The Capitalist goes Bowling

Rich Tucker
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Posted: Jan 07, 2011 5:14 PM

Sports fans have long wondered if there’s anything as meaningless as the NHL pre-and regular seasons. Thirty teams play 82 games, but end up eliminating only about half the field. Then 16 teams enter a playoff system that determines the real champion.

But at least the NHL’s most important games come at the end of the year, when an actual champion is crowned after a series of playoff rounds. Ironically, this year the NHL helped highlight the only sport that gets things backward, and piles many of its least meaningful games at the end of its season. College football.

New Year’s Day has belonged to college bowl games since the dawn of time, or at least the dawn of television. Was there life before televised sports?

For years the bowls actually competed against each other for our eyeballs. There would be two, three, even four games on different networks at the same time. If one game was a blowout, you could flip to a more interesting contest.

That’s still the case in the early hours of the day. Big Ten fans who were tired of watching Northwestern, Michigan and Michigan State lose could always flip over to ABC and watch Penn State lose (in what was, for awhile at least, a bit of a contest). But by 5 P.M. the competition between games was finished and the Bowl Championship Series took over.

Here’s where hockey comes in. On the night of New Year’s Day, the NHL’s annual outdoor hockey game was a much better viewing option than the BCS Fiesta Bowl, which pitted an overmatched Connecticut against a bored Oklahoma. The Sooners would probably have preferred to be carving up yet another patsy from the Big Ten.

The Fiesta probably didn’t care that its matchup was a dog (and not a UConn Husky, either). After all, it had no football competition. And that’s by design.

Over 10 days, the “big” bowl games roll out one by one. Instead of competing with each other the Rose, Fiesta, Orange, Sugar and Cotton (not a BCS member, but a kissing cousin) Bowls take turns matching teams with no hope of winning a title in essentially meaningless games.

After all that, the BCS will indeed match up number one Auburn and number two Oregon, on Jan. 10. So that’s a success, of sorts. Unless, of course, you’re a fan of undefeated and untied TCU, which won the Rose Bowl this year but isn’t in the championship picture.

Still, the BCS’ failures in past years, such as the season USC was voted number one by the Associated Press but didn’t get to play for the national title, overwhelm any arguments in favor of keeping it. Competition for the top teams would be a better response.

Recall that the Fiesta Bowl joined the big boys one year when it was able to offer princely sums to entice number one Notre Dame and number two West Virginia to play each other when they were both independents and could opt for any bowl. The power of capitalism at work.

Of course, once the Fiesta joined the top tier of bowls, it was happy to eliminate competition so it could remain there. Hence, it’s now part of the BCS. Funny how that happens. A little creative destruction would make the sport more interesting.

So would playing more games. The current system provides too much time off between the end of the season and the championship game. This season, Auburn and Oregon waited more than a month to play. No other sport does this. Imagine if baseball players were given the entire month of October off to recover from their grueling six-month season. They get too much time off during the payoffs as it is. Even the staunchest fan would lose interest if there were no games until November.

Gene Corrigan, who as commissioner of the ACC conference helped create the BCS, agrees with this. “I was against [a playoff] because I thought asking the players to play more than 12 or 13 games was wrong,” he told Washington Post columnist John Feinstein. “But now the presidents have gone ahead and approved a 12th game and the conference championship games so they’re all playing 14 games anyway.”

He now favors a 16-team playoff that would crown a true champion. For traditionalists, this would also preserve the current “minor bowls” which match 6-6 teams against each other in front of thousands of empty seats. Meanwhile, a playoff is “fair, it makes everyone a lot of money and it won’t hurt anyone academically,” Corrigan concludes.

Plus, it would make a lot of money for everyone. “There’s no doubt in my mind that there’s far more money out there than what we have,” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany admitted four years ago. Still, he opposed a playoff on the grounds that it would make the regular season less meaningful.

That probably wouldn’t be the case, since a playoff would allow teams to schedule better non-conference games, since they would no longer need to fear that one close loss might knock them out of the championship picture. And it’s difficult to imagine that any regular season game could be less meaningful that, say, this year’s Fiesta Bowl debacle.

It’s time for unbridled capitalism to improve college football.