Making College Football’s Postseason Fair, Legal and Ethical While Preserving its Unique Traditions

Abstract

Controversy continues to surround college football bowl games, especially when official championship events became the norm in professionals sports, college sports, end even college football in the lower division levels. The public demand for a “national championship game” led to the formation what is now called the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). The issue is now more than just of fan popularity, but also legality. There are public officials that believe the fact that undefeated teams from smaller universities continue to be excluded from the BCS title game, makes it a violation of the letter, if not the spirit, of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and that make advertising the BCS Championship Game as a “National Championship” is actually false advertising. The author, who has an educational background that specializes in college football bowl games, attempts to create a solution that preserves college football’s unique bowl tradition and resolves the legal and ethical issues surrounding the BCS.

The Every Bowl Counts (EBC 1-2-3) Plan

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) recognizes an official national champion and national championship event in every sport at every level except football in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) of Division One, which is the association’s marquis product, made up of 120 Division One athletic programs.

Bowl games are a college tradition dating back to 1902, ending college football’s regular season long before the National Football League (NFL) existed. In fact, the NFL played its first 12 seasons before having a championship game.

However, in today’s sport culture, fans expect to recognize a champion. An official national champion is recognized in all other levels of college football and every other NCAA sport.

But what has transpired in major college football is a tradition the brings exposure to various communities around the country, allows 34 teams to finish the season with a victory and allows coaches to take 3-4 extra weeks of practice to develop their younger players.

The fact that there is a national champion, albeit unofficial, is touted by those who defend the status quo. “Every week is a playoff,” University of Georgia Head Football Coach Mark Richt once said. Defenders of the status quo say that college football’s regular season is the most exciting in all of sports.

The popular demand for a national championship game was used as justification for the creation of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), which would allow the teams ranked No. 1 and No. 2 to play each other in a bowl game at the end of the season. The rankings system was based on a combination of the Associated Press (AP) media poll, the USA Today Coaches Poll and several computer-based ranking systems. Eventually, AP backed out of the process and the Harris Interactive poll was used in its place.

The ranking system and other aspects of the bowl culture have proven, over time, that conferences with larger, wealthier athletic programs and teams with a long tradition of successful football have an advantage in this system. Teams that have finished the season undefeated that are from smaller conferences do not have the option of changing conferences unless allowed by the conferences’ current members. Such a system has brought about questions from public officials as to whether this situation is a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Often used in cases involving football, the Sherman Anti-Trust act prohibits illegal monopolies that are used to suppress competition.

Bowl committees in the BCS (Rose, Allstate Sugar, FedEx Orange and Tostitos Fiesta) continue to host the “major” bowl games and make a lion’s share of the bowl money, but they collectively award automatic bowl bids to teams that are in the BCS conferences, which could also be interpreted as an illegal trust.

Three teams finished the regular season undefeated in 2009 without getting to play in the BCS “National Championship” game. Two of those teams were not in the aforementioned “major” conferences. Two other teams from outside the “major” conferences finished the regular season undefeated without playing in the BCS Championship game. The participants in the first 12 BCS championship games were all from the “major” conferences: The Big 12, Big East, Big 10, Atlantic Coast, Pacific 10 and Southeastern.

Also, denying undefeated teams a chance to play in the BCS Championship game has led to some critics saying that to promote the event as a “National Championship Game” is actually false advertising.

Public officials as well as fans have been critical of college football in its current state. But the author believes that to preserve the bowl tradition, the significant regular season and the integrity of the national championship process would require some thinking “outside the box.” College football is a unique sport genre and requires a unique approach to change. The process that the author is suggesting is partially inspired by the Major League Baseball All-Star Game as well as the Davis Cup professional team tennis tournament.

Some have suggested that the bowl games be used as venues for playoff games, but that would significantly decrease attendance as fans would be expected to travel on a week’s notice. The NFL does not even have a neutral-site postseason game until the final game, the Super Bowl. Small college football playoffs are structured the same way. Postseason events in other college sports have more than two university teams participating at each site.

Having a playoff outside the bowls would further decrease the interest in bowl games for the neutral fans. But the author believes there is a way to keep the fan interest in bowl games without making all of them into playoff venues.

Hence, the title of the proposal is called “Every Bowl Counts,” also called the “EBC 1-2-3” program.

I. Playoffs

  1. Schedule
    Upon conclusion of the college football bowl season, there will be a four-team playoff tournament sponsored by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) for the Division One Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). The semifinals of the tournament will be held 7-11 days after the conclusion of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) bowl games. The game now known as the BCS Championship Game will be discontinued.
  2. Participants
    The participants will be the winners of the four BCS bowl games, which will now be known as Playoff Bowl Games.
  3. Location
    The semifinal games will be played at the home stadiums of the higher-ranked teams in the field. The finals will take place at a neutral site.

II. Qualification

  1. For Playoff Bowl Games
    1. Ranking system — A ranking system will be developed to determine the “At-large” invitees to the Playoff Bowl Games and for seeding of the teams participating in such games. This system will be derived from a formula developed using regression analysis to determine the weight of factors that correlate with success in the previous 10 years of NCAA Division One Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoffs and Division Two playoffs. Ten years after the beginning of the EBC 1-2-3 program, the formula will be refigured to where it reflects factors contributing to success in the first 10 years of the Division One FBS playoffs.
    2. Automatic qualification — Certain conferences will be selected as “Automatic Qualifiers” each year. In order to obtain such status, teams from a conference must win three non-BCS bowl games, further known as Non-Playoff Bowls, during the previous season. Champions of these conferences will automatically receive an invitation to participate in Playoff Bowl Games.
    3. The Boise State Rule — Any team that is undefeated and has defeated 11 Division One FBS teams during the regular season (including conference championship games) will receive first priority in filling Playoff Bowl positions after the automatic qualifiers have been determined.
    4. Limitation — No conference will be represented by more than two teams in the Playoff Bowl Games.
    5. The ranking system alluded to in section IIA1 will be used to determine which teams fill the remaining positions in the Playoff Bowl Games after the provisions of sections IIA2 and IIA3 have been met.
  2. For Non-Playoff Bowl Games
    1. First-Tier Bowl Eligible Teams will receive first priority when being invited to Non-Playoff Bowl Games. To be classified as a First-Tier Bowl Eligible Team, a team must defeat six Division One FBS teams in its first 12 games of the regular season and finish either
      1. Among the top five in the standings of a non-divided conference (one that does not have a championship game) or
      2. Among the top three in a division of a divided conference (one that does have a championship game).
    2. Second-Tier Bowl eligible teams are ones that defeat six Division One FBS teams but do not meet the other criteria of First-Tier Bowl Eligible Teams. These teams can be invited to Non-Playoff Bowl Games once the First-Tier Bowl Eligible Teams have accepted their bowl invitations.

III. Matchups

  1. For Playoff Bowl Games
    1. Seeds — The system alluded to in Section IIA1 will be used to seed the playoff teams, first through eighth.
    2. Placement — The top four seeds will be assigned to bowl games according to their geographic location. The teams seeded 5-8 will be assigned according to their ranking (No. 1 vs. No. 8, No. 2 vs. No. 7, No. 3 vs. No. 6 and No. 4 vs. No. 5).
  2. For Semifinals
    The winners of the Playoff Bowl Games will be re-seeded, with the No. 1 team playing host to the No. 4 team and the No. 2 team playing host to the No. 3 team.

IV. First-year exception

During the first year of the EBC 1-2-3 program, the seeding process will be used to determine all eight playoff participants. This will keep from the major bowl games from losing their significant in the final season before the EBC 1-2-3 program would begin.

Commentary

The Boise State rule is designed to assure that undefeated teams have an opportunity to play for a national championship. The fact that only two teams will have to play more than one neutral-site game softens travel concerns that would be an issue in a playoff system that every round in a bowl site.

The EBC aspect, where three non-playoff bowl victories in one season gives a conference an automatic playoff bid the following season, would make the games that are now called non-BCS bowls more meaningful than they are now.

The EBC also keeps the major conferences from being “grandfathered in” to the playoff bowl games like they are now in the Bowl Championship Series games. The Tire I playoff rule keeps the larger conferences from “packing” the non-playoff bowls to improve their playoff chances for the following year. Every deserving team will get a postseason bid.

This system actually enhances the significance of 33 of the existing 34 bowl games. And it still preserves the excitement of the regular season. In the NFL you have 32 teams playing 16 games each to see which 12 go to the playoffs. In the National Basketball Association, you have 30 teams playing 82 games each to see which 16 got to the playoffs. In Major League Baseball, you have 30 teams playing 162 games to see which eight go to the playoffs. But, under this system, you have 120 teams playing 12-13 games each to determine which eight go to the playoffs.

Note: Dr. Kelly E. Flanagan is Director of Development at The United States Sports Academy and a member of the faculty since 2005. A student of the college football postseason process, Dr. Flanagan completed his master’s mentorship with the Jeep Aloha Bowl/O’ahu Bowl Doubleheader in 1999 and the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in 2002. He also served on the Atlanta Local Organizing Committee for the 2003 NCAA Women’s Basketball Final Four and wrote a dissertation titled “Factors Affecting Institutional Ticket Sales at College Football’s Non-Bowl Championship Series Postseason Events” when completing his Doctor of Sports Management degree at the Academy.

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