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Post Swofford’s crocodile tears for the bowl system

Monday May 4, 2009

It’s not hard to sound like the adult in the room next to people that equate a wildly successful and growing sport with a disaster of an economic system, so John Swofford came across pretty well last week.

There are many valid points and counterpoints when it comes to the playoff discussion, and folks coming at the problem from any angle have to concede the many tradeoffs that come with any postseason proposal. Swofford and others are appearing on behalf of the BCS have put forward some very familiar (and valid) defenses. The logistical concerns involved with a college football playoff are, I think, very underrated.

But Swofford’s concern that a playoff is a threat to the future of bowl games, though one of the most-reported parts of his testimony, was probably also the weakest.

Sponsorships and TV revenue that now go to bowl games would instead be spent on playoff games, "meaning that it will be very difficult for any bowl, including the current BCS bowls, which are among the oldest and most established in the game’s history, to survive," said BCS coordinator John Swofford in prepared testimony. "Certainly the twenty-nine games that are not part of the BCS would be in peril."

It’s not that a playoff wouldn’t impact the bowl landscape. It’s reasonable to expect that. But would it really be the end of bowls as we know them? Even if so, why should we care?

The BCS that Swofford defends is already a clear line of demarcation between the haves and have-nots of college football. If you wanted to devise a system that marginalized all but a select group of bowl games, you could hardly do better than the BCS. "Old and established" bowl games such as the Cotton and Citrus that as recently as 20 years ago played a role in deciding the national championship are now afterthoughts. Even New Year’s Day, once the sacred national holiday of college football and home of many of these traditional bowls, has been trampled as the BCS stretches the season an extra week in order to milk as much prime time as possible.

If Swofford’s reasoning is correct, why hasn’t all of the money and sponsorships and TV interest shifted to that top tier of bowls, the BCS? To be certain, those bowls have become very big money-makers. At the same time, other bowls continue to flourish despite being relegated to exhibition status. New ones are added almost every year so long as a sponsor and a time slot on ESPN can be found. It’s surprising that some of college football’s most influential figures can underestimate the demand that’s out there for the game.

No matter how much we romanticize them, bowls, at their most basic level, are business arrangements between a host city and sponsor, a TV network, and the teams playing in the game. If that arrangement works, the bowl succeeds. Even games that result in a financial loss for some of the parties aren’t necessarily a failure. The imputed value of the exposure and the ability to say you played in a bowl is worth something. Several bowls have survived and become annual traditions. Others have failed (anyone remember the Cherry Bowl?) Others take their place with all the tradition of a delivery pizza or a dot com. The process carries all of the same nice warm, fuzzy charm as a stock exchange.

Swofford’s job is to protect the business interests of the BCS conferences and their bowls and network partners, and that’s fine. Business is good. Congress has to realize that there are real economic reasons why the BCS works, and there will be much resistance to change from the key players who have a lot at stake. Just don’t expect us to believe that the BCS is concerned with any bowls other than the big five…we may be fools, but we’re not members of Congress.

One Response to 'Swofford’s crocodile tears for the bowl system'

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  • Why does it always have to be about bowls or money or access? Why can’t the big schools just flat out say the magic phrase….

    “We worked hard to be on top. Why should we hand over the keys to our success for you to rise to our station in life without having to work as hard as we did?”

    Oh. Never mind. I know the answer.

    Play more good teams. Beat them. Increase fan interest. Build a bigger stadium. Move up. It’s a simple formula. But you’re seeing most of the elite non-BCS schools play 1 quality opponent OCC per year.

    It’s nuts.