Legislation could threaten Orange Bowl's presence in South Florida
By Scott E. Pacheco
A change in the way college football's national champion is crowned could jeopardize the Orange Bowl game's annual presence in South Florida, local sports officials say.
University of Miami Athletic Director Kirby Hocutt said a playoff system that many in Congress are pushing for could drastically alter college football's postseason landscape and the $20 million paydays that go to football conferences that are prominent in the bowl picture.
"I am not in favor of a playoff system that I have seen proposed — a playoff scenario would change college football significantly as we know it today," he said. "It's going to take away attention from probably the most popular regular season in all of sports. I believe that bowl games and the host cities in which they are located in have been great for college football and the young men that play it.
"…Is the system perfect? No, it's not, but it's the best we have now."
The current setup revolves around the Bowl Championship Series, or BCS. John Swofford, a BCS coordinator and commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference, was quoted in the Washington Post as saying a playoff system would essentially end the bowls as they are known:
"It will be very difficult for any bowl, including the current BCS bowls, which are among the oldest and most established in the game's history, to survive" because sponsorships and television revenue would go toward playoff games.
Legislation introduced by Rep. Joe L. Barton of Texas would prohibit the NCAA from promoting its title game between the two top-ranked teams as a national championship game unless the two teams reached the title tilt through a playoff system.
During a May 1 hearing before the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, three members of Congress said Federal Trade Commission action could be implemented should college football administrators not make voluntary changes.
And Mr. Barton warns that the bill could have the support to make some noise.
"… I think there is better than a 50 percent chance that if we don't see some action in the next two months on a voluntary switch to a playoff system, that you will see this bill move," Mr. Barton said in the Post article.
Proponents of the legislation argue that a playoff would allow teams from smaller conferences to get a fairer shake to get into the national championship race. Opponents say it would shred the current and tradition-steeped bowl system that's been in place for decades, though only in more recent years have the major bowls been part of the Bowl Championship Series, which includes Miami's 75-year-old Orange Bowl.
"Is there a system that could include the bowls? Maybe," said Mike Sophia, executive director of the Miami-Dade Sports Commission. "I'm not sure there's a good way to do it that includes the bowls. Any changes would have a significant impact on the Orange Bowl and the way we do things now."
The Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, Pacific-10 and Southeastern conferences currently receive automatic bids to play in the five Bowl Championship Series bowls, which includes the Orange Bowl. Each conference with an automatic BCS bid receives about $18 million, while the other five conferences receive much less.
The current system has a 12-game schedule, during which weekly rankings are released. Sometimes just one loss is enough to knock a team out of contention to play in the national championship game.
"From our standpoint, the bowl system certainly has its uniqueness," said Eric Poms, executive director of the Orange Bowl Committee. "It feeds into the fact that college football's regular season is special — that needs to be protected."
Before the BCS was created in 1998, each bowl game, played after college football's regular season, had deals with certain conferences to host its champions. This created a situation in which the two best teams in the country often didn't play each other in a bowl game because of their obligations to specific bowls.
The BCS unified the major bowls and guaranteed that the two top-ranked teams would play each other.
"The 1-2 match-up that the BCS created — prior to BCS they only met 11 times… it always has achieved a number one and number two match-up," Mr. Poms said. "… It's rewarding the best two teams from the regular season, not the two hottest."
Still, some see the BCS as flawed by a setup that can leave an undefeated team such as 2004's 13-0 Auburn University Tigers out of the title game in favor of undefeated Oklahoma and Southern California.
But talks of change continue as teams from non-BCS conferences have continued regular season success. Boise State, a member of the Western Athletic Conference, finished the regular season undefeated three times in the past five years but was invited to a BCS bowl game only once.
"How many more years do we have to go undefeated before we get a chance?" said Boise State Athletic Director Gene Bleymaier in a Washington Post article.
But in addition to controversy, the BCS also has created a marketing bonanza, exemplified in the four-year, $320 million TV deal the BCS has with Fox for the rights to just three of the five games.
UM's Mr. Hocutt said the BCS money that comes into the Atlantic Coast Conference is split evenly amongst the universities, with UM's share going to support "overall operation budget to team travel to recruiting travel."
Asked if the school would take a financial hit by moving to a playoff system, Mr. Hocutt said that it is "hard to say" and that there are "so many unknowns."
Most agreed that having the issue reach Congress definitely warrants some attention.
"Any time Washington has hearings in the House and the Senate — everybody in intercollegiate athletics takes it very serious," said Mr. Poms.
"When it raises to that level… it draws everybody's attention to it," Mr. Hocutt said.
This year's Orange Bowl game brought visitors who left tens of millions of dollars in local cash registers.
So it's small wonder William D. Talbert III, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, is miffed that Congress might interfere. Members have bigger issues than college football to address, he says.
"I think Congress needs to focus on running the country rather than college football," he said. "This is so ridiculous. We have an economic situation in the country that's as serious as there has been in all of our lifetime. For Congress to spend one moment focusing on this issue is utterly ridiculous."
Ultimately, the game will continue to evolve and the powers-that-be will continue to work toward a more perfect system.
"We in the industry have to come up with alternatives to improve the game," Mr. Hocutt said.
One alternative would be a plus-one format that would pit the two best teams in the nation after the bowls. Mr. Poms said the Orange Bowl Committee was "open to that discussion" and that the idea has "some viability in working in terms of the bowl structure."
Regardless, in Miami, the Orange Bowl means more than dollar signs and sponsorships, and is a cultural staple here.
"Obviously the Orange Bowl is very important to the University of Miami," UM's Mr. Hocutt said. "We played in the first Orange Bowl game. We have had great success and tradition. It's very important to us. It's been very important to our tradition and history."
Zachary S. Fagenson contributed to this report.