Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Making the Case for 'Death to the BCS'

Dan Wetzel is a columnist for Yahoo! Sports. He and colleagues Josh Peter and Jeff Passan co-authored "Death to the BCS," a best seller that investigates the practices and claims of the BCS before ripping them apart. He joins the Gurus for a chat:

(After the Q&A, the Guru offers his critique of the book as well.)

Guru: The book seems to be written with a lot of passion, bludgeoning the BCS from page 1, what's the inspiration for it?

Wetzel: We went with a real subtle title for the book, didn't we? This began a few years back, we wanted to find out why we have the BCS. We went after the tax documents, university contracts and we talked to hundreds of people: marketing types, bowl directors, not just the PR people but people who know stuff. The more you got into it, the propaganda talking points just turned out to be false. It took an immense amount of research. We all had day jobs, so we needed multiple people for this project. We needed people dealing with the statistical stuff. We also hired accountants, lawyers to read tax documents, checking all the facts. It's a real team effort because it's a huge undertaking.

Guru: Ohio State University president Gordon Gee was recently lambasted for a comment about his team's worthiness vis-a-vis Boise State. You alluded to it in the book, that people who're in the position of making the final decisions seem to be the least informed. How could that be?

Wetzel: For some reason, the (university presidents) just take the word of conference commissioners and bowl representatives than actually try to understand the issues. What Gee said really helps the anti-trust case against the BCS because it was a serious admission that they think teams like Boise should be excluded. But as the argument that we made in the book, a football playoff would make millions more than what we have now, which means a lot more money for each university. Every single expert that we talked to say that the TV ratings would go through the roof. But the BCS is about protecting the bowls and the bowls' money. They want everybody to get into these tedious debates to create mass confusion.

Guru: You really made a case for the nebulous role the bowls play in all this, yet you still want to preserve the bowls. Aren't you a bit conflicted?

Wetzel: My problem is with the bowl system and how it's an obstacle to a playoff, not that it exists. I love football, I want to watch football games, even if it's not to crown a champion. The NIT is fun, sometimes I'll watch it. I watch the Chick-fil-A Bowl, even though nothing is on the line. I don't want the teams to be cheated out of playing in a bowl. But we don't say because we have the NIT that we don't need the Final Four. That would be ridiculous. But in college football, we let the bowls stand in the way of having a playoff.

Guru: Well, then, the NCAA runs the NCAA basketball tournament among its 88 postseason championships. Why couldn't the NCAA get involved to have a Division I-A playoff?

Wetzel: I'll never understand that Walter Byers, a powerful guy who started the NCAA, never got into this. But the problem with wanting the NCAA to do something is that the NCAA is made up of the same people who are running college football - the conference commissioners and the university presidents, who I think as a group is an utter failure. The problem with college football is knowing who's in charge,.There is no Roger Goodell to put his foot down. Everybody is just fighting for their own self-interest.

Guru: So maybe it's up to the politicians? Maybe it'll take Congress or the Justice Department to break up the BCS?

Wetzel: I don't have a good feel for that. I'm not in Washington and I'm not a lobbyist. The group PlayoffPAC, they have done some incredible research and they have resources, maybe they'll be able to push forward a change. In our book, our thing is debunking the arguments you've heard from the BCS, but we barely mentioned the Justice Department or the anti-trust issues. But we hope the facts that we brought to the table might have a positive impact.

Guru: A central theme of your book, in fact, in the first chapter, you proposed a 16-team playoff to replace the BCS. Do you think that'll eventually happen?

Wetzel: No, not anytime soon, realistically I can see a 4-team, maybe an 8-team playoff. They'll never let say, the Sun Belt champion to have a chance. But a playoff makes more games meaningful, not fewer. Like last weekend, there would've been a lot more interest in the LSU-Arkansas game if a playoff berth was on the line. And the fact is that there are more teams that are good enough to play for the national championship now than ever before. Now you can play on TV wherever you play and the kids don't just go to the traditional powerhouses. There used to be maybe 8 or 9 schools that can win it, but now it's maybe 35 deep. You look at Michigan State, they're 11-1, they have a lot of kids that in the old days would go to Michigan, Ohio State or Notre Dame and hope they get to play as a junior or senior. But not anymore, it's a different time.

Guru: You also mentioned that it's a different time for the fans, especially the younger ones, who are not wedded to the traditional bowl matchups. Are they more likely to demand a playoff?

Wetzel: There's a huge divide among some of the fans, maybe people 65 or older think all this stinks, they like the way it used to be, but people under 40, they're used to seeing every game on TV and they'll want these teams to play each other to decide a champion on the field. The old days when just a few schools dominated are gone. You look at Texas, they're not even bowl eligible this season. Alabama has three losses. Florida five. There's a lot of parity, that's why we need a national tournament. The way the BCS and bowl systems are designed is that so nobody can seize control and take the bowls out of the lucrative game. The title game is a huge monetary property, and the bowls want to be part of that. But think about how ridiculous this is. Would the NFL rent you the AFC Championship Game and let you run it and keep most of the money? College football is a big enough business that they don't need (Fiesta Bowl president and CEO) John Junker to rent the stadium to play the championship game. Why would you want to outsource your most important product to people whose values are not intertwined with yours?

Guru: What are we missing out on not having a playoff?

Wetzel: My thing is that you're missing all the great fun. Take the Big Ten, it's always been the conference most opposed to having a playoff, yet this year, they have three teams that could play for a championship but none of them will. Our playoff would have other teams traveling to these places in the Midwest to have playoff games - and the Midwest can use the economic boost from it, why should they always have to benefit Florida, Arizona or any of those states in the south? And at the end it's not always the small schools that get cheated out of a chance to play for a championship, the big schools do, too.


So, what does the Guru think of "Death to the BCS"?

First, let me just say that if you are a college football fan and are interested in the BCS debate, you need to buy this book. It's a good read and a fast read: Fewer than 200 pages in a small book, I polished it off during a cross-country plane ride. If anything, it's not boring.

The authors thoroughly researched the issues involving the BCS and did a good job debunking many of BCS's propaganda. Case-in-point: The bowls have always claimed that they've given millions of their revenues to charity. In the book, that argument was mercilessly ripped apart.

The best thing the authors did was to reveal the economic idiocy of the current BCS/bowl system vis-a-vis a playoff and the millions that the schools are squandering by not having a postseason playoff hosted mostly on campus sites. The financial impact is stark: Why university presidents choose to piss away untold millions that they could earn from a massive TV deal and instead lose money to go to bowl games is simply a mystery.

But as well as the book did in addressing a number of subjects, I had a few issues:

* The biggest weakness of the book, which is unfortunately fashioned in the first chapter, is the authors' proposal of a 16-team playoff, which involves inviting the champions of all 11 conferences plus five at-large teams. C'mon, genetically re-engineers pigs will be causing air traffic gridlock before you'll see a 7-5 Troy team get an automatic berth in a college football playoff. It's simply an unrealistic proposition, which does much to harm the book's credibility from the very start. A four-team or even an eight-team playoff is much more probable, and with it still a considerable financial windfall. Even Wetzel acknowledged during our interview that he thought a 16-team playoff is unlikely to ever become reality. So why put it in there?

* "The Cartel," which throughout the book is vilified as the single most nefarious influence on why we have the system today. But in truth it's really just conference commissioners who have more say than they probably should. Jim Delany of the Big Ten is rightly portrayed as a supremely powerful figure, but Dan Beebe of the Big 12 and the rest of them surely are not (and for the record, Mike Slive of the SEC is in favor of a four-team playoff). I think the reach and power of the Cartel is a bit overstated in the book. Inertia has just as much to do with the state of affairs today as with anything else.

* The book adopts a tone that's extremely confrontational and belligerent:
So for now the BCS survives, a roach amid a typhoon of Raid, emanating coldness, ignoring the measured consideration of old coaching icons, and dismissing fans' bellows. Even the unyielding common sense is held off with mistruths and misdirection that turn the entire issue into a river of red herrings.

Facts have power, though. The truth has might. The rational presentation of both can upend even the longest-held conventional wisdom and expose the Cartel for what it is: a not-half-as-smart-as-it-wants-you-to-believe group of leaders that history will one day mock for its obstinacy.
That's on page 8, and it doesn't let up from there as though the book is a sermon from a fiery preacher calling out for the sinners to repent. The problem is that this approach will win few converts. Despite the fact that the book presents a treasure-trove of meticulously researched material, its persuasive powers ultimately is compromised. If anything, opponents of a playoff will only harden their stance after such a blistering attack.

That's probably my biggest disappointment with this book. It can and has done much good by bringing a number of issues to light, but its shortcomings do somewhat sabotage its own cause, which unmistakably is bringing "Death to the BCS."


Anonymous said...

Guru..great q and a. Was wondering when you might address the book which is an awesome read.

I respectfully disagree that they were too strong in their approach simply because those trying to protect their kingdoms or bowls vehemently argue the counterpoints.

I also loved in the book how they called out big conferences out of conference scheduling and automatic bowl tie ins

LAprGuy said...

Guru, Appreciated reading the Q&A and your review. Having heard several radio interviews with Wetzel, I have had the same initial reaction as you did, though: Their whole 16-team playoff premise seems unrealistic. I'm not a proponent of the four-week football tournament idea (for some of the reasons you already note).

That noted, I wouldn't mind seeing Stanford in a four-team playoff this year. (Hell, they would probably still find a way to NOT have a second Pac-10 team in a playoff!)

I've got this book in my public library queue now, having read some excerpts online and in the bookstore previously. Thanks.

PeteP said...

Death to the BCS is really good, but I understand the concern over the playoff proposal.

Ultimately, the idea is to maximize revenue for everyone involved.

As to the invites to all conference champions is an idea that would open up the post-season to every single team every year. Would Troy have a real chance to make the title game? Not really, but at least Troy could go to Ohio State and lose gloriously in a 1st round game (or maybe even a huge upset).

If you don't want Sun Belt teams (or WAC, now that the conference is going to be even worse) in the 16-team playoff, then let's raise the requirements to be a FBS conference (attendance, stadium size, budget, etc.).

But hey, the idea that some team that can't even average 15k at home going to a bowl game bothers me too....

The 16-team playoff is the best for fairness and revenue, especially with 3 rounds of home games and inclusion of at least 8 or 9 conference champions.

Allen Wedge said...

Great interview and analysis. The only thing I'll say about why 11 auto-berths has to be done is for Anti-trust. You can't invite some champsions and not all.

Also, sure 7-5 Troy is not great in 2010, but once you institute the playoff it'll only take roughly 2-3 years for the SunBelt to come up to par. Athletes will start attending Troy instead of being a backup's backup at Alabama. Because Troy will get a shot, the Sun-Belt will get better... also as stated in the book, those teams will be the award for a #1 seed being so good, they get lesser competition in the fiurst round.. just like in all 80+ other sports.

SKOHR said...

Great article. I've read the book and I'm a total believer. However, I agree that the over the top bias was a bit much. Even as a believer I was somewhat turned off by it because I felt, it's not people like me that this book needs to inform it's the casual fan or the fence sitters among us and such bias could hurt the credibility of the book's claims. That said, the claims made in this book are pretty damning. Paying $500,000 to bowl commissioners while cutting sports programs from schools seems to fly directly in the face of the mission statements of these colleges.

However, I must say that a 16 team playoff would be by far the best solution. As DTTBCS explains once the 11 champs are crowned and the 5 at large bids are declared, the teams are then ranked 1-16. So a Sun Belt champ would most likely fall to 16th behind at large teams with losses. This re-ranking would give credit to schools who schedule tough regular season games to make themselves better rather than cupcakes to inflate their record.

And admit it, if #1 seed SEC champ Auburn was playing #16 seed Sun Belt champ Florida International this coming Saturday you'd be watching. Why not just let them prove it? Even if it is a blowout, that's what Auburn deserves for their #1 ranking.

I realize people claim that these guys are still students so they have to study. Well let's say that there is a week off between the conference championship games last week and the start of the playoffs so they begin on the 18th. Playoff action would then continue for the next three consecutive weekends which would make the National Championship game Saturday January 8th or two days before the game is currently scheduled. This would also eliminate teams from taking a month off before the biggest game of their season, which is ridiculous anyway.

Every way this "debate" can be looked at results in the clear winner being a playoff. And yes I realize this is preaching to the choir, but I get very excited about how obvious this is sometimes.

LAprGuy said...

Doesn't Auburn regularly play Florida International as one of Auburn's four annual non-conference home games?

No thanks, I won't be watching.

PS said...


I will write a long text, and I beg your pardon for that. Although, everything is good enough to care that much about it, I could think about a REAL compromise between playoff and bowls, using the "Plus-1" concept as the basis for that. This is what I've written in Football Outsiders.

"Plus-1", it primarely stands for a 4-team playoff, but it could mean something else; in my view, at least, mean somthing better.

I don't think go back to the old system is an option, so I'm going to start from where BCS Football is now. Having said that, I would advocate no big changes, other than the BCS National Championship game to be an extra Bowl.

So, my suggestion for a "Plus-1" is that the teams to play at BCS National Championship Game should be decided AFTER the Bowl season. And only teams that are Conference champions AND Bowl winners should have a shot at it.

Since it seems that there is a need to decide who those teams are in advance, I would point that the bowls involving Conference champions -at least the so-called BCS Bowls- to be held earlier. So, after these bowls are set, the best two among the eligible teams would be chosen to meet at the National Championship game.

To me, this would be the best way to compromise. The regular season would matter. Conference champioship games would matter. The bowl games would matter. Teams from less important conferences could get a serious shot at the title game. There would be a "playoff taste", but a "good old days taste" as well, etc.

To address the "independents" problem, I would suggest two things: (a) that the best record among them should be considered like a Conference champion; and (b) that Army-Navy game should be considered like a Bowl.

(end of part 1)

PS said...

(part 2)

Just to set an example for what I've said in "part 1". This would be the BCS Bowls prior to the National Championship Game (NCG) this season, if the rule written before was applied:

Sugar Bowl: Auburn (1) v. (3) TCU
Rose Bowl: Oregon (2) v. (5) Wisconsin
Fiesta Bowl: Oklahoma (7) v. (4) Stanford
Orange Bowl: Virginia Tech (13) v. (26) Connecticut

All BCS Bowls would be held between December 21-24. In this way, there will be enough time between these bowls and the NCG.

It's just coincidence, but since Auburn, TCU, Oregon and Wisconsin would be the only actual title contenders, in that case, Sugar and Rose Bowls would work as semifinals. Both champions would be certain playing the Championship game.


In 2009, the BCS Bowls would be like this:

Sugar: Alabama (1) v. (4) TCU
Fiesta: Texas (2) v. (3) Cincinnati
Rose: Oregon (7) v. (8) Ohio State
Orange: Georgia Tech (9) v. (5) Florida

Again, it would look like a 4-team playoff. Sugar and Fiesta winners would play at NCG.


I'm still trying to find one year that would be different! Maybe, 2008:

Sugar: Florida (2) v. (3) Texas
Fiesta: Oklahoma (1) v. (6) Utah
Rose: USC (5) v. (8) Penn State
Orange: Virginia Tech (19) v. (12) Cincinatti

There you go! Oklahoma, Florida, USC, Utah and Penn State, all 5 would have a shot to play at the NCG. Texas wouldn't because it was not a Conference Champion.

It wouldn't be a playoff, since 3 games would be in the line to decide the finalists. The NCG could have be Utah (6) - (8) Penn State, Oklahoma (1) - (5) USC, or even Oklahoma (1) - (2) Florida...

Now, I think it's clear.

What do you think?


PS said...

(part 3)

PS's P.S.: How about second-tier Bowls form BCS's? You know, since no Bowl is created equal, and there is this recognition that Rose, Fiesta, Orange and Sugar are the Grand Slam of College Bowls, why not set a second class of them, just above the rest (something like "Master 1000" Bowls)?

All Conference champions left out the BCS Bowls would have an AQ, and the best ranked teams would fill in to complete 16 teams. So there would be 8 Bowls in this level.

Taking this season onto account, the teams would be:

WAC: Boise State (10)
C-USA: UCF (25)
Ind: Navy (31)
MAC: Miami/OH (34)
Sun Belt: FIU (-)
-BCS Ranking-
6. Ohio State (B10)
8. Arkansas (SEC)
9. Michigan State (B10)
11. LSU (SEC)
12. Missouri (B12)
14. Oklahoma State (B12)
15. Nevada (WAC)
16. Alabama (SEC)
17. Texas A&M (B12)
18. Nebraska (B12)
19. Utah (MWC)

Teams thar are conference champions could not play against each other, as teams from the same conference. All the rest, Bowl organizers can do...

I have the faintest idea, besides the Cotton Bowl, which else would qualify as "2nd-tier Bowls", but I hope you got the picture.

That is it: my 2 cents on the issue.

Hope you enjoy.


PS said...

(part 4)

The 2010/2011 "2nd-tier" Bowls

Cotton Bowl: 8. Arkansas (SEC) x 12. Missouri (B12)

10. Boise State (WAC) x 11. LSU (SEC)

25. UCF (C-USA) x 16. Alabama (SEC)

31. Navy (Ind.) x 14. Oklahoma State (B12)

34. Miami/OH (MAC) x 9. Michigan State (B10)

FIU (SB) x 17. Texas A&M (B12)

6. Ohio State (B10) x 18. Nebraska (B12)

15. Nevada (WAC) x 19. Utah (MWC)

reamon said...

"C'mon, genetically re-engineers pigs will be causing air traffic gridlock before you'll see a 7-5 Troy team get an automatic berth in a college football playoff."

That's true today but why should the system assume that the Sun Belt, MAC, etc. champs will always be weak?

reamon said...

The problem with any 4- or 8-team field would be the continued reliance on opinion polls.

The root flaw of the pre-BCS days wasn't that 1 and 2 didn't face each other. It was in how 1 and 2 were determined. Opinions, which have been shown to be bias, nepotistic, and in the case of the coaches' poll, have a conflict of interest.

This flaw remains today.