College Football's Monopoly Is Here To Stay

Seemingly everyone — fansplayersmediacoaches, even President Barack Obama— wants college football to eliminate the Bowl Championship Series and institute a playoff system. But because it is not in the interests of those who run the sport — the presidents and athletic directors of the major BCS schools — it will never happen.

It does not matter that a playoff system similar to “March Madness” would be wildly popular and could generate billions of dollars in revenue. That is money the NCAA, not the six member conferences in the BCS, would control. Money that would be redistributed to over 100 Division I football programs and allow smaller schools like Boise State the same type of chances to compete that Butler gets in college basketball.

Texas, Alabama, and Ohio State are not interested in helping their competitors. But, as public institutions with deep connections in Washington, D.C., and their various state legislatures, do not expect any “trust-busting” efforts coming against them anytime soon.

These programs are similar to many publicly traded corporations: They generate nearly $100 million in revenue annually, they have a weak grasp on a dominant market position (being at the top of their respective conferences) and they have very short-term minded shareholders (fans whose money and interest fund them). Their business models depend on winning; anything that weakens their place on the top of the food chain would be bad for business.

When a program like Texas loses football games, the athletic department loses money fast. Last year, Texas was coming off nine-straight 10-win seasons, including a berth in the national title game. Yet, after only one subpar 5-7 year, the demand for football tickets has fallen dramatically. To regain support, Texas, like any other corporation with weaker than expected revenues, made serious changes in senior management: the Longhorns hired new offensive and defensive coordinators this season.

The athletic department depends on a successful football team, and it is why ESPN is paying the school $300 million over 15 years to broadcast The Longhorn Network. To make its money back, ESPN needs to be able to charge large carriage fees to cable providers in the Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, and Houston TV markets, something that would be impossible if Texas football has a prolonged stretch of mediocrity.

The money that “revenue sports” (men’s football and basketball) generate through selling broadcasting rights and tickets goes back into the budget to fund the “non-revenue” sports (the entire Title IX-mandated female athletic program as well as the Olympic sports). Any excess revenue is re-invested to keep Texas on top of the college sports arms race: newer practice facilities, higher coaching salaries and bigger recruiting budgets.

College football has no commissioner like the NBA's David Stern or NFL’s Roger Goodell looking out for the interests of the sport. As a result, the only way to force the BCS monopoly to make a decision against their business interests would be a boycott that significantly affected their profits or an anti-trust investigation by the federal government.

Neither seems likely to happen: in most of the country, college football is an integral part of the culture of American higher education, while the BCS, like any other special interest, knows how to play the game in Washington. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) made noises about “anti-trust” issues after an undefeated Utah team, which was a part of the non-BCS Mountain West conference, was locked out of the national title game discussion in 2009. Utah is now a member of the club, receiving an invitation to the Pac-12 last year, and Hatch has not spent much time on the issue since.

If college football ever has a playoff system, it will have a similar structure. The top programs, and the ones with sufficient political influence, would split off from the rest of Division I and form “super-conferences”. Most importantly, the winners would play each other without having to split revenues with the non-BCS schools.

Content to know they can buy off any politician who gets too close, the BCS and its member schools are not really feeling the heat of overwhelming public pressure for a playoff system. So they churn out lazy propaganda about how bowls are important parts of American culture or how players cannot possibly lose any more class time even though the other three divisions (D-IAA, DII and DIII) don’t seem to have a problem with it. 

They know that public perception does not actually matter: they control college football and there’s very little that can be done about it.

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