Is playoff stability an oxymoron?

If you’re somebody like me who really, really hopes the D-1 college football playoff never grows beyond the four-game format going into effect next season, you ought to take a moment to read Year2′s analysis of why he thinks that future growth is likely to take a long time to happen.  His basic point is one I made a long time ago, that the movers and shakers managing the postseason are going to be careful about killing college football’s golden goose, regular season revenue:

It’s fairly safe to say, based on those Big Ten splits, that regular season college football is worth on average about $1 billion or more to the five major conferences annually. As big a windfall as the playoff is, it’s worth less than half of that per year.

The best part about that regular season money is that it’s guaranteed. Some amount of postseason money will always be owed to these leagues provided they structure the contracts that way, but some part of it is always going to be variable based on who participates. Some part of it, in other words, is out of conference commissioners’ control. Mere loss aversion alone suggests that conference commissioners and university presidents will find it more palatable to lean more heavily on guaranteed regular season revenue than on variable postseason revenue.

After all, it’s not all additive. At some point, if you expand the postseason enough then the regular season will go down in value. The extreme example of this is college basketball, where March Madness is worth an average of $771.4 million annually. Extrapolating from what we know of the Big Ten’s annual basketball income, regular season basketball is worth nowhere near that.

It’s a lucid, logical argument that I ought to find convincing (and, truth be told, did, once upon a time).  And it should be especially so, because the same players calling the shots are the ones who have found themselves futilely chasing an ever larger set of March Madness brackets.  Year2 sees something of the limit that was flashed when the networks rejected the proposal to grow to 96 teams…

… but we already see a hint of pushback from the TV guys in CBS’s new deal with the SEC. It takes two to tango, after all, and expecting an even larger windfall for an eight-team system requires assuming that the TV networks will shell out for it. The CFP deal ends a couple of years before almost everyone’s regular season rights deals will end. I’ll bet ESPN and Fox wouldn’t pay significantly more for an expanded playoff until then, when they at least have the option of bargaining down the value of the regular season rights deals a couple of years later.

… but, for a couple of reasons, I’m not so convinced.

First of all, I think that underestimates the degree to which guys like Slive, Scott and Delany are convinced they’re the sharpest people in the room.  I look at them and see a bunch of 21st century Jed Clampetts who just happened to be in the right place at the right time controlling access to a product that consumers want and are willing to pay for, while most simply see the size of the contracts and are dazzled by the numbers.  I suspect those on the college side cutting deals think they’re smart enough to know exactly how to calibrate the size of the postseason product to obtain maximum revenue generation.  The problem, of course, is if it turns out they overshoot, there’s no way to get the genie back in the bottle.  Let’s just say I lack confidence in the skills of a Mike Slive (who, let us remember, is getting the CBS pushback Year2 cites because he negotiated what turned out to be a below-market TV deal in the first place) to find that sweet spot.

Second?  Well, simply, these are people who don’t handle crisis well.  Heck, they don’t even identify crisis well.  Remember, one of the reasons we’ve got this brand-spanking new playoff is a panic over what they thought at the time were declining postseason revenues that were causing the conferences to bleed money, and that’s turned out to be non-existent.  So what happens when the next terrifying thing (another ratings drop, or an O’Bannon loss, perhaps) hits?

At this point, all I want is another five or six good years.  If they manage to leave everything alone through the entirety of the new deal, I’ll consider that a win.

49 Comments

Filed under BCS/Playoffs

49 responses to “Is playoff stability an oxymoron?

  1. Scorpio Jones, III

    “I look at them and see a bunch of 21st century Jed Clampetts who just happened to be in the right place at the right time”

    Man….that is sublime…bubbling crude, indeed.

  2. Scorpio Jones, III

    Five or six good years sounds fine to me…and maybe, just maybe….Oh please God…a shot for us. I am now dusting off my knees.

  3. I read Year2′s post last night and was curious what your thoughts would be on it.

    I really, really hope he’s right. I do think that the plan as currently laid out (4 teams, then the conferences being more involved in bowl selection to create more interesting games) will be better than the BCS. And I can almost buy into what some people suggest with a 6 team playoff where the top 2 seeds get bye’s (though we know that won’t ever happen). But once you get to 8 teams or more, I’d rather have the BCS any day of the week.

    I’ve posted it once before but the biggest thing I dread is that the playoff pool gets large enough that you start seeing the top ranked teams sitting their best players on rivalry weekend, because being healthy for the playoffs will be more important than beating your biggest rival. I think the likelihood of seeing that happen starts at around a 16 team playoff. I mean look at Bama this year…….if they rest their top guys and lose to Auburn, they would still be in a playoff with a pretty high seed (in this case, probably still a top 4 seed, which in a 16 team playoff is really good). Plus, they wouldn’t have to go to the SECCG, so their team overall would be more rested for round 1 of the playoffs. The incentive to succeed and make it to the conference championship game when it comes down to the last week of the season actually goes down for the top ranked teams when there is a larger playoff.

    Auburn fans would be able to gloat that they won the Iron Bowl in that scenario, but if the strategy worked for the playoffs and Bama won the national title, all of a sudden that Iron Bowl win just doesn’t shine as much. And Saban would be considered even more of a genius for having his team rested going into the playoffs. The devaluing of the regular season would be complete.

    I just hope it never comes to that.

    • Sam

      Give the higher ranked team home field advantage all the way to the final and you solve any issue about resting players or deliberately losing to rivals. PLUS. There’s no way in HELL that I’d trade a loss to Tech for ANY kind of playoff advantage. What makes you think any fan base would stand for something similar? You think Harvey Treepoisoner and his like in the ‘Bama fanbase would stand for losing to Auburn to gain a playoff advantage? They wouldn’t lose to Auburn for a winning lottery ticket, 72 virgins, and world peace.

      • uglydawg

        Very good points, Sam..(But in a different way than Ellie May Clampett’s).

        • Macallanlover

          Liked Ellie May’s “points” much better, but I agree with Sam that using home field will further insure teams play all out every game. To have games two weeks after “championship Saturday” you have to use the existing ticket system of university stadiums. They are equipped and can run exactly as their regular season games, including using season ticket holders, students, and same allocation for visiting teams. As with other sports, teams can be allowed to print/sell playoff tickets in advance if they are close to being in the Top 4. Most large schools already have the wireless ticket capability allowing fans to print their own at home. Biggest logistical issue would be hotel rooms on short notice for small college towns.

          • They don’t have to do anything other than chase the biggest checks, Mac. Maybe that’s a home campus game, maybe not.

            I honestly don’t understand why some of you assume the guys in charge think exactly like you do.

            • Sam

              Since none of us are in tight with the guys in charge, absent any mindreading abilities, assumptions are all we have to go on. Including you. :-)

              • I see. So how these guys have actually acted is irrelevant.

                • Sam

                  We don’t disagree that the playoff will be expanded. That’s inevitable. Where we disagree is how it will impact the game. What makes you think that my prediction isn’t based on how the movers and shakers have acted?

                  From the first Bowl Alliance, the movers and shakers actions have been predicated on maximizing ratings by putting together the #1 and #2 teams and also by removing control from the bowls. What do you think would get higher ratings, Michigan vs. Texas in a half-empty stadium in Miami, or Michigan vs. Texas in a packed Big House or Austin? Putting playoff games on campus makes more sense from a ratings perspective, and it further removes control from the bowl games – something that the Bowl Alliance and the BCS did.

                  Home field advantage will be a part of the college playoff landscape. Home field advantage will make the regular season more relevant, therefore more profits. And heading towards the bigger money/more control of the product is definitely something the movers and shakers have done in the past.

                  • We don’t disagree that the playoff will be expanded. That’s inevitable. Where we disagree is how it will impact the game. What makes you think that my prediction isn’t based on how the movers and shakers have acted?

                    Gee, I dunno. Maybe it’s the way they’ve expanded every other playoff they’ve gotten their hands on. Or maybe it’s the mad rush of conference realignment. The idea that they have some concrete strategy that’s been driving everything for the last two decades is laughable.

                    And I don’t know where you’re getting this story about removing control from the bowl games as part of the storied history of the BA and BCS from. There was clearly a point when the Pac-10 and Big Ten were threatening to walk away from the deal over the Rose Bowl. What’s going on with the bowls now is a fight over who gets the lion’s share of the existing pie. If in the future there’s more money to be gained from playing neutral site games than playing at home – maybe you’ve noticed the proliferation of those in the regular season of late – then that’s where they’ll be played.

                    And TV ratings being the result of how full a stadium is? Interesting… maybe somebody should tell ESPN.

            • Macallanlover

              You do realize you are no different in assuming you have an inside track to what “they” are thinking, and how it will play out, don’t you? I have no problem with you feeling differently on the issue but you are very condescending by thinking I/we are all gullible, or misguided, while your take on it is dead-on. We all just have opinions, I don’t think any more of your thinking on the playoff situation than you do on mine. 50 years from now, neither us may be even close to what actually happens to CFB in this country…in fact, I think that is more likely than either of our takes on it.

              • I’m not claiming to have an inside track, Mac. I’m just looking at what they’ve done over the past few years and wondering why anyone thinks that their motivations are the same as the average fan’s, when it’s clear they haven’t been so far.

                As I’ve put it before, if somebody like you were in charge, I wouldn’t fret so much. But you’re not.

                • Macallanlover

                  I don’t feel they have the average fans’ outlook but I do feel there are some people who care very much about the game, as you do, and will not allow it to be ruined. While money is behind so much of the thinking, I think there are people of integrity who will draw a line; that might not be where you and I would, but the idea of a 32 or 64 team playoff is ludicrous if for no other reasons than logistics and lack of home revenues. I could argue against a 16 team playoff being implemented, but that would be silly since one exists already in 1 AA. I do think many more fans come over to your side once it gets to eight, including me.

                  • I don’t sense any desire for a 32-team playoff out there. But I do sense a newly strengthened desire to squeeze as much revenue out of CFB as possible. The risk is that they miscalculate where the limit exists and wind up enlarging the playoffs to make up for the losses they suffer from regular season money, which is essentially the story of CBB.

                    • Macallanlover

                      Virtually all change entails risk so I certainly don’t deny there are those involved capable of making bad decisions. Add to that the diverse backgrounds and needs of those involved in what is a “committee” decision and my confidence wanes even more, especially with the amount of money in play. But I don’t feel we are any where near expansion, at least beyond 8, as there is just little demand for 16 teams from the present two. I do feel expansion to 6/8 is inevitable, not just because all expansion is inevitable but because they simply didn’t address the major concerns when moving to four; it just didn’t satisfy either playoff opponents, or supporters. It won’t happen in the next 3-4 years because enough examples of how far short this move to 4 teams falls will not have occurred. I do think it happens before the current contract expires (fingers crossed). I just don’t think a system that took 60+ years to force better bowl matchups and 16 years of the BCS is capable of moving any faster than that so I will just hope to see an 8 team playoff in my lifetime.

      • Patrick

        Shortsighted.
        College football has taught you the importance of the Tech game over decades of history.
        But it will only take one year of expanded playoffs to teach you which games are important going forward.

        • You beat me to it, and made the point much more concisely than me. :)

          You can’t look at rivalry games the way you do now and think you’ll still look at them the same way in an expanded playoff era.

        • Sam

          First, you don’t erase decades of tradition/history in one year. No matter what year it is. No matter what happens.

          Second, we’re not talking NFL, where you’re competing only against 3 other teams for a playoff spot. You’re competing against the rest of the nation. Sit people and lose late, and you might get bounced from the playoff when you lose to the rival. If there are no automatic bids, no one’s risking a late season loss.

          You’d have to expand the playoffs to 20 or 32 for teams to start throwing games like that. Not going to happen. Plus: once you get past 4 teams, you’re going to have to give up the idea of neutral sites. You sorely underestimate the impact of home field advantage, which has a larger effect in college than in the pros. No one’s going to sit starters and risk home field advantage.

          Fear of throwing games by sitting starters is meaningless. Period.

          • Dawgfan Will

            Texas-Texas A&M would like to talk to you about erasing tradition in a year.

            • Sam

              No, they wouldn’t. Texas spent decades alienating Texas A&M and the rest of the conference by screwing them financially. A&M’s break for the SEC wasn’t a one-year thing.

      • It’s very easy to think that way now. But all it would take is a star QB or RB blowing a knee in a rivalry game when they already had a high playoff seed sewn up for people to start saying “Why was he even playing? Now our national title hopes are shot”. And I guarantee in future years after that, you would start seeing top players be rested. Again, you are looking through the lens of our current view. The view in a large (16 or more teams) playoff world will be much different. At some point expansion will lead to playoffs taking precedence over rivalries, it just will, whether you want to believe it or not. And when that does happen, college football just becomes NFL-lite. And that will suck.

        • Sam

          And that kind of injury happens how often? I’ve been following Georgia football since 1979 and I’ve seen our best offensive player go down ONCE in 34 years. Zeier in 1994.

          And how would you “sew up” a high seeding? No automatic bids are proposed. Seeding gets done after all games are final. You drop a game to a rival, that seeding is going to plummet. If you get past a 4 team playoff, neutral sites will be discarded in favor of home/away. You lose late, you risk dropping from a higher to a lower seeding, and losing home field advantage, which we all know is much more significant in college than the pros.

          • No offense, but you make an awful lot of assumptions there to support your position. But in any event, here’s something for you to consider: why wouldn’t contending schools start scheduling cupcakes as season enders, just so they could rest key starters without risking anything?

          • GaskillDawg

            How about Buck Belue’s broken ankle in the first quarter against Auburn in 1979? You were not following UGA in 1977 so you did not know our top 5 QBs went down ilthat year. Rodney Hampton missed games with a knee injury in 1989 including going out in the first quarter against Tech. Robert Edwards went out in 1995. Quincy Carter went out with a thumb injury in 2000. Lost DJ Schockly for a game in 2005. Aaron Murray and a slew of guys got hurt in 2013.

            • Sam

              The basic argument posed is that playoffs might result in teams sitting players against rivals and giving up those games to keep starters healthy for playoffs. So remind me how many of those injuries happened against Tech. Not Auburn, or Tennessee, or Kentucky, or LSU, or Clemson. Tech.

              • GaskillDawg

                Rodney Hampton in 1989 and 2 quarterbacks in 1977.
                You can define the set so narrowly to support your argument. If we ignore the risk of injury then we do not buy insurance. How many times has your house burned down? Never? Oh, why buy homeowners?

                • Sam

                  Sorry, I’m not giving you 1977. According to Cromartie, we were on our 4th string QB entering that game. And I’m not giving you Hampton, either, considering that he gained almost half of our total yards against Syracuse in the Peach Bowl that year. The only time our absolute offensive star/leader has gone down with a season ending injury against Tech was in 1994 with Zeier. Once in 37 years.

                  Your analogy with insurance is inapt; the risk/reward ratio is entirely different. You lose a house without insurance, you lose your entire way of life permanently. You lose one player for one playoff, you don’t lose your entire program permanently.

              • The injury doesn’t have to happen in the last game. Choosing to give a kid an extra week to recover from an existing injury for the playoffs doesn’t seem far fetched in the least.

                • Sam

                  How many players have been put on the bench to not risk losing them for the SEC Championship game, which has been a play-in game for the national championship several years in a row now? And how often does it happen on the 1-AA level?

    • Macallanlover

      As much as I disagree with your viewpoint about playoffs in general, I agree that expanding the playoffs to, and beyond 16 teams would give some validity to the “diminishes the regular season” crowd. It might be higher, but 8 is plenty to be inclusive enough while being very exclusive/elite. It is all about proportion, something the NFL/MLB/NBA etc. doesn’t get. In the meantime, we to get above 4 very quickly to do this right.

  4. Sam

    I’m in favor of a ten team playoff. Play-in and first rounds in December, second and third rounds in January. Games to be home games for higher seeds. Final at neutral site. Eligibility for the playoff, play-in bye, and home field advantage would make regular season games very relevant. If you did that this year, you’d probably see:
    Play-in:
    A. Oregon at OK State
    B. South Carolina at Ohio St.

    First round, bracket 1:
    Game B winner at #1 FSU
    #5 Stanford at #4 Michigan State
    First round, bracket 2:
    Game A winner at #2 Auburn
    #6 Baylor at #3 Alabama

    Still plenty of teams left to make bowl games from. Top 10 is all you need; beyond that and low vs. high seed games wouldn’t be competitive. I think every game on this slate holds the possibility of being competitive.

    I don’t like the 4 team playoff because it would often reward an SEC team for not making the championship game at the expense of a team that actually made it there. Like Florida last year, or Alabama this year. A ten team playoff would allow a 2012 Georgia to make the playoffs, albeit with a harder road. I also don’t think there’s a lot difference between #4 and #6. Top Ten Playoff has a ring to it, I think. And how many times have we had a disappointing BCS national championship game because the unbeaten team was a paper Buckeye, whoops, I mean, tiger? Ten teams would expose that early and let us crown the best team.

    • Cosmic Dawg

      The 2012 Georgia team did make the playoff and lost to Bama, in almost exactly the scenario you outlined above, though, right?

    • Connor

      If the playoff we get is not the playoff you want, who’s fault is that? One of the problems with this whole thing is everyone can imagine a playoff they like, but almost everyone is imagining a different playoff. What are the odds it ever pleases even half the fans? And when it doesn’t… time for more playoffs.

  5. ASEF

    CBB has to deal with the serious dilution of the product. We’re up to, what, nearly 400 tourney eligible teams now? They are all on TV all the time. As long as CFB remains essentially a Saturday sport with 70+\- teams, the people calibrating the regular/post-season balance will be way past the line before they ever realize it.

  6. Bright Idea

    The stress on teams playing extra games around an academic calendar will be a problem but don’t bet against the 8 teams before 12 years. If the Big 10 gets left out of the top 4 for a couple of years the howling will start. Who notices basketball for mid January? I don’t.

  7. eagledawg

    I don’t know. A 16-team playoff MIGHT mean that teams would be more willing to schedule a tougher non-conference opponent during the regular season. If Georgia knew you still had a chance to make the playoffs at 10-2, or maybe even at 9-3 in some circumstances, why not get yourself ‘playoff-ready’ by playing those Damon Evans games? 16 teams might make the regular season less ‘meaningful’, but it also might afford the opportunity to make it more entertaining (and afford AD’s more chances to fill stadiums – and coffers). I would rather see Ohio St. and Oregon than UL-Lafayette and Florida Atlantic. Just a thought.

    • eagledawg

      I would add that a 16 team playoff would only work if the conference championship games were eliminated, IMHO.

      • ScoutDawg

        Yes this^ because those SEC championship games have all sucked so bad. I just threw up in my mouth. Except for this years’ BS SEC championship game, that game is usually the best game of the season.

  8. 1996Dog

    I think Year2 gets it exactly backward. The 4 team playoff is going to revolutionize football in just a couple years, everyone will want to be part and people will be disinterested in everything once their team’s out of it. Much worse than today. The playoff will be expanded quickly and large (more than 16 teams) to maintain interest in the regular season, by creating more relevant games. Coaches and athletic directors will make this their #1 goal because the excellence demanders in their fanbases will want heads to roll every time their team doesn’t make the playoffs. If that’s 4 teams…that’s a lot of heads and a lot of bloodshed. The other thing that’s going to happen is that “major” bowls that aren’t part of the playoff will be 1/3 to 1/2 empty unless they radically drop their pricing. Everyone will want it expanded accept a couple thousand fans who care more about narrative than about entertainment.

  9. The Elephant In The Room

    The AP is doing a fine job. Rarely uncontested. Just add a +1 when it’s not. Jesus Christ Silicon Valley.

  10. hunkerdowndawg

    If Slive and Delany are ever the smartest guys in the room… that room would be thick. Thick as a brick. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=27tEYm_ggiI

  11. When Slive ,Delaney and Scott get in a room with Obama,Emanuel and Sibelius who is the smartest person in the room ? Careful it’s a trick question. I’m getting sick of all these wizards of wise. All these wizards are fixing systems that aren’t broken and discounting the most immutable law in the world…the law of unintended consequences.