Sunday, January 16, 2011

Book Review: Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series (Gotham Books, 2010)

Unfairness and stupidity aren’t the exclusive property of the criminal justice system.  In fact, they also infect the multi-million dollar business of college football.  In their recent book, Death to the BCS, authors Dan Wetzel, Josh Peter and Jeff Passan expose the BCS as a class system that would put Downton Abbey to shame.  In eighteen short chapters—and with a succinct, pull-no-punches style—the authors demonstrate how college football’s method of crowning its national champion (and divvying up its hundreds of millions of dollars) is “unfair,” downright “un-American,” and “border-line criminal.”

First, the authors explain how the BCS operates.  Instead of crowning a national champion based on a playoff (like every other college and professional sport), college football uses an irrational, highly manipulable formula—which produces a number carried out to the fourth decimal place to give the illusion of accuracy and certainty—to determine its two “best” teams.  These two teams then get to play for the national title, with the remaining teams left to fight over the less prestigious BCS, and non-BCS, bowl games.  Depending on the particular conference, a conference champion will have either no chance at a BCS bowl, a slim chance with no room for error, or a guaranteed bid.  A team’s fate is therefore determined not by its on-field performance, but by the pedigree of its conference.  And the BCS powers don’t care that when a Cinderella is able to crash the party, it usually wins.  Teams like Boise State, Utah, and, most recently, TCU, have toppled college football’s big boys in lower BCS bowls, yet under the current system have virtually no chance of playing for a national title. 

Second, the authors demonstrate that the BCS doesn’t work.  Its goal, of course, is to crown the true national champion, but without a playoff.  The results have been less than impressive.  In one year, there was a split national champion—one for the BCS and one for the Associated Press—the very thing the BCS was designed to prevent.  In a typical year, including the 2010-2011 season, there are multiple undefeated teams left at the end, with only one being arbitrarily named the national champion.  And in another year, an undefeated team from the sport’s best conference—the SEC—was denied even a shot at the title.  But this, the authors argue, is what happens when the national champion is determined by administrators and bureaucrats, instead of by on-field performance.

Third, the authors argue that the deeply flawed bowl system is incredibly costly.  The bowl games themselves are owned by either a for-profit corporation, or a not-for-profit entity that avoids taxes and may even receive government funding, yet pays hundreds of thousands of dollars to its executives.  These bowls give bids to schools and pay them for their participation.  However, the schools, in turn, have to guarantee ticket sales and are obligated to spend a certain amount of time in the host city, and must pay the cost of travel and lodging for players, cheerleaders, band members and others.  So who comes out the winner?  Because most universities can’t resell the tickets that they guaranteed, schools commonly end up paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to appear in a bowl game that is often named after a restaurant chain or other corporation.  (Would you rather your team play in the Chick-fil-A Bowl or the Meineke Car Care Bowl?)  The authors provide one example where Rutgers University spent $1.2 million just to get a $300,000 payout from a bowl game named after a pizza company’s website: The Bowl.  In the case of public universities, these losses are often funded, in part, by the taxpayers.  The authors also expose the perverse incentives that keep schools coming back for these money-losing bowl games year after year. 

Fourth and finally, the authors provide a clear, simple, profitable and exhilarating alternative: a sixteen team playoff, modeled to great degree on NCAA basketball’s highly successful March Madness tournament.  In the process, the authors address, and quickly dispose of, the BCS’s hollow and self-interested arguments against a playoff.  They then make a final plea on behalf of all American college football fans: “We want fairness, a level playing field, a chance.  Individuals rising to fulfill unknown potential.  Teams proving their sum greater than their parts.  Rocky and Rudy and Miracle and Hoosiers.  It’s the ability to compete no matter where you come from, no matter how few believe in you.  It’s the magic of sports.”

Unless, of course, that sport is college football.  Death to the BCS is a must-read for college football fans, and for anyone interested in the business, legal, political and economic aspects of the sport.

1 comment:

  1. Highly entertaining. The only argument supporters of the BCS proffer is that a playoff diminishes the importance of the regular season. However, that argument fails to hold water when held up against other collegiate playoff systems where the regular season determines the playoff seeding. As a side note, I do feel bad for your mascot. Anyone that follows college football knows that the Wolverines haven't sniffed a national championship in years, despite the head start the BCS gives them.