It’s a recurring theme here at Get The Picture: mission creep.
Mission creep. Most proponents of a playoff talk about a small scale proposal – usually, anywhere from four to eight teams. The virtues of this approach are that it does the least amount of harm to the results of the regular season, minimizes extra travel and keeps the extension of the season to as short a period as possible. What nobody talks about is how things would stay compressed. I like to point to the history of NCAA men’s basketball as an illustration of what occurs over time. When the NCAA started the tourney in 1939, there were only eight participants. Today, the field is over eight times that size. Because of that, the regular season has been reduced dramatically in its meaningfulness. How do you propose to prevent that from happening in football?
That’s what Tony Barnhart looks at today.
On the surface a four-team playoff looks like a no-brainer: Pick four teams instead of the current two. Let 1 play 4 and 2 play 3 in the semifinals. A week or so later you have a national championship game. Use the current bowl structure and the current calendar. Nobody gets hurt. Everybody makes money. The fans get something new.
So what’s the problem?
Based on private conversations I’ve had with some commissioners, here is the one big problem that concerns them. If you could guarantee that a four-team playoff would never grow into eight or 16 teams, then you could probably get a consensus among the commissioners to go for it. The Big Ten and Pac-10 wouldn’t like it, but you could probably get them on board.
But you can’t make that guarantee. The playoff would grow. [Emphasis added.] Remember that the NCAA men’s basketball tournament began with eight teams. Now it’s 65.
And if the playoff grows, then it becomes the focal point of college football and the regular season, which is the best of any sport, runs the risk of being diminished.
If the guys making the decisions can’t make that guarantee, what does that tell you? At least they’re honest enough to admit they’re concerned that an extended D-1 football playoff would change the unique nature of the sport.
… One commissioner pointed out to me that college basketball has basically become a three-week sport. It’s all about the NCAA Tournament. They see interest in the regular season literally dying on the vine. He pointed out that there is really only one marquee regular season game that is national Must-See TV game: Duke-North Carolina.
Football, however, is full of “premium” regular-season games that draw huge audiences: Ohio State-Michigan, Alabama-Auburn, Georgia-Florida, Texas-Oklahoma.
Again, I know that there are a lot of college football fans who don’t have a problem with that tradeoff (although many playoff advocates don’t want to admit that such a tradeoff exists). But Barnhart points out that for the movers and shakers it’s not simply a matter of preserving the regular season’s drama for drama’s sake. Thar’s gold in them thar regular season hills, too.
… In college football EVERY regular season game matters. The commissioners do not want to lose that drama because, frankly, it is worth a lot of money.
And there is not going to be a multi-level playoff in college football without cutting back on the regular season. The presidents won’t allow it. People say we can just do away with the 12th regular season game. Tell that to the athletics directors who need the money just to break even on their budgets.
Conference championship games certainly aren’t going away. The SEC championship game not only provides a $1 million to each of the league’s 12 schools, it is a great celebration at the end of the regular season.
Yes, there is a lot of money to be made in the post-season but no one wants to put the regular season at risk. A lot more schools are invested in the regular season than in the post-season.
In other words, the fear is that once you go down the playoff road – more specifically, once you go down the extended playoff road – sooner or later you hit a tipping point where the regular season rights become devalued. And the only way to make that up is to keep enlarging the postseason. At which point you’ve got something very different that what attracts your fan base in the first place. Given that, why, the presidents and commissioners ask, should we go down that road?
In the end, dear Brutus, the fault lies not in the conference commissioners, but in ourselves. As long as we fans continue to be as absorbed in college football the way we are, there isn’t much of an incentive to upset the apple cart. As Barnhart puts it,
… Here is what the powers that be in college football won’t tell you. Listening to the wants and needs of the fans—many of whom want a playoff—is important. But at the end of the day fans are not the only constituency in college football who must be heard and who must be taken into consideration. Fans will complain about the lack of a playoff, which they have been doing for a long time. But they are still going to fill the stadiums and they are still going to watch. The 2007 season proved that.
UPDATE: Groo has some thoughts in response to Barnhart. Specifically, he thinks Barnhart overstates his case in one area.
… Barnhart repeats a line that most college football fans dogmatically accept: In college football EVERY regular season game matters.
That statement has never made sense to me. Without getting too semantic over what “matters” means, it seems to me that relatively few games matter in the context of a national championship. You can’t tell me that the regular season is its own glorious playoff winnowing the field of contenders weekly while at the same time insisting that the South Carolina – Clemson game matters in any way outside of the Palmetto State.
Certainly in a sense I see his point. There are rivalry games that will always matter to the local fans, playoffs or not. And Notre Dame will likely continue to have a national following regardless of how the postseason is shaped.
Buuuuut… Barnhart is right in that if you’re a school in the national title hunt, every game does matter. Michigan found its 2007 national title hopes destroyed by 1-AA Appy State in the first game of the season. Does anyone really want to argue that the West Virginia-Pitt game – an intense local rivalry, by the way – last year would have been as important nationally if we had, say, a sixteen school playoff?
There are also the regular season rivalries that have developed not historically nor because of geographics, but because of what’s at stake in conference play. The example I point to there is the battle between Georgia, Florida and Tennessee for the SEC East. Those games matter because getting to the SECCG is so important. If you extend the national postseason to a level where a conference championship game becomes nothing more than a stepping stone to a higher seed in a national tourney (or an automatic berth for a mediocre team, a la March Madness), what then becomes the big deal about beating the Vols in October?