College bowls: Too rich to die
Yes college football fans, you can have a playoff and your full menu of bowls too. There is enough interest -- and money -- to support both.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- There are many great myths in college sports, including the inherent contradictions found in the terms "athletic scholarship" and "amateur athletics," and what they have come to mean on most Division I campuses.
But as the debate rages for the next month about who should play in the college football championship, perhaps the biggest myth is the notion that setting up some sort of playoff to determine a champ would be the death of the college bowl games as we know it.
The bowl system is here to stay and can continue to thrive even if the Bowl Championship Series added a playoff game or two.
The fact is that the 28 games outside of the BCS bowls are widely successful business ventures in their own right. They can remain so even if one of the various "plus one" proposals floating around the game is instituted.
Plus one has become a catchall phrase that encompasses plans to use the BCS bowls to choose who should play in the national championship game a week later, rather than leave it in the hands of regular season polls and computer rankings.
Some fear that such a playoff would diminish the need for smaller bowl games. But if you look at the numbers behind games like the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Capital One Bowl or even the PapaJohns.com Bowl, nothing could be further from the truth.
Together, the non-BCS bowls have revenue of about $205 million, according to estimates compiled for me by the Sports Business Journal, which plowed through the tax filings that most associations that run these bowl games had to make as not-for-profit organizations.
Revenue for the non-BCS bowls has grown 32 percent since 2001. Many of these mid-sized bowls, featuring teams that wouldn't be good enough to qualify for a playoff, have seen their revenues increase in the 40 to 50 percent range - gains that would make the cash cow NFL proud.
These bowls are probably pretty profitable as well. The non-BCS bowls only paid about $80 million combined to the fifty-six schools that played in them, less than half of the $170 million that goes to the ten teams that make it to the BCS games. I'm sure it is more expensive to stage 28 bowls than it is to organize five. But the lower payouts to the non-BCS schools help keep some of the costs down.
So there is no need to get rid of the non-BCS bowl games. The overwhelming majority of college coaches and athletic directors who know that their football team's chances of making it to a BCS game are essentially slim and none would still welcome the opportunity to go to a bowl game.
In addition, these games help serve as a tourism and promotional boost to the various bowl cities who host them. You also have charities that get some of the profits from the games and a growing universe of sports cable networks hungry for established content to air. Add all that up and you have an institution that isn't going way even if there is a playoff.
I'll agree that it isn't realistic to set up a 16 or 32 team playoff using a rotation of the bowls as the early rounds of a tournament. It would prove difficult to sell tickets to those early round games in neutral site.
Plus, the extra games required for a playoff of that size would be a logistical nightmare. So it's unreasonable to expect the NCAA to set up a January Madness equivalent to March's popular college basketball tournament.
But a plus one system could help lead to a legitimate champion determined on the field and not with polls and computers. You could have the top four teams play in two of the BCS bowl games, with the winners of those games going onto the championship game.
Or the NCAA could have a hybrid playoff-poll system, with the top teams playing in the BCS bowl games as they do now, then having the teams that are ranked one and two after those games play in the National Championship game a week later.
Yes, it would still be using polls and computers. But this hybrid system would likely settle many, if not all, of the questions and debates about which two teams belong in the final game.
This season, when upsets were the rule and not the exception, five or six teams can make legitimate arguments about why they should be playing for the championship. Most of them would at least have a shot at the championship if the BCS games were used to decide who played in the finals.
Yet, some worry that if the BCS bowls were to institute a plus one system, it would start the game down a slippery slope towards a full-blown playoff tournament with numerous rounds that would swallow up the bowl games.
"We've never seen a playoff devised in any sport that did not expand over time," said Scott Ramsey, president of the Music City Bowl and chairman of the Football Bowl Association.
But there is growing support for at least looking at a plus one proposal. SEC Commissioner Mike Slive, who is the BCS coordinator this year, told reporters on the press call about this year's bowl selection that he's interested in looking into various plus one proposals.
Slive admitted there would be pressure to have additional playoff rounds if the plus one system is set up. But he believed there are important factors that would stop football from going down that road, namely that in a longer playoff format, schools would have to play games in early-mid December during final exams, or into the next semester by playing in late January.
There's also opposition from two of the BCS conferences, the Big Ten and the Pac 10, which were reluctant to form the BCS in the first place because it changed the traditional meeting of their champions in the Rose Bowl..
But those conferences eventually got over those concerns. There's no reason to think they wouldn't eventually approve of a playoff.
The fans want a playoff. The television networks who air college football games want a playoff. So some kind of limited playoff is probably closer to becoming reality today than it's ever been.