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Playoff or BCS: Is there really any difference?

By: Zack Hadley

It’s truly the best time of year to be a college football fan. The season is fresh, the hype around your favorite team is real, and anything is possible. Right? Well maybe a few weeks into the college football season, things haven’t gone so well for your favorite team, and the sad reality of college football these days is that only a few teams have a real shot at the national championship.[1] If your team lost in one of the opening weeks of the season, you can almost certainly kiss that championship dream goodbye.[2]

But wait, don’t we have a glorious anything-can-happen playoff system designed to give everyone their shot at glory? You must think I’m describing that old Bowl Collegiate Series that drew so much criticism a few years back. We couldn’t possibly have such a flawed system in modern day athletics.

Well, if you think the problems that plagued the BCS have gone away, you’re dead wrong. The problems of the BCS are familiar to most devout college football fans- the same teams competed for the top prizes every year, thus the same teams earned the most money for their programs, thus the same teams recruited the top high school athletes every year, and no matter how good an outsider team was (I’m looking at you 2008 University of Utah) no one outside college football’s royal family got a chance at a championship.[3] As Saturday Night Live so aptly explained in its own facetious way- the BCS combined all the things football fans love most about sports: computers, ballots, and lobbying.[4]

The closed revenue-circles that the BCS created have been described as “a powerful cartel … openly colluding to monopolize postseason bowl games and unfairly distributing college bowl game revenues to a select group of schools.”[5] Fraught with potential violations of the Sherman Antitrust Act, the legal implications of continuing the BCS should have been enough to discourage its continued existence, but it would take congressional-and even presidential- criticism for the BCS to finally get shoved out the door for a new system.[6] The BCS finally disappeared in 2014 to give way to a totally “new” system: the college football playoff.[7] Every year four teams have their shot at the championship and college football fans, as well as legal critics, seem appeased for now.[8]

But are any of the problems of the BCS solved by the playoff? Is revenue distributed more equitably? The same teams and conferences receiving disproportionate revenue under the BCS continue to receive disproportionate amounts under the playoff.[9] Are conferences fairly represented? The same conferences continue to dominate playoff spots, and any upstart teams from outsider conferences are quickly dismissed as candidates because of their less prestigious history.[10] Are certain schools given preferential status in an arbitrary system? Teams with similar schedules and records are somehow judged against each other, with a limited committee of collegiate officials weighing whatever factors they feel pertinent to discuss to make their final determination.[11]

Now ask yourself. Is the College Football Playoff really any better than the BCS? The same teams that received the benefits of the BCS continue to benefit, to the detriment of everyone else. Unless you’re the figurative Floribama State fan, the college football playoff has failed you. The BCS isn’t dead. We just call it a playoff, and all the problems surrounding it aren’t going anywhere.

 

[1] Chris Chase, Why your college football team can’t lose in Week 1, USA Today (Aug. 28, 2014) http://ftw.usatoday.com/2014/08/ncaa-football-college-week-1-rankings-loss.

[2] Id.

[3] The University of Utah football team was not given a chance to play for the BCS National Championship despite ending the season as the sole undefeated team in the nation. Ray Glier, Perfect Utah Rolls Past Alabama in Sugar Bowl, The New York Times (Jan. 3, 2009) http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/03/sports/ncaafootball/03sugar.html?mcubz=3. See generally Katherine McClelland, Should College Football’s Currency Read “In Bcs We Trust” or Is It Just Monopoly Money?: Antitrust Implications of the Bowl Championship Series, 37 Tex. Tech L. Rev. 167, 169 (2004).

[4] Saturday Night Live: Season 34 Episode 12 (NBC television broadcast Jan. 10, 2009).

[5] McClelland, supra note 3.

[6] Nathaniel Grow, Antitrust & the Bowl Championship Series, 2 Harv. J. Sports & Ent. L. 53, 55 (2011).

[7] College Football Playoff Set to replace Bowl Championship Series in 2014, The Associated Press (April 24, 2013) http://www.ncaa.com/news/football/article/2013-04-23/college-football-playoff-set-replace-bowl-championship-series-2014.

[8] Id.

[9] Seventy-five percent of the income from the college football playoff is still allocated to schools from a “power 5” conference. Donna A. Lopiano, Ph.D., Fixing Enforcement and Due Process Will Not Fix What Is Wrong with the NCAA, 20 Roger Williams U. L. Rev. 250, 261 (2015).

[10] Chris Dufresne, Group of Five teams have been pushed aside, but they are making noise, Los Angeles Times (Oct. 24, 2015), http://www.latimes.com/sports/la-sp-college-football-dufresne-20151024-column.html.

[11] Controvery ensued when Ohio State was selected to the inaugural College Football Playoff over higher-ranked teams like TCU and Baylor.  Chuck Culpeper,  College Football Playoff field set but controversy lingers with Ohio State in, TCU snubbed, Washington Post (Dec. 7, 2014) https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/sports/wp/2014/12/07/college-football-playoff-field-set-ohio-state-in-tcu-snubbed/?utm_term=.12e6328d91a5.