With college football’s decision makers finally moving in the direction of a playoff – any playoff – the decision seems to be when, not if, the new format will begin. These BCS Executives will review dozens of potential plus one models in attempts of finding the best way to crown major college football’s national champion while ensuring the following: first, the most exciting, and meaningful, regular season in all of sports is not harmed. Second, we never again see a rematch of two teams from the same division of the same conference in the BCS Championship Game without other teams having a fair shot. (By the way, I’ll also formally state the requirement to protect the student athlete, avoid conflicts with exams and avoid lengthening the season. Since I firmly believe TV revenue trumps any of these requirements, as evidenced by mid-December bowl games, a twelve game regular season and a BCS Championship Game on January 10, we’ll leave these requirements in the background)
Let me be clear here – I believe Alabama and LSU were the two best teams in the country during the 2011 season. However, I also understand the national perception of the Southeastern Conference and its dominance in the sport over the last several years. The last thing the masses wanted was a ’Bama/LSU rematch and those individuals made it known through the viewership, or lack thereof.
Assuming a plus one format will be the final outcome and no future “bracket creep” will occur to move towards 6, 8, or 16 teams in the post season, the regular season shouldn’t be harmed. Likewise, a plus one would provide one more significant challenge for the top two teams and if the Crimson Tide had beaten Stanford or Oklahoma State for the opportunity to play LSU the outcry would have been significantly reduced.
The bigger long term issue, however, is the impact on fans and bowl game attendance. The thought process has long been to include the BCS bowl games into the playoff rotation using two as semi-final sites and one as the Championship Game site. Many have pointed to this being an important step in keeping the major bowls a part of college football. However, let’s look at the economics of this option and conduct a quick case study from the 2010 post season.
The 2010 BCS Championship Game in Glendale, AZ matched Auburn against Oregon. According to seatgeek.com, the average ticket price for this game was $842.31. However, with a plus one model, Auburn would have played BCS #4 Stanford while Oregon would have played BCS #3 TCU. This would mean each game would occur at another BCS site, say, the Rose and Sugar Bowls. Seatgeek.com shows the 2010 average ticket prices for these two games as $392.50 and $296.16, respectively. You could also argue these ticket prices would be significantly higher when turned into national semi-finals.
The point being that two of these four teams would not only need to pay ticket and travel costs for one bowl site, including air fare, hotel, food, spending money, etc., but would then need to do so again one to two weeks later to a different destination city. Sooner or later the economics will force the fans of the favored teams to skip the semis and save their money for the big game. We’ve already seen this occur when fans skip the conference championship games instead opting to spend money for the bowl game. The SEC is the only conference to consistently sell out the conference championship game to date. The Big Ten is just getting started and the PAC 12 will not have this issue on campus. It’s only a matter of time before the plus one games look like this year’s Orange Bowl in the stands.
This all brings us back to the guys who have it right – the Big Ten. Jim Delany proposed the plus one games be played on the campuses of the higher ranking teams. Many may think this was posturing on his part to give his conference members a much needed advantage over the SEC due to the cold climates, and that may be. I feel it is Delany’s understanding of the economics of such a set up that led to this proposal. Think about it this way – you can still have title sponsors to fork over millions for games of this magnitude, the atmospheres would be second to none given what’s at stake and, most importantly, you don’t have to split ticket revenue with a “Non-profit” (wink, wink) for the opportunity to play the game. Throw in the option of bidding out the title game to Indy, Dallas, etc. and you have a monster money maker while meeting all other objectives (see above, but remember to ignore the student athlete stuff).
The Big Ten may have fallen out of the elite recently on the field but the group still is very much out front otherwise.