Kiss the BCS Goodbye

December 11, 2011

As illustrated by the recent scandal at Penn State, there are many things to be fixed in collegiate sports, but my proposal does not address these more serious issues. Instead, it is a simple rant from a sports fan. Please take it as such.

If I could change one thing about the college-sports scene, it would be to end the Bowl Championship Series. The BCS system is a relic of ancient history and is now one of the reasons that there is a continuing battle among conferences.

First, a bit of history. The oldest bowl game, the Rose Bowl, ritually referred to as "the granddaddy of them all," was first played on New Year's Day, 1902, in Pasadena, Calif. Michigan beat Stanford in a rout. In the 1930s other bowl games joined the New Year's Day party: the Orange, Cotton, and Sugar Bowls. There are now more than 30 of these games, many of which are matchups of two mediocre teams that did not qualify for one of the more prestigious bowls. Set your DVR now for the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, which will be a showdown between the sixth-best teams from the Big 12 (which has 10 teams) and the Big 10 (which has 12 teams). Really.

The season-ending bowl games have served as a substitute for the sort of tournament that determines the NCAA champions in other sports (including the spectacularly popular March Madness, as well as the football playoffs for smaller colleges, and competition in virtually every other NCAA sport). The traditional bowl system was not well suited to this purpose because of its preordained conference matchups, and many controversies ensued.

Rather than adopt a playoff system, a coalition was formed between the major bowl games (with the Fiesta Bowl having ousted the Cotton Bowl for a spot in this category), and the major conferences tried to tweak the bowl system by creating the BCS. Teams are chosen for five BCS bowl games (including a national-championship game held at one of the four major bowl sites on a rotating basis) using a formula that depends on a combination of polling coaches and sportswriters and using computer models. The two top teams are slotted into the championship game, and the other four games are determined by a combination of the rankings, the standings of the major conferences, and the whims of the bowl organizers.

The system, in place since the late 1990s, has been subject to extensive criticism. Some years there are excellent unbeaten teams that can lose the championship without losing a game. Other years, such as this year, there is one unbeaten team, and at least two teams with one loss that seem indistinguishable from each other. Further, teams that do not belong to one of the elite conferences feel they do not have a fair chance of getting a spot in either the championship game or one of the other BCS games. Even President Obama has weighed in, saying that he would prefer an eight-team playoff to the current system.

Switching to a playoff system has frequently been discussed and rejected by the relevant conference commissioners, bowl executives, and university presidents. Two arguments are typically given for maintaining the present system. First, the great tradition associated with these bowl games, and the charities they support, is said to be sacred. Second, it is argued that the education of the student-athletes would be severely disrupted by having to possibly play two extra games.

These arguments are specious and disingenuous. If the tradition of the old bowl games is really so important, they can easily be included in the new playoff system. And practicing for what can sometimes be six weeks between the end of the season and the bowl game cannot be that much less time-consuming than playing a couple of additional games. The Division III playoff has 32 teams and is wrapped up by the third week of December.

Even if you think the tradition of the bowl games is worth preserving, going to an eight-team playoff would help such bowls. Here is how it might work. In an eight-team playoff there are seven games. Give each of the existing bowl games one of the first-round games, played the first weekend in December. These games would attract more attention than any of the nonchampionship BCS games now because they determine who keeps playing. Then rotate the semifinal and final games among various locations, much as is done with the Super Bowl and the NCAA basketball tournament. For traditionalists, restore the championship game to New Year's Day, thereby shortening the season by a week even for the teams that play in the championship.

This system would not only be attractive to college-football fans, it would also help curtail high-stakes conference-jumping by colleges that want a share of that BCS money. This turmoil is leaving some conferences desperately short of teams. Rumor has it that the Big East has offered a spot to the Sorbonne.

The boost in television ratings should allow for nearly everyone to come out a winner, except possibly the conferences that now have to compete with upstarts from "second tier" conferences. Me, I am looking forward to Boise State making a run to the championship from the seventh seed in the playoffs.

Richard H. Thaler is a professor of behavioral science and economics at the University of Chicago.