Last month Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier offered an explanation of the persistence of the college football bowl system. They believe the BCS will continue despite the greater revenue generated by a championship tournament, because schools benefit from bowl game publicity and players gain from the bowl experience. The sparse attendance and low ratings of many lesser bowl games makes me skeptical of their publicity value. There are impediments to change, however, so here I propose two new regulations to ease the transition to a playoff system. First, allow non-bowl teams to hold practices until a national champion has been crowned and second, require teams to evenly split gate receipts for regular season non-conference games.
Practice times and player contact is restricted by the NCAA during the off-season. An important non-financial gain from bowl participation, especially for younger teams with more returning players, is the ability to schedule additional practices. If all teams were allowed the same practice time, regardless of their bowl status, teams would be less interested in participating in minor bowl games.
Defenders of the status quo argue that the bowl system makes college football’s regular season the most compelling in sports; one loss could eliminate a team from BCS title consideration. The status quo also encourages many boring September games because Athletic Directors rationally schedule very weak non-conference opponents. The past 12 participants in the BCS championship game played 45 non-conference games. Two thirds of their opponents were not ranked in the top 80 teams, and one of three was outside the top 125 teams in the country. The implication is clear: to improve chances of advancing to the BCS title game a team should schedule 2/3 of nonconference games against vastly overmatched opponents.
The NCAA encourages non-conference mismatches by allowing a team to keep all gate receipts after paying a nominal fee to a weak opponent to come to its campus. The NCAA should require gate receipts to be split evenly with the visiting team (as in the NFL) for all non-conference games. This simple rule would reduce the financial return to scheduling weak opponents. Teams would also take more scheduling risks with a 16 team playoff because a single loss would not end a team’s title hopes.
Many of the 35 bowl games that are played each year would be interesting inter-conference match-ups if they were played in September and replaced the annual parade of lopsided games. Television revenue would be enhanced by the promise of more and better early non-conference games.
I prefer a 16 team tournament that culminates with a game between the last two surviving teams, whether or not they are the “best” teams in the country. Sports contests are entertaining because upsets are possible and outcomes are uncertain. March Madness would be far less compelling if the selection committee chose the country’s 4 highest seeded teams as the Final Four and replaced the rest of the tournament with 60 meaningless basketball “bowl” games.
The rules changes I have proposed are sensible even with a bowl system. First, colleges and universities would be treated uniformly with respect to gate receipts and practice times, whether or not they are football powers. Second, powerful teams would be discouraged from scheduling games against vastly weaker opponents which should result in better non-conference regular season games.