Thursday, September 02, 2010

The elitist, cynical and flawed logic of the "superconference"

The conventional wisdom in the college football world is that the top tier of the sport, which currently "officially" consists of the NCAA's 120-team Football Bowl Subdivision, will one day grow smaller, to include only the most select "big-time" programs. The number being proposed for this new top tier is most often 64, but can vary from one proposal to the next.

College football is already moving in this direction. The Bowl Championship Series (BCS) has already divided FBS into two de-facto tiers: the 66 current schools of the six conference that automatically qualify for a postseason BCS bowl as well as Notre Dame, and the 54 teams from conferences that don't. While schools from the "non-AQ" tier have qualified for BCS bowl berths with increasing frequency, there is nevertheless a clear gulf between the BCS "haves" and the BCS "have-nots" in terms of revenue and national media coverage. This is done purposefully; it is a system of collusion and exclusion that benefits one group of schools at the expense of the other, and it is self-reinforcing such that the gap between those two groups continually grows wider and wider. The eventual result, should certain legal and political obstacles be overcome, will be the de-jure creation of a new, top tier of 64 or so schools, while the rest will sink into obscurity or drop football altogether.

I am, of course, opposed to this eventuality, and it's not just because I a fan of one of the "have-not" schools. Quite frankly, I think the concept will be hugely detrimental to the sport of college football in particular and collegiate athletics in general. Nevertheless, the arguments of those who favor such an outcome is always fascinating to read, if even only because of the unbridled elitism, cynicism, arrogance and lack of logical thought they reveal.

Such is the case with this particularly vapid column from AOL Fanhouse writer Brian McMurphy, who thinks that the big-time programs in college football shouldn't even wait for the BCS process to reach its ultimate conclusion; they should, instead, just leave the NCAA and form their own football association now:
With each new speculated conference expansion plan emerging from sea to shining sea, it's never been more obvious what should be the next move for college football's elite football programs.

Leave the NCAA.

Just ditch it. They don't need college sports' governing body anymore. They've outgrown the NCAA's archaic system and rules.

Not all programs mind you, but only the crème de la crème – the top 60 or 70 college football programs that really, truly matter. The ones that have been or would be willing to make a serious commitment, the ones that spend the big bucks on their pigskin programs: the so-called football factories.

The programs that realize having successful, multi-million dollar head coaches prowling the sideline in front of a sold-out stadium each Saturday is much more important than some silly APR ranking or team GPA. Student-athletes?

These programs have already been compared to the minor leagues of the NFL. What's wrong with that? Embrace it. Let the schools not willing -- or without the resources -- to be a serious player in college football remain in the NCAA. The best programs can start up a new organization, for lack of a better name, called the NCFL: National Collegiate Football League.

With the NCFL, they won't have to worry anymore about a senator or attorney general threatening some frivolous lawsuit. The NCFL will create its own rules: no limits on the number of assistant coaches or practice time, give the players stipends or let the players sign early with agents, it doesn't matter. Remember, the No.1 reason they're at an NCFL school is football. If they want to go to class and get a degree, that's fine. Just don't miss practice.
Yeah, why make ensuring that these kids go to class and get an education a priority, anyway? What do universities think they are, actual institutions of learning?
The creation of the NCFL would also stop the current trend of conferences attempting to absorb other conferences like a scene from "The Blob." What is the main reason the Mountain West Conference appears to be trying to swallow the Western Athletic Conference in one bite? To keep BYU from going independent and therefore the MWC can keep alive its longshot chances to earn an automatic BCS bowl berth.

C'mon, who is the MWC kidding? The MWC doesn't deserve an automatic BCS bowl berth. Neither does the WAC, MAC, Conference USA or the Sun Belt. Let's stop pretending that the non-automatic qualifying BCS teams can or should compete with the automatic BCS teams.
Really? Why not? Last I checked, the MWC earned a BCS berth each of the last two years. The WAC earned a BCS berth three years out of the last four. As for McMurphy's sweeping generalization regarding non-automatic-qualifiers being unable to compete with automatic-qualifiers, well, I guess schools like BYU (beat Oklahoma last season), TCU (beat Clemson and Virginia, who also got beat by Southern Miss), Boise State (beat Oregon), Navy (beat Notre Dame, as well as Wake Forest and Mizzou), and yes, even Houston (beat Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Mississippi State) would beg to differ.

The players at the non-AQ schools play the same game as those from the AQ schools. If they can get the job done on the field, then they should have access to the BCS bowl system. McMurphy's suggestion that they can't or shouldn't is ridiculous.
Last year, Mark Shurtleff, Utah's attorney general, said that "from the very first kickoff of the college football season, the BCS uses its monopoly powers to put more than half of the schools at a disadvantage."

Schurtleff has it all wrong.

Those schools already are at a disadvantage because they don't (or can't) make the financial commitment or have the resources that the big boys do. In the college football arms race, those smaller conference schools, are France.
Actually, Schurtleff has it right and McMurphy is the one who's completely clueless. The non-AQ schools don't have the resources that the AQ schools do because the BCS system does not allocate those resources fairly. Give these non-AQs the same paychecks as the AQs get, along with some of the media attention that the AQs get, and a guarantee you that a lot of these "smaller conference schools" - obviously not all, but many - could make the financial commitment to football that McMurphy seems to think they should make.
Sure, a smaller conference school such as Boise State can pull off the occasional upset. But would Boise State, with a football budget that ranks about 85th out of the current 120 teams in the NCAA's upper division, deserve a spot or be able to compete in the NCFL? Doubtful.

However, in the current BCS format, all the Broncos need to do is win two tough games against Virginia Tech and Oregon State and then put it on cruise control through a patsy league schedule – which, Bronco fans, is why
I picked them to win the national title this year. But even the biggest Bronco fan would admit they wouldn't sniff an unbeaten season if they played an SEC or Big Ten caliber conference schedule.
Well, at least McMurphy gets props for picking Boise to win the national title. But he conveniently overlooks the fact that Boise is trying to up their commitment to their football program: for example, their plans to expand Bronco Stadium. And why should the team be punished because the rest of their conference mates are a bunch of "patsies?" They have no control over how well or how poorly the other teams in their conference do (and even then, teams like Fresno State and Nevada are probably playing well enough right now to avoid the "patsy" label). All Boise State can do is win their games. Or move to a better conference, which they tried to do by making the jump to the Mountain West, only to see MWC teams Utah and BYU bolt because they themselves wanted something better.

And why should football budget be a factor at all in the equation? If the small budget programs can beat the big budget ones, then shouldn't they get credit for being able to do more with less? Games are decided on the field, not in the ledger book. And once again, why are these programs "small budget" in the first place? It wouldn't have anything to do with the fact that they're excluded from getting the same BCS revenue streams that the big boys get, would it?
Not all of the big conference teams -- the current 67 teams from the six power leagues (SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 with Utah, Big East and Notre Dame) -- would automatically get a free pass into the NCFL.

Unless they increase their commitment to football, some current automatic qualifying BCS programs -- and I'm talking about you Ole Miss, Baylor, Washington State, South Florida and Minnesota -- don't deserve to be in the NCFL. Why should they? They don't spend even one-third of what Ohio State does on its football program. You're either all in or you're n
At least McMurphy realizes that a few of the existing AQ teams might not belong where they are, although I'm not sure why he includes South Florida in his list - they averaged 52 thousand fans per game last season and have managed a .625 record since joining the Big East (including that win over traditional powerhouse Florida State last year). But again, we have McMurphy's strange obsession with football budgets. Who cares if some schools spend less than a third as much as one of the nation's strongest, most well-known and most historically successful programs? If they can compete, then it's irrelevant.

At least Murphy grudgingly accepts that at least a couple of the current non-AQs ought to get the chance for inclusion in his "NFL-Lite" association:
Probably the majority of the current non-automatic qualifying BCS conference teams, with the exception of TCU and maybe BYU, would need to remain in the NCAA -- not that there's anything wrong with it.
"Maybe" BYU? With their average home attendance of 64,236 last year and their 43-9 record over the last four seasons? I'm not going to defend the antics BYU has been playing regarding their desire to go independent and the instability they're causing out west as a result, but I don't think there's any "maybe" in the Cougars' worthiness in being included in the top tier of college football programs.
If schools remained in the NCAA, it just means those schools have different priorities than the NCFL schools. The NCAA teams will be able to compete on a more level playing field with their own kind -- the majority of the current C-USA, Mountain West, WAC, MAC and Sun Belt teams. Maybe even some FCS teams could move up to the NCAA's FBS division.
But that's not would happen. The more likely result of the split McMurphy advocates is that the majority of these "left-behind" programs would simply wither away and die.

Under the current FBS structure there exists the illusion of parity: that any of its 120 schools could, under the right circumstances, play for the national title. It is an illusion because it simply can't happen under the current BCS system, but it's nevertheless very powerful. It's the idea that these schools are in fact part of the "big-time," and it compels fans of schools like East Carolina, Toledo, UTEP Colorado State or Hawaii to support their teams. Take away that illusion, and whatever support these programs have evaporates. What's the point, after all, in supporting a program that no longer has a chance, even if a very theoretical one, to compete with the best?

Fan support for theses schools would then be limited to a handful of die-hard alums and students. The casual fan would ignore them. The media would completely ignore these schools as well, just the way they currently ignore the FCS in its entirety. The result is that these programs would either drop down to FCS or disappear entirely. And college football would be a lesser sport because of it.

Proposals to trim the world of big-time college football to an elite grouping of schools always seem to overlook the fact that the fortunes of football teams change over time. Programs ebb and flow, become dominant and then dormant. Fan support and TV ratings rise and fall with these cycles. There was once a time when Florida State and Miami were not considered football powerhouses, while schools like Rice and Army were. Just a few years ago it would have been absurd to think of Boise State and TCU as top-ten programs. And storied programs fall on hard times, as the recent history of Michigan and Notre Dame have shown.

The beauty of the college football landscape is that it changes over time, and the sheer number of programs participating make it dynamic and unpredictable. Reducing the number of teams to a handful of programs that currently meet a set of arbitrary thresholds turns college football into little more than a static and predictable business venture. If you want sterile, all-about-the-money football, you already have an option: its called the NFL.

The eventual result of the "superconference," by the way, will inevitably be even more stratification, as programs like Missouri, Maryland or Indiana find themselves falling behind schools like Texas, Florida State or Ohio State in terms of revenue or fan support. What then? Do we reduce the top tier of college football even further, until only about ten or twelve truly "top" schools - the ones with half-billion-dollar revenue streams and stadiums seating upwards of 150,000 fans - ultimately remain?

And what of the effect that a non-NCAA "superconference" for football, such as McMurphy's NCFL, would have on other sports? I doubt the NCAA would allow schools to leave for football but to continue to compete for other sports - they're either all in or all out. That means no Big Dance, no College World Series. Sure, the NCFL could create their own tournaments for these and other non-revenue sports. But it wouldn't be the same, especially since so many great current and historic basketball schools like Villanova, Georgetown, Xavier, Seton Hall, Butler or Gonzaga don't play football. And a college baseball tournament without Cal State - Fullerton or Rice? Snore.

Finally, there are the political obstacles that stand in the way of the "superconference's" formation, especially in regard to state institutions. For example, guess what happens in the Texas state legislature if, as McMurphy suggests, Baylor is left out of his proposed NCFL?

McMurphy's article is long on arrogance and elitism but is rather short on logic. I can't help but wonder, in fact, if his entire article was tongue-in-cheek (and if so, I obviously just swallowed it hook, line and sinker). But there's no doubt that the "NCFL" that McMurphy describes is clearly in the minds of many among the college football elite, whether it be network executives or conference commissioners or big-money alumni at big-time schools. Thanks to the BCS, this greedy, cynical and flawed vision of college football's future is already coming into fruition.

For the sanctity of the game, it must be stopped. The best way to do that is by scrapping the BCS and implementing a playoff that treats all FBS schools, as well as their fans and their players, equally.

No comments: