The crazy bowl system, explained

Yahoo's Dan Wetzel on why college football outsources its best product to old dudes in colored blazers.


King Kaufman
December 23, 2008 5:00PM (UTC)

Everyone wondering why college football doesn't just scrap that stupid bowl system and create a tournament, which almost nobody argues wouldn't be far more lucrative than the bowl system, should read Dan Wetzel's column on the subject from this weekend at Yahoo Sports.

Nobody's better than Wetzel at explaining the ridiculocracy that is the NCAA and college sports in general, and he hits it out of the park with this one, the first of a promised two parts.

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In a nutshell, Wetzel argues that college football "outsources its most profitable and easily sold product -- postseason football" to bowl committees because the alternative for the big-conference commissioners who run the Bowl Championship Series would be to cede power to the NCAA.

The simple explanation is that the BCS is a cartel and the bowls are a costly but important way to block the NCAA's central office from participating. The NCAA has nothing to do with major college football's postseason; it doesn't even officially recognize a champion.

Adopting a playoff system would be vastly more profitable, but doing so would likely require the NCAA to run the event.

The conference commissioners would be dealing with a bigger revenue pie and even larger shares for themselves and their conferences. But they'd have to give up the cutting knife.

The bowls make money hand over fist, and the committees spend it just as fast on a lot more than those tacky colored blazers the old guys on the committees always wear. The committees are not-for-profits, so, Wetzel writes, "while no individual is walking away with millions, the enterprise appears to be little more than a massive boondoggle."

Using tax records, he goes into some humorous detail about how much the bowls spend and what they spend it on, the bottom line being that the biggest bowls burn through upwards of $10 million to stage their games, while the conferences that have created de facto bowls -- conference championship games -- manage to pull them off for a million or two, while generating those same eight-figure revenues.

Wetzel suggests that the gifts and perks the bowls lavish on the media might explain why even those who suggest a tournament almost always want to use the bowls as quarter- and semifinals, rather than scrapping the whole thing.

This column -- always ready to be on the take, by the way -- has never received a gift from a bowl committee, but I've suggested that very thing because I think there is something to be said for the tradition of the biggest bowl games and I'd like to keep them, and I don't care if that costs anyone profits.

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But yeah, if I did care, as Wetzel writes, "No sensible person would ever continue to follow this business model."

And even if every other reporter, editor, anchor, producer or whoever in the business were incorruptible with goodies and open bars and groaning buffet tables, it wouldn't matter. The colossus of college football, ESPN, has a vested interest in the bowl system. It televises almost all of them, including the BCS bowls starting in 2010, and owns a half dozen.

Which explains the headline on the cover of the current ESPN the Magazine: "Why every bowl game matters."

"Amid growing cries to fold the BCS into a playoff," the article's subhead reads, "we wondered, what is the point of all those other bowls? The answers might surprise you."

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If you were born yesterday.


King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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