Counterpoint: College Football Doesn't Need a Playoff
by Bruce McKinley, VT Class of 1986
TSL Extra, Issue #9

Editorís Note: this article is a rebuttal to "College Football Needs a Playoff," which appears elsewhere in this issue.

I was recently sent a copy of John Galinsky's article, "College Football Needs a Playoff" and was asked to provide my opinion on the topic of a playoff for Division 1A football. Considering the fame and notoriety that might result from the widespread publication of my thoughts, I gladly accepted.

Furthermore, just five years ago I had railed against such an idea in the written medium, so I figured I could plagiarize myself and complete the task with minimal effort.

Then I actually read "College Football Needs a Playoff." This wasnít just any olí playoff proposal. What do you know, it was written for The Sabre, drawing from some of the foremost football experts of our time (those would be Terry Holland and George Welsh). I could tell it was going to take all of my considerable analytical skills and then some to untangle the logical web woven therein.

Rather than get bogged down in a word-by-word analysis, let me begin by categorizing the issues for the interested reader. Then we will examine the issues one at a time and you can make up your own mind, free from the irrational and obfuscating methods (those that intentionally mislead or confuse in order to persuade) used by many who argue this issue. Itís something that us folks who like to reason based on systematic, logical methods insist upon.

These are six main issues brought up by those who advocate a playoff, and after all who could possibly be against any of them?

  • Money
  • Excitement
  • Justice
  • Because we can
  • Relevance
  • Everybody wants a playoff

Money: Itís All About the Benjamins

One of the first items playoff pundits like to pull out is the Moí Money argument. It goes like this:

Revenue records are expected to be shattered for the game.

There isnít an American alive that doesnít perk up and take notice when record revenues are suggested. But be careful -- you are about to get the old bait-and-switch routine. Spend the first part of the discussion pumping me up about the financial gain to be had. Then later argue the irrelevance of revenue:

So forget all of the politics and money and old menÖ.

George Welsh thinks it would be grand

especially if some of the extra revenue went toward providing small stipends to the athletes who help generate the money.

Get serious! How much are the basketball players who help generate all the money from March Madness compensated? You got it. Zilch. The athletes will never see any of that money. Because once everyone has gotten their take, there will not be enough to provide any meaningful compensation.

Letís try to ignore the logical breakdowns and the multiple bait-and-switch temptations to dream of jackpots that will never materialize, and concentrate on the issue. Which is it? Should the all-consuming, ever-increasing bottom line be the end-all of college athletics, and should we do whatever it takes to bring in more revenue? Or should we attempt to streamline the operation and protect the values which separate college football from the rest of the sporting world?

It must be admitted that reasonable people can differ as to what the answer to these questions should be. Some will prefer to pursue money at all times and all costs. Some will feel that it must be a good idea to try to get more money because, well, youíve got to fund all those other nonrevenue sports. But consider that the profits will be used mostly to build bigger and fancier facilities, trying to generate more profits. And all this for a non-profit entity (think about it!).

I say that although the system as we know it is very close to that end and seemingly headed in that direction, it in no way makes the mindless quest for more money the proper goal. The real question you must consider is whether the pursuit of bigger and fancier athletic programs at the possible expense of the very identity of the institution that is major college football is worthwhile. I say no.

Excitement: Whereís the Excitement?

And after weeks of buildup, the excitement surrounding the title game would be enormous.

This is college football, played by college kids. Shouldn't it be fun? Shouldn't it be exciting?

Pardon me, but the excitement surrounding major college football, as it is currently constituted, is at an all time high. That is, except at programs in decline. Next question.

Justice: A True Champion -- Without One We Just Feel So Ö Naked.

Do you ever have the nightmare where you show up for school but, whoops, where are your pants!?! Then you spend the rest of the day trying to make it home without anybody noticing. It all comes crashing down around you when you are forced to play hopscotch, naked as can be, at recess. You finally wake up in a cold sweat. I can only imagine that must be what it feels like to believe that without an undisputed champion, major college football is seriously missing something vital.

Iíve got to fall back on the facts here. If major college football is so critically broken, why is interest at an all-time high? Why have revenues not only reached an all-time high, but completely dwarfed those from the NCAA basketball tourney that playoff pundits continue to hold out as the nirvana of sports climaxes? What is so damaged about this system that it must be fixed?

Letís examine what the playoff pundits say about true champions. After once more parading the dollar signs before your eyes, they settle on the issue of justice.

More important than the economics, however, is the principle of fairness.

The current system is no good because it is not "fair," the champion is not "valid," and "deserving" teams say they didnít get a chance. But donít worry. The playoff pundit is there to present a system under which everyone is treated fairly, equally, and justice is served.

Which leads us toÖ

Because We Can: Therefore We Should

The issues are totally clouded when the proposals of possible playoff formats begin to fly. Every playoff pundit worth his weight in office pool bracket sheets has a proposal for the best (or more precisely, least bad) format and rules for major college football playoffs. In fact, the challenge of devising such a system in itself holds plenty of appeal. I suspect that even at UVa's esteemed Darden School of Business, though, they teach management and planning methods that are superior to "letís brain-storm and implement the best idea we come up with."

The system proposed in "College Football Needs a Playoff" says the first two rounds will be held at the home stadium of the higher seed.

That would ensure sellouts and cut back on travel costs and missed class time. The road team would not need to arrive at the game site until Thursday or Friday, just like a regular-season game, and it would get a large allotment of tickets to help mitigate the home-field advantageÖ. Following a Christmas Break, the semifinals would be held at a neutral, pre-determined site on the first Friday and Saturday in January. The winners would advance to the championship game, also at a pre-determined site, the Monday before the Super Bowl.

Letís look at this supposedly "fair" system. What it would ensure is that:

  • The lower seeds stand an extremely low chance of advancing. As it is, with an entire offseason to prepare for road games, home field advantage is worth 2.5 to 6 points. In other words, teams that might be evenly matched in a neutral site can be expected to lose by up to 6 points when dealing with the away game and hostile crowd. Now, the team which is already an underdog is forced to travel. This detracts from their preparation time and their schedule is disrupted. But they are expected to play a team they have just come to find out about a week or two earlier! Guess what? All those "deserving" teams saying they were left out are now "included," only to be summarily sent packing due to the overwhelmingly inequitable situation. And if they survive Round 1, they get to try to buck insurmountable odds again the very next week! Unlike the movie, gladiators put at such a disadvantage cannot continue to survive.
  • Fans of the lower seeds will not be able to attend, unless the opposing team is within easy driving distance. The proposal was obviously written by someone unfamiliar with making football travel arrangements in December and January, even when a four week lead-time is provided. Those who have done so know that it is very difficult and expensive, even when 21-day advanced airfares are available, to travel during this time. Now take away advance airfare discounts because you only have 6 daysí notice on who the next opponent is. You got it Ė that "large allotment of tickets for visiting fans" is going to be returned to the home team wholesale. And even if the game is driveable, it is very difficult to get hotel space at many small-town college campus locations on such short notice.
  • Should you be so fortunate as to have your team advance to the semifinals, you now have only two weeks to book your trip. Again, the naivetť about booking short-notice travel arrangements around Jan. 1 shines right through. It can be assumed that the author of the proposal was someone with either an unlimited budget or no serious interest in attending anyway.
  • The championship game? Forget it. You are not going. Under this scheme (and almost every other playoff proposal as well), the championship game is the Super Bowl, Jr. Itís already hard enough to get a ticket to the BCS championship game. But this one? You have less time to prepare. And if you were stupid enough to travel to the any of the earlier rounds, you donít have any money left anyway. Therefore the people attending the championship game will be corporate and NCAA-affiliated fat cats, not the fans of the participating schools.

And finally, after describing such a fair and just system, another attempt to sidetrack you with more dollar signs is offered:

And after weeks of buildup, the excitement surrounding the title game would be enormous. Therefore, so would the TV rights fees and other revenues.

Sigh.

Relevance: Those Irrelevant Bowls -- Who Needs ĎEm?

Now that we have established that a playoff tournament cannot be attended by the fans of the participants except during the first two rounds, and then only by the higher seedís fans, where does that leave the average supporter of each program? And what about fans of teams that didnít make the playoffs?

At least there was some intellectual honesty found in "College Football Needs a Playoff":

And when it comes to a playoff system, there is no useful role for bowl gamesÖ. Our preference: Blow up the bowls. Who needs 'em?

If a playoff were instituted (other than a 4-team post-bowl tourney, and probably even then), the bowls would die, and with it the ability of most fans to bask in post-season glory. There is no hope of a different outcome. The similarity to basketballís NIT is only apropos in that all national interest would wilt. However the NIT is sustained by revenues generated by hosting all but the final four at home courts of the contestants. This is completely contrary to what the bowl system is about. With no national interest and no revenue, the bowl system will die.

The "irrelevant and boring bowls" argument is usually proffered by those who a) do not have a particular team they are affiliated with, b) are affiliated with a team which has absolutely no chance to receive a bowl invitation, or c) have absolutely no interest in attending even if their team is invited to one (hello, Wahoos!).

Either that, or we'll boycott the bowls. (Oh, yeah, we already do.)

Iíve got news for you. These same "fans" would boycott the playoffs, too, unless perchance they were to be held in Atlanta (for those not in the know, Atlanta is the only bowl destination Wahoos will patronize).

The bowls are only irrelevant to those who donít attend them. For those who attend them, bowls are an exciting, fun-filled end to another great college football season. One last chance to prove your team is better than the other guyís. A rewarding experience for the financial and emotional effort youíve put into the team you sponsor. An excuse to head south (or west), break out the golf clubs & bathing suits, and experience a different city with 20,000 of your closest Hokie friends.

Yes I know it was cold in Jacksonville last January, but I played golf in the barely above-freezing weather anyway. The game temperature was actually quite moderate. Nashville í98 was downright brutal. It can also be cold in Memphis and Dallas (not to mention Boise Ė now thatís a bowl that should be dropped!) But who cares Ė the games and trips were fun anyway.

The folks who attend bowl games are, by and large, the very same financial backers of the football programs who make them competitive. The same people who pour major amounts of donated money into the programs. The same people who travel hundreds of miles to provide that home field advantage on game weeks. The same people who buy season tickets year-in and year-out despite the steady offering of creampuffs their coach may seem to prefer playing and their AD may seem to prefer scheduling.

Everybody Wants a Playoff

Hey, everybody wants a playoff, donít they? Itís just those greedy bowl committees and pesky university presidents preventing it. The point is, the fans who financially support the programs at each school Ė the sponsors of those programs Ė are the ones who will lose out under a playoff system.

Some readers may claim to be a) a diehard fan of a particular school, which b) has an excellent chance of going bowling in which case c) they would be in attendance. And they may insist that they have considered all the issues presented above, with clarity of thought and without bias. And they would still like to see a playoff because they think it would be great. Thatís fine. Itís dandy.

But you need to realize that there are many more like me who meet all three criteria, plus they believe the following suggestion from "College Football Needs a Playoff" to be founded on an improper assumption and thus logically invalid at best and deceptive at worst:

As long as the integrity of collegiate athletics is unaffected, what's wrong with giving fans what they want?

A playoff would irretrievably change the institution of major college football. It would change the do-or-die atmosphere now found on Fall Saturdays to the ho-hum of a Major League Baseball regular season replete with wild-card watches. It would eliminate the tradition of bowl games that many fans hold sacred and dear. It would go directly against what many fans who embody the financial foundation of the football programs want. These things represent the very identity of major college football. They make it special. They make it unique.

Unfortunately for those fans like me, the people who are most shrill will most often be appeased. In this case those shrill voices probably represent the numerical majority of casual "fans." Whatís more, to the networks, it is all about the Benjamins. Their talking heads continue to demand a playoff because it would likely generate more revenue for them. They obscure their motives by bandying about such phrases as "fairness" and "validity." The majority of casual fans also bandy about these terms, partly from a lack of understanding about the meaning of such terms, but also because they have been convinced by such faulty reasoning and misleading arguments as imparted in "College Football Needs a Playoff" and other proposals like it.

 

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