Debunking The Myth That The BCS Helped College Football

“The other undisputed truth: National interest in the sport's regular season skyrocketed in large part due to the BCS championship race.” – Stewart Mandel,, 4/26/2012

“For all its faults, and partly because of its faults, it was the driving force behind college football becoming the second most-popular sport in the country.” – Jon Wilner, San Jose Mercury News, 6/26/2012

When I read things like this, I want to take my laptop and smash it over my head. Somewhere along the line, the myth of the BCS became a generally approved truth – the BCS helped drive interest in college football.

1998 rose bowl
Of course, the problem is that it’s not true. The BCS did not help college football become the 2nd most popular sport in this country. You know what did? Television.

When a sportswriter lazily attributes the BCS with making college football a more national sport, they are conveniently overlooking the fact that college football was always a national sport. Who were the 33 million people that watched Miami play Penn State in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl? Where did the 40 million people who watched Notre Dame play Florida State in 1993 live?

In the decade before the BCS came to be in 1998, college football was already drawing ratings that put it in the discussion as the 2nd most popular sport in the country, especially after Major League Baseball going into the tank after the 1994 strike. If it weren’t for Michael Jordan, college football in 1997 would be in the exact same position as it is today – the 2nd most popular sport in the United States.

The BCS was created to give college football a true national champion. It seemed so simple. For most of the 1990’s, there were split champions and the Rose Bowl was the main culprit. If the BCS had existed – or if the Rose Bowl strict tie-ins with the Big Ten and Pac-10 did not – we would have had true national champions in 1991, 1994, 1996 and 1997. It seemed so simple.

But from the beginning, the BCS was doomed to failure because of a destruction of the values and traditions that college football had been built on – namely New Year’s Day. Hockey, for God’s sake, made an assault on the day. The Orange Bowl has been played on random Wednesday nights for years now in front of scores of empty seats and pitiful ratings. The BCS effectively took FOUR major bowl games and reduced them to ONE, which in most years was only the cause of more controversy and lackluster ratings.

The notion that controversy sells is, on its face, an acceptable premise – any publicity is good publicity. However, the ratings for BCS title games have consistently lagged behind the ratings of title games prior to the BCS, with the rare exception of 2002 and 2005 when the game matched the only 2 major college unbeaten teams. While the NFL has seen its ratings for title games and the Super Bowl go up, college football has been fighting a losing battle.

How can sportswriters claim the BCS has been good for college football when the most important games of the year lag in the ratings?

Which brings me back to my original point – the explosion of popularity in college football’s regular 
season can be directly attributed to the rise of live sports on cable television.

In 1998, the first year of the BCS, you would be lucky to view 7 games on a given Saturday. In 2012, I feel cheated if there aren’t 7 games on my television at NOON. College football was always popular – it’s that television executives had not realized this year.

In 1998, growing up in Connecticut, the Pac-10 was a distant, far-off conference that existed only in newspaper clippings and USC games against Notre Dame. When Washington was making a national title run in 1991, I was interested in their pursuit of perfection – I just could never watch them. Literally, only one of their games was air start to finish in Connecticut, a game against Nebraska. That’s it.

When Oregon ran a similar gauntlet in 2010, I was able to watch most of their season. With the impending Pac-12 network that should be available in my area through Comcast, I could conceivably end up watching every single Oregon game this year. The change has absolutely nothing to do with the BCS. It has everything to do with money.

It cannot be stated enough that the BCS did no good for the game of college football. Sadly, it appears the next version of the college football postseason may not either but that’s another post for another day. Today, we must implore lazy sportswriters to stop with the BCS nonsense.

College football, for about 30 years now, has been an undervalued television asset. The floodgates began to open when Notre Dame signed its legendary deal with NBC for home games. And the ratings showed, very quickly, that people were ready, willing and able to watch more college football. The SEC and Big East struck a deal with CBS in 1996 and the process had fully begun. The national interest was always there – television networks and conferences were hesitant to fully meet it, foolishly thinking games on television would hurt attendance.

Instead, it’s been the opposite. With the explosion of social media and live streaming, such as, it is now practically impossible for an I-A football game to be played without being aired somewhere.

Americans love football. Americans love college football. We love the pageantry. We love the traditions. We love the autumn rituals. We love spending 14 hours per week on our couches, wearing out our remotes.

We do not like the BCS. We did not like a system that changed annually while never providing the “true” national champion it set out to provide – coincidentally, the only thing it was set out to do.

We did not watch college football because of the BCS. We watched college football in spite of the BCS.

College football fans are riveted every fall by who will win the national championship. This was true in 1982, in 1992, in 2002 and 2012. The difference in 2012 is that with one mouse click, with one stroll through my guide of too many sports channels, with one streaming app – I can read and watch college football played anywhere in the country.

The BCS didn’t drive interest in college football. The fans did.

The BCS did absolutely no good for the sport of college football. Anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong.

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  1. Well said oh humble one. About time someone called ESPN out for its partisan leanings and total beat down of journalistic integrity. My journalism 101 class at RU taught me better than that. Screw Mark May ... Dr Lou will continue to make him look like a buffoon all season long ... Hopefully with a bit of Big East vengeance on his mind!

  2. "We watched college football in spite of the BCS."

    I like this line.


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