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CGB Reviews: Death To The BCS: The Definitive Case Against The Bowl Championship Series

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Opposition to the BCS and support of the creation of a playoff to decide the NCAA champion is almost as unanimous as the hatred of the Big Ten’s new division names.  Thus in writing Death To The BCS: The Definitive Case Against The Bowl Championship Series, Dan Wetzel, Josh Peter and Jeff Passan faced a difficult challenge:  How to write this book without just preaching to the choir.  It’s not difficult to make a list of teams that were cheated by the BCS, and it’s not hard take the system to task for inherently discriminating against smaller schools and conferences.  It’s something that has been done by fans and writers across the country, from the mainstream all the way down to the smallest blogs and message boards.  So how could the authors make this book stand out?

That goal was accomplished with a shockingly thorough take-down of the entire bowl system, an analysis so vicious that it caused me to reconsider my opinion on the entire concept of bowls, from the BCS bowls all the way down to the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.  And how did they make such a convincing argument?  They "pored over thousands of pages of tax fillings, university contracts, and congressional testimony . . . we filed dozens of Freedom of Information requests."  The result is a look into the rules, regulations and economics of the bowl season that will turn your stomach and maybe, for the briefest of seconds, think that maybe Cal was better off staying home this winter instead of losing money down in San Diego.  Consider the following excerpts:

The Sugar Bowl, for instance, received $3 million in direct funding from the Louisiana state government . . . The government gravy train is so important to the Sugar Bowl that the game pays a lobbying firm in Baton Rouge to ensure its public financing.  With the bowl receiving so much, then, it stands to reason that what (Alamo Bowl CEO and BCS defender Derrick) Fox considers a charitable group would reciprocate the giving.  The organization brought in 34.1 million in revenue in fiscal 2007 . . . The Sugar Bowl gave nothing.  Not a buck to the Hurricane Katrina reconstruction effort.  Not a dime to a New Orleans after school program.

In 2008, the Bowl advertised a payout of 300,000 per team, yet required each school to sell 10,000 tickets, which cost both athletic departments 400,000 . . . For 300,000 and a pizza bowl appearance, N.C. State spend 730,000 and Rutgers spent almost 1.2 million.

Let’s be clear on the scam that’s going on here:  Lower-tier bowls exist solely because athletic directors are willing to lose their employers’ money to prop the games up.  There is no bowl game without the university’s open checkbook to buy tickets they won’t sell and support other expenses.  Yet the Ads have persuaded their employers to handsomely reward them for going to an even that wouldn’t exist without the school.

Those excerpts were all taken from three early chapters that focus on the utterly unfair manner in which bowls are currently run, and the research so convincing that it may have unintended consequences.  The obvious goal in the book is to make the case for a playoff and the case against the BCS, and that is done well enough, perhaps too well.  Like them or not, bowls have decades and decades of tradition.  There are undoubtedly a significant portion of Cal fans who are against a playoff because it might deny Cal the chance of a long sought Rose Bowl berth.  And for the authors the goal isn’t the destruction of the bowl season – they just want a playoff, and anything after that is merely incidental.

But if bowls continue to operate in the manner described in ‘Death To The BCS’ then I’d rather that they simply cease to exist than to continue to gouge universities out of money while continuing to hide behind underserved tax exempt status.  The simple fact is that the NCAA, with the permission of its member universities, has subcontracted out the right to profit from their own post-season, and the result is that people completely unconnected to the NCAA are making millions without providing any tangible benefit to participating schools that couldn’t be provided by the NCAA itself.

A few years ago, the money issues wouldn’t likely have piqued my interest so strongly.  But much has changed for Cal athletics over the last few years, and the athletic department is in a position in which it is absolutely vital to wring as much revenue as possible if they want to continue to run a robust program.  Reading about how college football has failed to maximize revenue makes me think that upcoming sports cuts would not necessarily have been required under a different revenue structure.  Tom Hansen's refusal to consider any kind of forward thinking progress during his tenure, his avoidance of calls for change and inability to increase revenue while still managing to soil the Rose Bowl as a tradition is detailed in the book.  All I can say is thank heaven for Larry Scott.

I didn't have many quibbles with the book.  At times it felt as though the authors were arguing backwards - they started with the desire for a playoff and the assumption that a playoff would be the best structure for most of the interested parties, and worked backwards from there.  It results in some over-the-top language related to what is ultimately a (supposedly) inconsequential part-time leasure activity for student athletes.  Even then, when there is so much evidence of both the corruption and graft within the bowl system and the inherent absurdities of the BCS, it doesn't seem to matter.  The authors can rest on that evidence even when their tone gets a bit more strident than the subject matter demands.

It's that evidence that makes 'Death To The BCS' worth reading.  There are countless examples of how college football is driven not by academics, competitive spirit or sportsmanship, but by money.  If fans deem these issues important enough to act on they can certainly speak with their wallets.  We can't pay student athletes, but it would be nice if the money they produce would go back as much as possible to the universities that pay their scholarships. Then that money can be used to enrich the experiences of other student athletes who have the misfortune of playing a sport that isn't beloved by millions of Americans, or to prevent hypothetically not-for-profit schools from operating under a constant deficit.  That's not necessarily the point that Wetzel, Peter, and Passan were trying to get across, but in light of current events, for a Cal fan it might be the most important lesson.