Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Book Report: Death to the BCS

I just finished Death to the BCS by Dan Wetzel, Josh Peter, and Jeff Pasan and--spoiler alert!--it was awesome.

I thought that I hated the BCS and had a lot of reasons to back it up; then I read this book and discovered I needed to hate the BCS waaayyyy more than I already did.

The way this book is written can be a little unpolished and repetitive at times, but that doesn't really matter in light of the fact that it does exactly what it sets out to do. It presents an argument (the BCS is a terrible way to run college football; a playoff would be better in every conceivable aspect). Then it devotes each chapter to a different pillar of the argument and backs up each point with clear evidence. The authors don't just say "a playoff would make more money." They interviewed television executives and scholars of sports broadcasting/marketing so they could come up with an educated estimate of how much more money a playoff would make.

Here's an excerpt from what I think is the book's strongest section, about how the BCS and the bowl system actually drain money from the teams they are supposed to support:

The University of Florida's appearance in the 2009 BCS title game came with an advertised payout of $17.5 million. That may have sounded good. It's actually a case study in how the Cartel [the group conference commissioners and other semi-shadowy figures that run the BCS] plays financial three-card monte to make the bowls look better. The SEC took the money, along with the payouts from seven other bowls in which conference teams participated. It then divided that money up thirteen ways (one for each of the league's twelve teams and one for the conference office). It also provided extra to Florida since it reached the title game, giving the Gators a total payout of $2.467 million.
Between coaches' bonuses ($960,000), travel costs ($681,000), tickets ($320,000), band and cheerleaders ($190,000), and other expense, the total to travel across the state to Miami Gardens was $2.42 million, according to a South Florida Sun-Sentinel report. For winning the BCS championship game, Florida made $47,000.

. . . No college football team, let alone one the stature of FLorida, would ever play a regular-season game for $47,000. Gators home games gross an estimated $5 million. In 2009, Florida paid lowly Charleston Southern $450,000--or nearly ten times what it made on the BCS title game--to play in Gainesville. . . . When your team deserves at least $2.3 million and winds up with about $47,000, you lost money. Like $2.253 million of it.

Part of the reason that a national championship team effectively brings in so little money is that most bowls cost more to participate in than they pay out. Even though almost all bowls are organized as not-for-profit organizations, lower-level bowls in particular squeeze as much money from the teams that play in them as they can, making them pay for tickets that may go unsold and in some cases, inviting the team that agrees to take the smallest payout.

As the authors point out, the difference between the amount of money that college football brings in is no joke. A football program can fund an athletic program, which can help fund a university. If the football program instead drains money from an athletic program, then the athletic department may have to lean on funds from the university, and when a public university doesn't have enough money, it has to increase tuition and, in all likelihood, get more from taxpayers. What's good for college football is good for education and for America. I'm not joking, not even a little.

I've only touched on one prong of the multi-faceted argument against the BCS. The other fronts on which the authors attack the system are just as well-researched and -argued. (They of course address my biggest anti-playoff propanganda pet peeve: a playoff would devalue the regular season. No, the BCS devalues the regular season by discouraging major-conference teams from playing any other major-conference teams outside of conference play.) The only major question the authors leave unanswered is how the BCS can be killed. They unfortunately offer only a very vague "maybe politicians can do it, or maybe fans will get angry enough that it will go away or something?" However, the rest of their arguments are great enough that this is still a five-star book. I kind of want to buy one to send to Bill Byrne.

Finally, the authors point out that the BCS cartel exploits the fact that, while everybody thinks the current system stinks, nobody can agree on an alternative. To combat this, the authors argue specifically for a sixteen-game playoff that involves all eleven FBS/I-A conference champions and five at-large teams (chosen by a selection committee like that which sets the NCAA basketball tournament). Before reading this book, I would have settled for an eight-team playoff or even a plus-one, but they really brought me around on the sixteen-team idea. It sounds awesome. For funsies, here's roughly how this year's bracket would look:

*I don't really know how the WAC championship works, but I used a Big Ten model and broke the three-way tie with BCS standings.

Sure, I'm looking forward to watching Oregon play Auburn, but how much more satisfying would it be if they had to battle through other powerhouses first? What if UCF knocked off Stanford and then got a crack at Wisconsin? What if the regular season ended and we didn't have to wait through five weeks of nothing to get to only one game that decides the championship? It would be great, that's what.

Death to the BCS, indeed.


  1. Bravo! I'm the last person to say "Let's get Congress involved" in regards to anything, but in this case, I wouldn't mind if they made a push to end the BCS, because the Cartel is just too obstinate, and there are too many fools that think the BCS works. Plus, if Congress does this, it means they're not taxing, spending, and/or regulating.

  2. I agree--I think you could say that Congress has better things to do than get involved in college football, but if they ended the BCS, they would bring a positive change to my everyday life (I would no longer have to be annoyed about how stupid the BCS is, and I would get to see higher-quality football in December and January). I feel like Congress getting us a playoff would be akin to the Do Not Call list; it's never going to end up in the history books, but those of us who lived the alternative will know how great it is.

  3. I'm reading the book right now and it's pissing me off how much BS the bowls and the BCS and the confs are giving us. I pretty much have arguments daily this week with a buddy saying the bowls are all good and profitable or they wouldn't be doing them. I tell him, just read the book!

  4. Exactly. Read the book! I don't know how somebody could stick up for the BCS after reading the book.

    As the authors point out, the BCS isn't about how big the pie is (because a playoff would bring in more cash for everybody), but about who gets to slice it.

  5. Exactly. I love the Big Ten getting 2 teams in there yearly, but the inner workings aren't fair and aren't right. Loot at all the teams this year that are losing money. How can this be good for schools?