Sunday, December 30, 2012

9 Easy Ways To Fix The College Football Bowl System

As I stayed up Sunday morning until 2am watching Michigan State play TCU in a surprisingly entertaining bowl game, three thoughts popped into my head.

1) I watch entirely too much football.
2) Strike that, you can never watch too much football.
3) I wish there were more people in the stands to enjoy this game.

best bowl game
For the second straight year, Michigan State ended its season with an exciting victory in a half-empty stadium. The lead up to this year’s game focused almost exclusively on Michigan State’s inability to get its fans to fork over thousands of dollars to watch its 6-6 team play a 7-5 team from the Big 12.

I’ve written before about making bowl games more fun, but that was presented on a very micro, personal level. The bowl system as a whole is broken and, with the college football playoff arriving in 2014, there is an opportunity to fix it.

The saying “a rising tide raises all boats” will need to be put into action here. The bowl system needs an overhaul. The narrative being hammered home by every sportswriter or fan, especially those with access to Twitter, is that bowl games mean nothing, no one is watching and no one is attending the games. They are right, to a degree. Ratings have been down. Attendance at most games has declined.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Below is how the college football bowl system could be fixed in 9 easy ways, in no particular order.

Eliminate Conference Tie-Ins

The biggest problem for the bowls recently has been matchups that are not compelling. A huge reason for this goes back to conference tie-ins. The bowls should exist to give us exciting, interesting and unique matchups we don’t get to see in the regular season. Instead, we get Boise State/Washington in the Las Vegas Bowl 9 months before they play again. Or even worse, Iowa State/Tulsa just a few months after they already played.

My solution is simple: remove conference tie-ins for every game, past the conference champion. The conference champion of every game will have a tie-in somewhere, but that’s it. Let bowls become the independent, capitalism-driven entities they were when they were thriving. Why hamstring their selections? Let the free market take over. Let bowls battle each other for the best teams in order to create the best matchups. Let them pick regional teams to fill up the stadium or national teams to light up the ratings.

Look at what happened to the two Orlando bowls because of tie-ins. The Russell Athletic Bowl, tied to the Big East and the ACC, ended up with Rutgers and Virginia Tech in front of about 25 people. Rutgers at 9-3 made sense. Virginia Tech at 6-6, having its worst season in 20 years, did not. But what if the game could choose anyone they wanted? Maybe they’d still have Rutgers, but would match them up with local UCF, another 9-win team, to sell the place the out.

A similar scenario played out with the Capital One Bowl when the SEC and Big Ten forced them to take a pair of conference game losers in Georgia and Nebraska. While Georgia played admirably and may have been selected anyway, Nebraska gave up 70 points to Wisconsin and its fans are understandably a little wary of plunking down money to watch them get smashed again. The bowl game made its feelings pretty clear that it wanted Michigan or Northwestern instead. Why let the Big Ten bully them? Why let the Big Ten, in essence, bully the fans into watching a crappy game?

The lack of conference tie ins will also help to match up good teams from the non-BCS conferences. Utah State, Boise State and San Jose State all ended the year ranked but played subpar competition. Imagine if the Holiday Bowl could match up its ranked UCLA team vs. a ranked Boise State team? Imagine if the local Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl matched up ranked San Jose State against a Pac-12 team? What if Utah State played Washington in the Las Vegas Bowl, instead of smashing an overmatched Toledo team?

The possibilities are endless. And that’s the point.

Condense The Schedule

During last night’s Alamo Bowl, Sean McDonough described Capital One Bowl Week as the longest week of the year. Then he laughed. The dripping sarcasm made a point – the bowl season is way too long. Most of this can be attributed to the awful “double hosting” model that has the title game being played in mid-January and the bowl season stretching out a month.

With the new playoff coming, this is a perfect time for the NCAA to step in and say that all bowl games must be played by January 1, or January 2 if New Year’s Day falls on a Friday or Sunday. There’s no need for mid-week games after New Year’s. The new playoff system will fix part of the problem – no more Sugar Bowls on a Wednesday night when everyone is back to work. But we still have a BBVA Compass Bowl or a Bowl being played a week after New Year’s.

This will solve 2 issues. First, the attendance issues at some of these games will be helped by being played within the holiday season when time off from work is not a barrier to traveling. Second, it will add to the bowl fever. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that more games on a particular day brings more fans to their television sets. By spreading the games out, you’re spreading the audience out too. Of course, ESPN is a $40 billion entity that could not care less. It would help though.

Require 6 FBS Wins To Play in a Bowl Game

This is really aimed more at the regular season but would definitely help the postseason. In a not-so-distant past, wins over I-AA teams (now FCS) did not count toward bowl eligibility. There was no rule against the games but it was basically an exhibition. For a school like Alabama, getting to merely 6 wins is no concern so the game would stay. For a school like Ole Miss, where getting to 6 is more dicey in most years, throwing away a game would be a much more riskier proposition.

Look at Pitt. They are playing a bowl game with a 6-6 record. They played 2 FCS teams. They went 1-1 versus teams from a level below. They went 5-5 against FBS competition. Do they deserve to be rewarded with a bowl game, even if it’s Birmingham? Of course not.

By making the requirement 6 FBS wins, the NCAA will in a roundabout way eliminate the glut of FBS vs. FCS games that have done a terrible disservice to the first month of the college football season. Florida vs. Charleston Southern is lame. Florida vs. Louisiana-Lafayette has the potential for awesomeness. When in doubt, err on the side of awesomeness. A simple way to fix the regular season and the postseason? Clearly, this one makes way too much sense for college football.

Remove Bowl Bans as an NCAA Punishment

Miami. Penn State. Ohio State. North Carolina. Four name-brand teams. Four winning records. Four teams not playing the postseason. I get that teams on probation should not be able to win a national title – so keep the playoff ban in place. But why a bowl ban?

Who is punished by Penn State not playing an exhibition bowl game? Is it Sandusky? Nope, he’s in jail. Is it Joe Paterno? Nope, he was already fired. Is it the school president or other officials involved in the cover up? Nope, they’re all gone from Penn State. Instead, the players and the fans, who had nothing to do with the heinous crimes, are forced to pay the price for the next four years.

The NCAA can punish via lost scholarships and make it more difficult for teams to make bowl games. They should not punish kids who had nothing to do with the violations from spending a week in, say, San Diego and visiting SeaWorld.

There is also the matter of making the conference championships and top bowl games actually mean something. This year and last, a 6-7 team will play in a bowl game (UCLA in 2011, Georgia Tech in 2012) because the true winner of a division was on probation. This year, Wisconsin will play in the Rose Bowl despite having 5 losses and finishing THIRD in its division. Want to punish Ohio State by not giving it a chance to play in the four-team playoff? I’m on board with that. But don’t ruin the Rose Bowl. Or the Big Ten title. You put Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, and push Wisconsin and Penn State into the bowl pool, and suddenly those matchups start to improve.

Create A True Bowl Selection Show

One of the best aspects of the NCAA Tournament takes place before a single second of play, when CBS gives us the brackets. There are no leaks on Twitter during the day – sources say VCU will be a #12 seed in the East bracket. We get everything at once and then spend the rest of Sunday night and Monday dissecting and digesting.

The bowl system is the complete opposite. Due to bowl tie-ins and contracts, some teams are locked in before Selection Sunday, Football Style, and the others are leaked during the day prior to the official BCS Selection Show. With the playoff looming, this has to change. Without conference tie-ins, it’s very possible.

The new rule would be as such – no bowl games can announce their matchup prior to the playoff being announced. That Sunday night after the conference championship games begins with the selection of the playoff teams, then the announcement of the other BCS bowls (or whatever name they give them) and then the rapid-fire announcement of the other 28 bowls. Is that something you would be interested in? Because there would be no tie-ins, you would go in without an inkling of who would be playing who or where. If you’re a Michigan fan, you could be tuning in to find out what city you’re traveling to. And instead of a couple Florida cities as choices, you could have 25 different destinations as possibilities and 50 different possible opponents.

I feel like people would like that.

Expand The Coverage Beyond ESPN

As recently as New Year’s Day 2007, there were bowl games on 3 broadcast networks. On this New Year’s Day, only the ESPN family of networks will be showing games. In total, 33 of the 35 bowl games will be televised by ESPN channels.

During today’s NFL action, CBS will promote the Sun Bowl, Fox will promote the Cotton Bowl and every other college bowl game will be ignored. This is good for ESPN. It is bad for the sport of college football. If we return the bowl games to the free market in creating matchups, maybe that would spur more networks to jump into the game. Especially with the NBC Sports Network, the CBS Sports Network and the rumored Fox Sports 1 ready to compete with ESPN, would the bowl season be a good place to start?

Imagine a bowl week with games on all four networks, competing for the best teams and best matchups? Imagine bowl games being promoted across all four network platforms, not just one*? Wouldn’t that get the casual fan involved?

*Fun story: last year on the day of the Cotton Bowl, I was working from home with SportsCenter on in the background. That night, Arkansas was playing Kansas State in a matchup of top 10 teams that would draw the highest non-BCS TV rating and the second-largest crowd of the bowl season. Do you know how many times ESPN talked about the game between 9am and 5pm? Zero. The God’s honest answer is zero. That is good for the sport, how?

Establish Attendance Criteria For Bowls To Remain

Everyone complains there are too many bowls. I tend to agree but if people are going and watching, then why get rid of them? Well, I think we’ve reached the point where these games need to prove they should survive as opposed to being propped by ESPN as cheap television programming. If a bowl game can’t get 25,000 people through the turnstile in 2 straight years, the game is done. Other games in other cities can replace them – I’m fine with 34* as the number. But if the stupid Military Bowl at decrepit RFK Stadium or the Beef O’ Brady’s Bowl in the worst stadium in America can’t draw 25,000, they don’t deserve to be around. Give another city a chance.

*People seem to not realize that the four-team playoff is actually reducing the number of bowl games. The BCS title game will remain, but those participants will have played in a previous game. So there will still be 35 games, but only 68 bowl eligible teams will be necessary. This is a subtle good thing.

Change The Ticket Selling Policies For Schools

By far, the worst scam in the bowl system is schools being forced to pay for tickets they likely won’t sell. Let’s end the scam. If we’ve established there are no tie-ins and bowls need to attract the best teams, this will eventually go away anyway. But it should be a reward to the school if they sell tickets, not a punishment. Making this go away will also eliminate the most dreaded of pre-bowl stories – the one in which a school can’t sell any tickets.

It’s actually a pretty easy fix from the bowl side and the school’s side. Let’s say the Alamo Bowl pays a school $4 million but $1 million is really tickets the school must sell. Change that. Make the payout $3 million and give the school its ticket allotment. If they sell them all at face value, then they make the $4 million. Or they can sell them for half-price and make an extra $500,000. Or they can give them away for free and settle for the $3 million. Whatever it is, remove the possibility that a school like UConn has to eat millions of dollars because its fans decided to buy tickets on StubHub and save hundreds of dollars. If UConn had been able to set its own price for tickets without worrying about losing money, those stories wouldn’t exist.

Give Away $1 Million For The Perfect Bowl Pool

Why not? ESPN tries with its Bowl Mania game with confidence points but how many of you actually play that for money? Conversely, how many of you do an NCAA Tournament Pool for money?

There will be 34 games. Pick the winner of each. If you go 34 for 34, you win $1 million dollars. Who wouldn’t be interested in that? It’s basically an oversized version of an NFL Knockout Pool with a great reward at the end. The simplicity may get people like myself to get a few friends to throw in 20 bucks with a winner take all to who picks the most winners.

Hey, we all love gambling, right? We should all love the bowl system too.

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Thursday, December 13, 2012

NBC Should Build The Perfect Big East

The Big East could have ruled college athletics with an iron fist.

That’s not hyperbole or the ranting of a delusional UConn fan who has watched the conference he loved disintegrate. It is a simple statement of fact.

Beginning with the asinine decision to exclude Penn State from the Big East in the early 1980’s and rejecting Joe Paterno’s vision for an Eastern football conference, the Big East has been doomed. College basketball ruled the 1980s in large part because college football couldn’t figure out what it had.

uconn the rent
By the time Notre Dame signed its NBC deal – the one that to this day continues to feed their independence – football had started to take over. The rise of cable television, namely ESPN, brought more exposure to the sport. Once the major independents, like Florida State, South Carolina and Penn State, started to join conferences, the arms race was on.

Mike Tranghese, then Big East commissioner, saw the future and built the Big East football conference. And for the 1990s, the Big East was as powerful as any conference. Miami, despite a probation lull in the middle of the decade, was a national power. Syracuse, with stars like Donovan McNabb, was a New Year’s Day fixture. Virginia Tech rose to prominence and then exploded with Michael Vick at the helm.

Few people remember that when CBS jumped back into the college football game in 1996, they aired Big East and SEC games. As a college freshman in 1999, I can vividly remember watching Michael Vick sprinting down the sideline against West Virginia during the 3:30 game on CBS – the prime timeslot now synonymous with the SEC.

It is ironic that the Big East’s basketball teams are destroying the league because the conference spent far too much effort appeasing them over the past 20 years. While Georgetown, Villanova and St. John’s have their value, the Big East powers worked as hard to make inconsequential schools like Providence and Seton Hall happy as they did for Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College.

There’s no need to rehash the demise of the Big East except to realize that the conference had everything that everyone wants, namely TV markets. The Big Ten poaches Rutgers. The ACC takes poaches anything. The Big 12 poaches West Virginia. Imagine if they had all stayed with the Big East.

When the Big East turned down the last ESPN offer, the idea was that a free market and a deep-pocketed buyer – Comcast/NBC, now Fox and its rumored Fox Sports 1 – would drive the price up dramatically.

College conferences are starting to take control over their finances. The “new” BCS will largely pay out directly to the conferences, cutting out the bowl game’s influence and financial cut. The Big Ten Network, the Pac-12 Network and the eventual SEC Network eliminates the middle man and puts a larger portion of the TV revenues in the school’s hands. As college football, after almost a century of being undervalued, finally finds it value, the Big East will cease to exist.

But what if it could be reborn? NBC is standing outside the ball with no date. ESPN has every conference and the future 4-team playoff. CBS has the SEC. Fox has the Big 12 and Pac-12, with enough games to push out its Fox Sports 1 channel. NBC has Notre Dame, but also a cable network that is currently a barren wasteland of hunting shows as the NHL does its best Big East impression and implodes.

The pitch is simple – NBC could take all the money it hasn’t been able to spend on the NFL or MLB or Pac-12 and funnel it into the Big East. For all the talk about exposure, academics and schedule strength, the decisions come down to money. Every single school that has changed conferences in the past 2 years has done so for money – from Nebraska to Quinnipiac.

What if NBC made an offer these schools couldn’t refuse? $50 million per year – and $50 million split up between 4 basketball-only schools. While that sounds like an absurd number, NBC has the cash and is that desperate. They have a cable sports network that is in fewer homes than ESPN and makes about, oh, 1/100th the profit. Think for a second about this lineup:

Big East – North
Boston College
Penn State

Big East – South
Virginia Tech
West Virginia

St. John’s
Notre Dame

12 teams for football with a title game at Yankee Stadium. A 16-team Big East tournament in Madison Square Garden. Every major market from DC to Boston – what the other conferences are fighting for – locked up in a big way, along with the state of Florida and the eastern Midwest.

NBC gets a national game to lead-in to its Notre Dame coverage. The NBC Sports Network instantly gets full distribution on the East Coast, expands nationally and gets to raise its subscriber fees. The strength of the conference puts its miles ahead of the ACC, past the Big Ten and neck and neck with the Big 12 & Pac-12 for the right to be 2nd behind the SEC.

Think about the rivalries on Thanksgiving weekend. Pitt vs. Penn State. UConn vs. Boston College. Syracuse vs. Rutgers. USF vs. Miami. Virginia Tech vs. West Virginia. Louisville vs. Cincinnati.

$650 million per year may sound crazy for college sports but is it? If NBC did this, they would own the Big East. There would be no worries about losing the TV rights – it would be their conference.

Tell me which school turns this offer down? After all we have seen in college sports in the past 10 years, there is not one school that would turn down $50 million per year. You think Georgetown would turn down $12.5 million per year when it’s about to see less than $1 million per year?

In the end, I know this isn’t reality. In fact, the only reason I wrote this is for the miniscule chance someone from Comcast reads this and thinks – “Hey, I’ve got these billions sitting here, might as well spend them.”

The Big East died today. There will be hundreds of thousands of words written about how great the league was and there will be millions of autopsies performed on the carcass by sportswriters, analysts and anyone with a Twitter account.

Ultimately, the Big East will represent a gigantic “What if?”

What if they accepted Penn State?

What if they stayed on CBS?

What if they didn’t try to appease the basketball schools?

What if they took the last ESPN offer?

What if John Marinatto didn’t find out about Pitt and Syracuse leaving from a press box?

What if any of the horrible, short-sighted decisions weren’t made?

What if the Big East still ruled college athletics?

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