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How to Save the BCS, Part I

As somebody who works daily with the polls, I’ve seen my share of anti-BCS, pro-playoff articles and websites. They have reached the point of male enhancement drugs and foreign dignitaries who need a place to store their fortunes – unwanted spam in my day. I like the BCS. I like the bowls. I like that every game counts. With that in mind, I’m going to point out some potentially catastrophic flaws with the BCS. Not with the goal of replacing the BCS, but with the goal of improving it.

First, let me explain what the BCS is. The Bowl Championship Series is an event. More specifically, according to Bill Hancock, BCS Administrator, “it is an event managed by a series of contracts among the 11 conferences, Notre Dame, Fox Sports and the Orange, Sugar, Fiesta and Rose Bowls.” The BCS is not an organization. It doesn’t have a president or a vice president or keys to the executive washroom. In fact, the BCS only has one full-time employee – Bill Hancock, BCS Administrator.

As former Director of the NCAA Final Four, Mr. Hancock is exceptionally qualified for his job. He also has been very accessible and generous with his time when speaking with me. However, I’m sorry to say that he is the first flaw with the BCS. Well, not him per se, but the fact that it is only him. The BCS is big, the BCS is important and the fact that the BCS only has one full-time employee is its first flaw.

Flaw #1: The BCS Is Still in Start-Up Mode

The Official BCS Website is run by Fox Sports. From there you can contact the BCS by e-mail at BCSFootballOrg@hotmail.com. A Hotmail account? You mean the biggest college sporting event in the nation uses the same domain as ChunkyTheClown@hotmail.com and countless other satisfied customers of free web-mail? After nearly a year of trying to reach the BCS at that e-mail address, I finally received a response from a very nice “college professor and former athletic staffer who pitches in to help with the website out of love for the game.” This is how the BCS operates? Not quite. After doing more research, I was finally directed to Bill Hancock, who is an employee and not a volunteer, but, surprisingly, even his e-mail address is a Road Runner account, sharing a domain with thousands of people who use cable modems in their homes.

This is not a professional image for the BCS. The conference commissioners and the Notre Dame athletic director make most of the rules and decisions for the BCS, and they seem to be treating the BCS the way I might treat a web design start-up in my basement. However, even then, I would at least give my one employee a proper e-mail address.

The BCS is not a start-up. It is now 10 years old and generates much more revenue than a thousand web start-ups. The BCS doesn’t need to become a top-heavy organization, but it should at least hire a PR department to deal with the press and public and hire some internal staff to deal with logistics regarding the BCS standings.

The fact that the BCS still treats itself like a start-up leads to the next flaw.

Flaw #2: The BCS Doesn’t Appreciate Its Own Power

The BCS has a main focus – to pair the #1 and #2 teams in the country in the national championship game. Before the BCS, why was it so hard to pair #1 and #2? The biggest obstacle was the historical conference and bowl tie-ins, which the BCS has taken care of very cleanly. However, a second reason was that there wasn’t clear agreement on who was #1 and #2.

In 1998, one of the best things the BCS did was combine the AP Poll and Coaches’ Poll under one umbrella. This ended the concern over split national championships like Nebraska and Michigan in 1997. Actually, combining the polls would have been one of the best things the BCS did, if it went through the proper channels. Many people think the BCS removed the AP Poll in 2004, or that the AP left the BCS on its own, but in reality, as AP Sports Editor Terry Taylor says, “The AP didn't leave the BCS; The AP was never part of it. The AP never sanctioned the use of its poll and told the BCS continued inclusion in the formula threatened to undermine the independence and integrity of the poll.“ It was a noble goal to prevent split national championships, but it never really happened. The AP still awards a national champion, just as it has since 1936, and we still have the possibility of split AP and BCS champions like the most recent: USC and LSU in 2003.

However, this is where the true power of the BCS is obvious. The typical fan doesn’t think the AP championship matters any more. Nearly any discussion about polls on a fan board will have multiple posters saying “The AP is no longer part of the BCS formula … it is irrelevant.” The BCS has done such a good job of aligning its product with the conferences and bowls, that the average fan thinks it is the only championship that matters. Sometimes these posts will be followed by an educated fan saying something like: “The AP still names a champion. So it is still important. And take a look at the names on the voter list ... Herbstreit, Fowler, James, Mandel, and 60+ others. You don't think these people influence people's perceptions ... including BCS voters? “

Regardless, the BCS has the mindshare of the fans and much of the media, and this is where the BCS gets its power. Once the BCS rankings are released in October, they always get top billing over the individual rankings of its components and even the media’s own poll … the AP Poll. However, if Spiderman taught us anything, it is that with great power comes great responsibility.

While the main focus of the BCS may be to pair #1 and #2, it has gained far more power than that because the polls in general and particularly the BCS, the uber-polls are used for more than determining who is the champion. Polls determine who gets to be on TV. Teams in the top 25 get better television coverage than teams not in the top 25. For example, last week 100% of teams playing on national television (not pay-per-view) featured at least one ranked team. Television is a huge source of revenue for schools. (One counter example is Notre Dame, whose NBC contract keeps its home games on national TV regardless of ranking.) A top 25 ranking is very important. It also affects newspaper coverage, how often a team scrolls across the ESPN bottom-line ticker, and it at least has some small effect on recruiting, which is the lifeblood of college sports. In short, rankings translate into exposure, which can be beneficial to any program, but certainly important to the ones still trying to make a name for themselves.

So while the BCS may have been started primarily as a way to pair #1 and #2, its own strength has put it in a position of affecting far more schools than the ones playing for the championship. When presented with this argument, Hancock said ”The commissioners created the BCS Standings in order to identify the teams in the National Championship Game and the teams that are eligible for at-large selection. Others certainly can view the standings as something other than that. But the real purpose has not changed and I don't envision it ever changing. “

The BCS needs to recognize its power and start dealing with the responsibilities that come with it. The BCS is very good for college football as a whole, but unless it pays attention, it can be unfairly costing individual schools significant revenue and exposure opportunities.

So what responsibilities is the BCS shirking? That leads us to the final two flaws.

(Continued ... How to Save the BCS, Part II)

Hugh Falk is Founder and Editor of Pollspeak, the college sports poll watchdog and news site. One day a large, well-funded organization will take over this important responsibility. Until then, Pollspeak carries on, ever vigilant, doing what needs to be done.

For more analysis of the polls, visit Pollspeak at www.pollspeak.com.

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