Rarely do football and politics collide, but when it comes to the high-stakes world of the post-season College Bowl Games, politicians have been known to try to get their share of the limelight. With Democrats controlling Congress, and Fox owning the television rights to four of the five biggest bowl games after a year of surprise victories and ranking upsets, the urge to “get Rupert” by changing how Bowl Games do business with colleges may be irresistible.
And it may end up doing the sport some good.
Unlike every other collegiate sport, big-time college football is the only athletic endeavor sanctioned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association that does not have an official championship or series of sanctioned play-offs. Major college football instead has a system of bowl games, dating back to 1902 when the Pasadena Tournament of Roses decided to stage a football game to accompany their annual New Year’s Day parade.
Today, there are 27 Bowls hosted everywhere from San Diego to Toronto. Each has arranged an agreement to invite teams from various conferences and each has a pre-determined cash payout to the participating schools, ranging from the hundreds of thousands of dollars to over $15 million. And after all those games, the national champion is settled by a poll, a computer – or when the system works – a game between the two best teams, called the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) Title.
So where do the politics come in? Well, every pols a “homer” – rooting for, if not flat-out protecting the home team. It’s one of the duties of public office. That’s why, when Brigham Young University was denied a spot in one of the four high-paying BCS games five years ago, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch held hearings in the Judiciary Committee. Hatch complained that the system limited access to the big-money bowls and was discriminatory against schools, like his home-state Cougars or Utah Utes. Although Hatch was ridiculed, he affected change, and caused the BCS to add a title game and open up access to deserving teams from the smaller conferences.
The current system which rewards universities based on reputation and resumes can have a real impact on students. When Texas head coach Mack Brown successfully lobbied to get the human pollsters to move his Longhorns ahead of the California Golden Bears and into a high-priced BCS game in 2004, the Pac Ten lost $5 million. Since the conference distributes bowl revenues evenly, that means that the University of California system alone was out $1 million and that’s not accounting for all the Rose Bowl merchandise they would have sold. That’s real money the colleges don’t receive.
While it is doubtful that the Senate Judiciary Committee has any power – other than jawboning – over college football, Congress can control the purse strings of the organizations that help run the system. Bowl organizing committees, like the Pasadena Tournament of Roses, are not-for-profit groups and many have set up foundations to receive and distribute their bowl proceeds in their communities. Meanwhile the bowls milk every company from Citigroup to Chik-fil-A for sponsorship money. Take away the tax exemptions and suddenly, all those sponsorship dollars would probably dry up. Yes, if Congress wanted to force real change into College Football, they indeed have the power – the power of the purse-string.
Not surprising, bowl game organizers are some of the most vehement opponents of a playoff system because it would effective render them impotent. A football-oriented club for local elites – these committees are a cross between a Chamber of Commerce, Visitor’s Bureau and Rotary Club – touting the benefits of their existence to include, “rewarding experiences” for those unpaid student-athletes: ‘The gates of Alcatraz open once again as the Diamond Walnut San Francisco Bowl tours its teams through this historic monument of American justice. At the Hawaii Bowl, players get to … witness a true Hawaiian ritualistic luau at night.’”
And if you think that the Bowl games’ fiduciary responsibility lies in promoting the public good – a key component in determining whether their activities are indeed charitable – think again! The BCS selection procedures are quite clear. Invitations to the game may be modified to take into consideration, “whether alternative pairings may have greater or lesser appeal to college football fans as measured by expected ticket sales for the bowls and by expected television interest, and the consequent financial impact on Fox and the bowls.” Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. thank you!
Now, you’d think that Senators like Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer might advocate change in how the bowl system works and its organized because it would result in a more equitable distribution of revenues for California schools that never make the BCS – Cal Berkeley and UCLA. But let me suggest another, more subversive reason, to prompt this Congress to act: Messing with the BCS means messing with Fox and its owner, Democrats’ arch-nemesis Rupert Murdoch! If Move-on.org ever figured that out, I am sure the liberal activist group would become a college football playoff’s number-one fan!