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Cohen & Barton: It’s Time for Playoffs in College Football

The Bowl Championship Series is supposed to feature games that pit the top teams in the country against each other. The BCS bowls are supposed to be an opening act leading up to the BCS National Championship Game the following Monday. The four bowls — Fiesta, Sugar, Orange and Rose — are supposed to be played in front of capacity crowds and post enormous TV ratings. There is just one problem. The BCS doesn’t do any of these things.

In the days between the last BCS bowl and the National Championship Game, it’s hard to think back on these four games and not be unimpressed. Of the eight teams to play in the four games, only three were ranked higher than 10th in the final BCS rankings. With their twisted logic and flawed conference contracts, the BCS decided to pit No. 15 Clemson against No. 23 West Virginia in the Orange Bowl but left No. 6 Arkansas, No. 7 Boise State, No. 8 Kansas State and No. 9 South Carolina out of the BCS.

A big reason certain teams are chosen over higher-ranked teams is because the BCS selects schools with bigger fan bases, which they hope will translate to higher ticket sales and bigger TV ratings, netting these “nonprofit” bowls millions of dollars more in profits. However, the BCS’ historic failure to host games with relevance and appeal has meant that attendance is at its lowest average since the 1978-1979 season.

Finally, that brings us to those “ever-growing” TV ratings that the BCS routinely boasts about. Unfortunately for the BCS, saying something repeatedly doesn’t make it true. The reality is that TV ratings for the BCS are plummeting. The Sugar Bowl posted an overnight rating of 6.3, which is down 11 percent from last year, and the Orange Bowl posted an embarrassingly low overnight rating of somewhere around 4.5, making it the lowest-rated and least-watched BCS bowl of all time. Compare that with the 17.1 rating from the Dallas Cowboys’ game against the New York Giants, a regular season game with playoff implications.

When shown in its true light, the BCS is not what it claims to be. So, now the question becomes: What can be done to make this system more popular and more financially beneficial for universities?

Well here’s a novel idea: a playoff system.

Much of the argument for the status quo and against a playoff system is that people mistakenly believe that under the BCS system every game counts and with playoffs every game would not. But the reality is that under the current system every game doesn’t count. If every game truly counted then the national championship wouldn’t be a rematch of a game that already happened. And if every game really counted then you wouldn’t have four top-10 teams passed over for a game between No. 23 West Virginia and No. 15 Clemson, which lost three of its last four games. Please tell us again how this system preserves the sanctity of the regular season?

The real irony is the BCS actually makes the regular season largely irrelevant. And in the most unfortunate twist of irony, the BCS also destroys the relevance of 34 of the 35 bowl games because only one game has any effect on the national championship. The Fiesta Bowl between Oklahoma State University and Stanford University was about as exciting a football game as you could ask for, but it was just a glorified exhibition with no effect on the national championship. While it was far less exciting, the sad truth was that Oklahoma State’s opening game against the University of Louisiana at Lafayette actually had a larger effect on the national championship than the Fiesta, Sugar, Orange and Rose bowls combined.

Not only would a playoff system restore the significance of the regular season and postseason but a playoff would generate much higher TV ratings and hundreds of millions more in revenue. Analyses from sports economists all show that a 16-team playoff would net $750 million in profits a year, a massive $600 million more than the current BCS systems generates. Meaning our nation’s colleges, which are slashing financial aid and faculty, are missing out on a $600 million payday.

What’s even more despicable is that, according to published reports, currently American taxpayers and student fees are footing a bill of more than $800 million a year for athletic programs that lose money. Poor college students and average American citizens across the country are using their hard-earned money to subsidize athletic programs that lose money because the BCS is more interested in maintaining the status quo than creating a more equitable and lucrative system. That’s simply un-American.

It’s time for a playoff system. It’s time to restore the relevance of the regular season and postseason. And it’s time to stop the BCS from taking money out of your pockets. Let’s make it happen.

Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and
Joe Barton (R-Texas) are founders of the Congressional Collegiate Sports Caucus, which was created in December.

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