Tuesday, October 18, 2005

College Football Championship

Each year, the champion of College football is determined through a system known as the Bowl Championship Series, which ranks the top college football teams and invites the top two teams to play for the championship. In addition six other highly ranked teams are invited to play in three other highly visible bowl games. Each year the BCS ranking system generates controversy over which two teams should play for the National Championship and which teams should play in the other three Bowl Games. Unfortunately this year Notre Dame appears to be getting a bad deal in these rankings. In addition to complaints and arguments about why a particular team should have a different ranking in the BCS poll, the controversy surrounding the BCS also brings calls for a playoff system to determining the National Champion (like this article, this post, and this comment among others). Unfortunately, a playoff system in College Football is just not feasible because it is a logistical nightmare.

The idea most often proposed is to hold a single elimination tournament with either the top four, eight, or even sixteen teams to ensure that every team with a legitimate shot at wining has the opportunity to prove that on the field. The models for this playoff system are the NFL’s playoff and NCAA Basketball’s Tournament. However there are significant differences between NCAA Division I College Football and the NFL and NCAA Basketball. These differences make a playoff system to determine the National Champion difficult if not impossible to implement.

Like college football, NFL teams play relatively few games (one per week) but there are relatively few teams in the league, which is split evenly into two conferences of four divisions each. So, in the NFL most teams play each other and all teams have common opponents. In college basketball, there are relatively many teams, but each team plays relatively many games including many conference tournaments. So, although many teams may not play each other, almost all teams at least have a few common opponents. In college football, there are relatively many teams, but each team plays relatively few games so very few teams play each other and very few teams even have common opponents. This fact makes it much more difficult to objectively seed a tournament in college football than in college basketball, or the completely objectively seeded NFL. These differences in and of themselves do not constitute an argument for or against a college football playoff, but they certainly place real constraints on the seeding issue.

NFL teams all play their games in stadiums that are physically located near major population centers so the majority of an NFL team’s fans can easily attend a game. In the NFL playoff system all games except for the Super Bowl are played at one of the two team’s home stadiums, which makes home field advantage an integral part of the playoff process. Home field advantage makes the complete objectivity of the playoff seeding critically important. In College Basketball, due to the somewhat less objective nature of the tournament seeding process all games take place in neutral stadiums so that neither team benefits from home field advantage. However, very few fans actually choose to attend these tournament games, likely due to time and travel requirements. The evidence of this is that either four or eight teams play their tournament games in the same arena over the course of a weekend and all tickets are good for at least two back-to-back games. This effectively means that fans from four or eight teams, who are in the area to watch their team also attend some of the other games, which helps fills the arena. If enough fans from the two teams playing the game were actually willing to attend each of the games there would be no need to sell a single ticket good for multiple games.

The seeding of a College Football tournament would likely be less objectively seeded than in College Basketball (certainly less objectively seeded than the NFL playoff), which would demand that all games take place at a neutral site*. Of the four BCS Bowls played in 2005, only three of the four actually had attendances higher than their capacity and all three of these Bowls were held in the week following New Years when many people have an opportunity to travel. Compared with the NCAA Basketball tournament venues, the BCS venues are huge with an average capacity of 78,000 vs. 22,000 at the Savvis Center, venue for the 2005 Final Four. Of course one of the reasons that so many people attend the BCS games is that each of these bowls was seen as the final game for the teams competing, making fans were eager to attend.

Although there is certainly interest in watching BCS bowl games, the facts of the NCAA basketball tournament make it doubtful that enough fans will be interested in attending a multiple week football tournament. The likely result of a multiple week college football tournament would be partially full stadiums for at least some of the games because fans would simply not be able to afford the financial and time costs of traveling each week. Solutions to this such as selling a single ticket to multiple games would probably not work because the longer duration of a football game – not many people would be willing to spend eight or nine hours in a stadium. A tournament would certainly be good for television networks, such as ESPN, but this would come at the expense of filling stadiums to near capacity.

A playoff system for College Football is not feasible and would likely represent a worse solution than the current BCS. Although the BCS certainly stirs up controversy, this controversy is an integral part of college football. College Football is and always has been a sport contested both on the field and in the press. Although determining an objective champion in College Football is a laudable goal, the realities of the sport and its fans make achieving this goal impossible. Instituting a playoff system would change the sport for the worse.


* (Although the NCAA Division III Football Champion is determined by a tournament in which most of the games are played at one of the team’s stadiums, all of these stadiums are much smaller, which limits the home field advantage. For example the stadium for the 2004 champions, Linfield only holds approximately 1760 spectators. Update: NCAA Division IAA also holds a playoff system. I found a website that lists the sizes of their stadiums here. With the exception of six schools all of these teams play at stadiums with less than 30,000 person capacities. So again, these playoffs are held at much smaller venues.)

1 comment:

Dan McGowan said...

Mike, thanks for posting my thoughts on the BCS on your blog. I went back and read this and thought it was excellent. Good work.