The Case Against The College Football Playoff

Dec 28, 2016
Originally published on December 28, 2016 3:07 pm

For years, college football longed to build a football playoff system for one simple reason: money.

Unlike basketball's March Madness, which generated a record $1 billion in advertising revenue alone in 2013, the NCAA didn't make a dime off the bowl system that year. Who did? TV networks, the bowl organizers and the coaches.

Well, enough of that. When it was announced that the new four-team football playoff would start in 2014, the TV rights alone would be worth almost half a billion dollars for just three games.

So what if college football survived just fine without a playoff for 145 years — since Rutgers and Princeton played the first football game back in 1869. Year by year, it added game after game.

First, it quadrupled the number of bowl games, from 11 to 41, which require 82 teams to fill them. Now just about any team with a winning record gets to go.

Then it tacked on a 12th regular-season game, when schools play "tomato cans" like McNeese State, Norfolk State and Bethune-Cookman, all just to grab another payday.

Then it piled on conference title games, too, increasing the total games a team can play from 11 to 14 — just two shy of an NFL season.

But we need a playoff now, it told us, to determine who's best on the field. How? Instead of picking two teams based on polls, strength of schedule and computerized rankings, now four teams are picked — based on polls, strength of schedule and computerized rankings. Problem solved. Instead of the third-ranked team complaining that it got screwed, now the fifth-place team does all the whining. Another problem solved.

Who wins? The coaches, whose compensation can actually double if they win the national title. How many coaches, faced with a star receiver who got caught plagiarizing, or a quarterback with a concussion, would have the integrity to bench those players and forfeit a $5 million payday?

I suspect very few.

And then there's the TV ratings, the one thing everybody agreed would improve. Turns out they actually dropped dramatically in the playoffs' second year. One reason: They stubbornly insist on scheduling the first round for New Year's Eve. Guess what? On New Year's Eve, even football fans have better things to do.

Sure, it's always easier to say the old way was better. But it's even easier when you've got the data to back it up.


John U. Bacon is a sports commentator. His latest book is Endzone: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is college football's big moment on the calendar. It's bowl season. And of course, we now also have a college football playoff system that crowns a champion. Commentator John U. Bacon has a theory about why the NCAA introduced a playoff, and it has nothing to do with actually picking a winner.

JOHN U BACON: For years, the NCAA longed to build a football playoff system for one simple reason - money. Unlike basketball's March Madness, which generated a record $1 billion in advertising revenue alone in 2013, the NCAA did not make a dime off the bowl system that year. Who did? TV, the bowl organizers and the coaches, that's who. Well, enough of that.

When NCAA president Mark Emmert announced the new four-team football playoff would start in 2014, the TV rights alone would be worth almost half a billion dollars - that's billion with a B - for just three games. So what if college football survived just fine without a playoff for 145 years, since Rutgers and Princeton played the first football game back in 1869?

Year by year, they added game after game. First, they quadrupled the number of bowl games from 11 to 41, which require 82 teams to fill them. Now, just about any team with a pulse gets to go. Then they tacked on a 12th regular season game, where schools used to play tomato cans like McNeese State, Norfolk State and Bethune-Cookman, all just to grab another payday.

Then they piled on conference title games, too, increasing the total games a team can play from 11 to 14, just two shy of an NFL season. But we need a playoff now, they told us, to determine who's the best on the field. How? Instead of picking two teams based on polls, strength of schedule and computerized rankings, now they pick four teams based on polls, strength of schedule and computerized rankings - problem solved.

So now instead of the third-ranked team complaining that it got screwed, the fifth place team does all the whining - another problems solved. Who wins? The coaches, whose compensation can actually double if they win the national title. How many coaches, faced with a star receiver who got caught plagiarizing or a quarterback with a concussion, would have the integrity to bench those players and forfeit a $5 million payday? I suspect very few.

And then there's the TV ratings - the one thing everybody agreed would improve. Turns out they actually dropped dramatically in only the playoffs' second year. One reason - they stubbornly insist on scheduling the first round for New Year's Eve. Well, guess what? On New Year's Eve, even football fans have got better things to do. Sure, it's always easier to say the old way was better, but it's even easier when you've got the data to back it up.

GREENE: That's commentator and author John U. Bacon.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, we say that NCAA President Mark Emmert announced the new playoff format. In fact, it was the commissioners of that playoff system who made the announcement.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.