discontent with the college football bowl system. Besides the clamor from sportswriters to replace it with some kind of playoff (and it’s always unwise to assume the opinions of pundits accurately reflect those of participants, management, or the public at large), the fans are beginning to revolt as well. SI’s Stewart Mandel recently wrote about the generational change in attitude towards bowls:

Old farts like me remember the days when your team’s loftiest goal in any year was to get to a bowl game, and the national championship was just a poll that came out after the bowls, but most anyone under the age of 25 only knows the sport in the BCS era — which means they’ve been subjected to 13 years of angst. All they want is a better way to determine the national championship, and the bowls are seen primarily as obstacles.

This is not, however, why I think bowls suck.

(As an aside, I think another issue is that of a shift from local to national sports media. Decades ago, most of your sports news came from local newspapers, TV and radio, and the emphasis in talking about your team was local as well: rivalries and conference standings. These days virtually all sports media is national in scope, thus the context for discussing any particular college team is national as well, which means rankings and post-season action are the primary points of emphasis. But that’s not really germane to my main point below.)

My perspective is, as always, to look at how things affect what really matters: track and field. College track programs are being eliminated every year, always due to financial problems, and almost always because of football financial problems. Believe it or not, the bowls are the major part of those problems.

This is why I say bowls suck: they suck money away from college athletic departments. While bowls officially pay out money to participating teams, it doesn’t quite work out exactly as it appears. Those monies end up going to the conferences to be split up evenly among all members. Teams do get reimbursed out of that fund for travel costs, but what the conferences will pay rarely covers the true costs. And then there are other issues.

Matt McGowan at RunOhio.com has researched the problem.

The Arizona Republic separately obtained records from individual public universities that played in BCS bowls for the past six years to determine, on an individual basis, how many schools lost money. Records dating beyond six years were incomplete. The Republic’s analysis showed that 41 percent of public universities playing in BCS games reported losses.

In the 2011 Orange Bowl – Virginia Tech’s athletic department reported a $421,046 loss. The cost to play in the Orange Bowl, largely based on terms set by the Bowl Championship Series, outstripped the amount of bowl money the team received.

Virginia Tech would have lost even more money had the Atlantic Coast Conference not spent nearly $1.2 million to help. The team, required to buy a block of tickets as a condition of being in the bowl, was unable to resell all of them before game time; the school’s conference bought out 9,500 remaining seats.

Virginia Tech would have lost $1.3 million in 2008, $2.2 million in 2009 and $1.6 million in 2011 had the ACC not stepped in and subsidized a portion of those losses. Even with the ACC subsidies, Virginia Tech lost money all three years.

And remember, that’s a BCS bowl and a BCS conference. A team from a lower-tier league with a significantly smaller fan base and little to no help from the conference can come out even worse. Among the biggest problems is ticket sales. As with Virginia Tech above, attending teams are required to buy a block of tickets, which they then sell to their fans. If they don’t sell them all—and even most BCS teams don’t—they eat the loss.

Who sucks up the money? The bowl committees (who assume basically no financial risk in putting on the games) and the TV broadcasters (who get programming much cheaper from bowls than if the NCAA sponsored a playoff).

Remember the Fiesta Bowl scandal last year? (Given all the other recent scandals in college football, it seems long ago and rather innocent.) Turns out a bunch of the money the Fiesta Bowl sucked in regularly gets blown on strippers, politicians, the bowl chairman’s birthday party, and other such things that have no real business purpose. The Fiesta Bowl may have been the most flagrant violator of law and/or ethics when it comes to wasting money, but it’s far from the only one. Bowls in general operate this way; they accumulate money from college athletic departments. It’s what they do.

I see no real way to reform the bowl system, and no reason to try. A playoff would be better for college football, not only because it would crown an unquestioned national champion, but because it would end the unsustainable money hole that is the bowl system. How to set up the playoff would be limited only by your imagination. I’d go with a 24-team tourney (top 8 teams get byes in the first round) and set it up so that the round of eight was on New Year’s Day, with those four games permanently held in Pasadena, Dallas, New Orleans and Miami, in order to maintain the only semblance of tradition remaining in the bowl system. But really, there’s no end to the number of ways you could do this. Best of all, the financial risk of competing in football’s post-season would no longer be borne by the teams competing in it.

Yes, it would be good for football, but even better for all the other sports. How’s that, you ask? Money, which every other sport is short on.

The NCAA’s basketball tournament is the single most successful thing the organization does, and the television rights to it is a cash cow—money that the NCAA then redistributes to member institutions, in no small part based on each school’s number of sports and number of grants-in-aid (scholarships). The more sports you have and the more scholarships you give out, the more money you get. The NCAA basically helps defray the cost of running each team. When a school cuts scholarships or a sport, they lose out on that money (about $30,000 per sport and $3,000-$4,000 per scholarship in 2010). Granted, it’s not even close to the entire cost of running a team, but it’s hardly insignificant.

Here’s the thing: if a college football playoff took place, the television rights package would dwarf that of the basketball tournament. There would be far more money coming into the NCAA, and thus more money going back out to its member institutions. Right now a university loses maybe $50,000 to $80,000 in NCAA funds when it cuts a track team. But what if it stood to lose $250,000 instead? At some universities, that’s more than the cost of the whole program. It would create a completely different set of calculations for athletic directors. Adding track programs might become more common than cutting them.

Let’s do the math. A $500 million broadcast rights deal over 12 years was just announced by ESPN and the NCAA. It sounds like a lot, until you divide it by 12 years and by 300+ D-I member institutions. You get somewhere south of $130,000 per college per year. The TV rights to the NCAA D-I basketball tournament went for $10.8 billion over 14 years, which breaks down to just over $2.2 million per college per year. I’m just speculating here, but I think an NCAA football playoff would probably generate another $5 million per college per year, maybe triple that if it were only shared among FBS teams.

Bowls suck money from colleges, and are more or less the source of the unsustainable nature of today’s college athletics. A playoff would send money back to colleges, with the emphasis on broad-based athletic programs. There is no greater reason to create a college football playoff.

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