Monday, May 24, 2010

Mountain West fires back at BCS

From Sports Illustrated

The BCS fired back at Washington last week with a long letter in which BCS coordinator Bill Hancock, in the nicest possible way, asked Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and his congressional cronies to butt out and let the Old Boy Network keep running college football with the completely voluntary BCS. On Monday, the Washington-based law firm representing the Mountain West Conference and Boise State fired back at the BCS by presenting an intriguing question.

Why does the BCS offer automatic bids to conferences that don't hold up their end of the bargain competitively or economically? And why do some major bowls continue to do business with the group when they know they're going to get lower ratings and draw teams that bring fewer fans? Using data available on the Web sites of the BCS and the NCAA, attorneys at Arent Fox showed that since the end of the 2006 season, the Mountain West and WAC champions that have played in BCS bowls have, on average, been ranked higher, drawn better TV ratings and brought more fans to BCS games than the ACC and Big East champions -- which are guaranteed a spot in a BCS bowl because the ACC and Big East are part of the cartel that created the BCS in 1998.

This information isn't new, but this is the first time anyone has presented the data this way. It begs another question: Why do the ACC and Big East still hold automatic qualifying spots if they can't outdraw or beat in the ratings conferences with far fewer advantages? Obviously, the ACC and Big East beat the WAC and Mountain West in attendance and ratings during the regular season, but, as BCS leaders often point out, the BCS only controls college football's postseason.

Nothing can be done about this now, because all the contracts are signed through 2014. But when the BCS deal comes up for renewal, these questions should be asked. Because if the conferences and bowls that make up the BCS aren't acting in their own economic and competitive best interests, they're at best extremely poor businesspeople -- at worst guilty of collusion.

So with all due respect to Hancock and his request that the government butt out of the business of more than 100 taxpayer-funded universities, maybe the Justice Department has some evidence if it wants to investigate whether the BCS violates the Sherman Antitrust Act.

(A note before we go any further. The proposed Big Ten expansion and possible domino effect could render this discussion moot. The Big East and Big 12 could look radically different, and that could change the dynamics of the automatic qualifying berths. For now, though, we'll operate on the assumption that college football's power structure will remain essentially the same.)

BCS organizers have argued that schools such as Utah and Boise State would get far less without the BCS. That's entirely true. In his letter, Hancock argued that the 2008 Utah team would have played in the Las Vegas Bowl instead of the Sugar Bowl without BCS rules forcing one of the four BCS bowls to take the Utes. What BCS folks always fail to mention, though, is that those rules came into existence only after BCS leaders were dragged before Congress and threatened with government intervention.

So what do the Mountain West and WAC get for providing teams that make more money for the BCS' bowl and television partners than their ACC and Big East counterparts? They get to split their share of the money, the five have-nots receive about the same amount as an AQ conference that puts two teams in BCS bowls, with Conference USA, the MAC and the Sun Belt.

Hancock always argues that the five have-nots are welcome to split their share of the dough any way they wish, but consider this hypothetical. Let's say establishes a bonus pool for the writers who cover college sports and allows us to vote on how the pool is split. I have no hard data on this, but let's say Stewart Mandel brings far more traffic to the site than myself or college basketball writer Luke Winn because of his dazzling prose, devastating good looks and guilty-pleasure Lost podcasts. Let's say the discrepancy is so great that Mandel clearly deserves to keep all of the bonus money. How would Winn and I vote? We'd take the money, of course. It's human nature to look out for #1.

And that's exactly what happens with the have-nots in the BCS. This past year, the Mountain West sent TCU to the Fiesta Bowl and received $9.8 million. The WAC sent Boise State to the Fiesta Bowl and received $7.8 million. Conference USA, the MAC and the Sun Belt, which did nothing, received $2.8, $2.1 and $1.5 million, respectively. At the BCS meetings last month, Hancock said that split was the will of those conferences. Balderdash, said Alan Fishel, the Arent Fox attorney who represents the Mountain West and Boise State. "The BCS has created that fiction," Fishel said.

The Mountain West may play its way into the Old Boy Network for the final two years of this cycle. We know the bottom of the conference is keeping the Mountain West from reaching the necessary level to earn an automatic qualifying berth, but the league might soon poach Boise State from the WAC, and the Broncos would bolster all the average rankings the BCS uses to determine whether a have-not receives a golden ticket.

Still, why are golden tickets going to leagues that don't bring in additional gold? On Monday at the Big East meetings in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., Big East commissioner John Marinatto said losing the conference's contractually guaranteed automatic bid is a non-issue. But why should the BCS extend the ACC and Big East's automatic qualifying status the next time around if they can't bring as much to the table as the Mountain West? The argument that the AQ conferences are more valuable commercial properties than the non-AQs is entirely correct, but all AQs are not created equal. The Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-10 and SEC have pulled their weight for the BCS in the past five years by bringing in monster ratings and by filling stadiums. The Big East and ACC have not.

For sending Georgia Tech to an Orange Bowl played with empty seats and fewer television viewers than the Fiesta, the ACC received a cool $17.7 million. For argument's sake, let's assume the Fiesta Bowl's 8.23 rating, compared to the Orange's 6.80, was a result of the novelty of watching two teams from outside the power structure playing in a BCS bowl. That still doesn't explain why Georgia Tech didn't even sell its entire 17,500-ticket allotment.

That ratings discrepancy comes into sharper relief if we travel back a season. Utah's win over Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl received a 7.8 rating. Virginia Tech's win over Cincinnati in the 2009 Orange Bowl received a dismal 5.4 rating. Even more telling, the Sugar Bowl had a choice between the Mountain West's Utah and the Big East's Cincinnati. Sugar Bowl officials chose the Utes. The Mountain West received $9 million from the BCS for that season. The Big East, with a team in less demand than the team the Mountain West provided, received almost twice that.

So what will the BCS do next time around? Based on recent bowl ratings, only four conferences actually deserve automatic qualifying spots. If the government does back off and allows the BCS to keep running college football's postseason, it will be interesting to watch the next round of BCS contract negotiations. If, during those negotiations, the BCS continues to give more money and more power to conferences that can't hold up their end of the bargain, then maybe government intervention is necessary.

Because either the people running the BCS are fiscally irresponsible, or they're trying to keep the Old Boy Network in power no matter the cost.

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