The Power Five, the media, and the former BCS: An analysis of the gap between the haves and the have nots

Through written publication and TV, the media favored the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), now referred to as “The Power Five” automatic qualifying conferences (AQ), over the non-automatic qualifying (non-AQ) conferences. From Sports Illustrated to ESPN, there was a media slant targeted at the voters, effectively creating an unequal distribution of bowl revenue between the AQ and non-AQ conferences. Through smoke and mirrors, proponents of the former BCS used the media to lead the charge in creating a false perception of inequality of non-AQ conferences vs. AQ conferences. The reason for this slant and media bias was simple: money. With over $1 billion in TV revenue invested in the AQ conferences by ESPN/ABC, Fox, and CBS Sports, the media conglomerates were simultaneously protecting their investment and shaping the opinions of the voters and the uneducated indirect spectator.  

The paper below was written in 2012 for an assignment for my Master’s Degree at Liberty University. Although some of the data is now slightly dated, the results of today’s NCAA vote for the “Power Five,” my analysis of the media bias is now firmly established as the soon-to-be autonomous “Power Five” will create a gap of haves and have-nots greater than ever before.  For the first time, the likelihood a David will ever rise again to defeat the Giants fades just like the former BCS. 

-MCW

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         The media’s affect on Football Subdivision (FBS) college football is undeniable. Yet, FBS college football benefits the media as well. Since the inception of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) in 1998, it’s no secret that no other system has created more hype, more frustration, more controversy, or most importantly, more money.

          Although the central focus of the controversy shifts from season to season, in general it is fueled by two common trends: Well-deserving, undefeated teams not getting a chance to vie for the BCS National Championship game and the perceived inequalities of non-automatic qualifying conferences (non-AQ) vs. automatic qualifying (AQ) conferences.  This perceived inequality is due to the media protecting its financial interests in the AQ conferences through media saturation and slanted broadcasts while highlighting the AQ conference schools and minimizing the significance and validity of non-AQ school wins.

           When you look at the top sports magazine subscription in the United States (U.S.), Sports Illustrated (Magazine, 2011), there has been a distinct difference in cover stories of the AQs vs. the non-AQs. Out of 88 different Sports Illustrated magazine covers from January 01, 2010 to January 01, 2011, FBS college football was featured a total of eleven times. Of those eleven cover stories, only three covers featured non-AQ football teams (Boise State on August 16, 2010 and October 4, 2010). One of those three cover stories was TCU, who shared the cover with Auburn and Oregon, two AQ teams, on November 15, 2010. As the most popular sports subscription in America, it’s just a small reflection of the overall big picture when it comes to big time college football: The rich get richer, and the so-called mid-major conferences have to go undefeated to even have a chance at the major bowl games. Is this simply coincidence or an un-ethical media slant? One thing drives this tendency and one thing alone: money.

            To understand why the media is slanted towards the AQ conferences over the non-AQ conferences, we must first define each. The AQ conference champions have automatic inclusion into the big money BCS games, while the non-AQ conference champions may be included in a BCS game if they meet certain pre-determined criteria.

            During the inception of the BCS in 1998, six “power conferences” in Football Subdivision (FBS) were deemed automatic qualifiers to the big-money bowl games: Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pacific-10 (Pac-10), and the Southeastern Conference (SEC). The champions of these conferences receive automatic bids to the four big-money bowl games: Fiesta Bowl, Orange Bowl, Rose Bowl, and Sugar Bowl. The remaining conferences have no automatic BCS bowl affiliation for their conference champion and are considered “non-AQs,” but can earn an at-large bid if they meet certain predetermined criteria. The BCS selection procedures state: The champion of Conference USA (C-USA), the Mid-American Conference (MAC), the Mountain West Conference (MWC), the Sun Belt Conference, or the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) will earn an automatic berth in a BCS bowl game if either:

  1. Such team is ranked in the top 12 of the final BCS Standings, or, 
  
  2. Such team is ranked in the top 16 of the final BCS Standings and its ranking in the final BCS Standings is higher than that of a champion of a conference that has an annual automatic berth in one of the BCS bowls (BCS, 2010).

            While the AQ conferences can contribute no more than two teams per conference, the non-AQs are only guaranteed one team if they meet the criteria listed above. The BCS selection rules go on to say, “No more than one such team from Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference, the Mountain West Conference, the Sun Belt Conference, and the Western Athletic Conference shall earn an automatic berth in any year. (Note: a second team may be eligible for at-large eligibility as noted below). If two or more teams from those conferences satisfy the provisions for an automatic berth, then the team with the highest finish in the final BCS standings will receive the automatic berth, and the remaining team or teams will be considered for at-large selection if it meets the criteria” (BCS, 2010).

          The only time two non-AQ teams were selected as at-large bids under both criteria was in 2009. TCU and Boise State both completed the regular season undefeated, finishing ranked #4 and #6 respectively. As the bowl selection special aired on ESPN, showing the nation who the non-AQs would face, the expectation was palpable. Most fans and analysts expected a highly anticipated show down between the, Champion of the MWC and non-AQ powerhouse, #4 TCU, and automatic qualifying Big East Champion, #3 Cincinnati. In addition, we expected the defending BCS National Champion, #5 Florida of the SEC to be paired against the other non-AQ darling, #6 Boise State, possibly in the Sugar Bowl. The “Davids” would finally get their chance to prove themselves against the “Goliaths.” However, in an effort to protect the image and false-perception of the superiority of the AQ conferences, as a consolation prize, the two undefeated, top ranked non-AQ teams were paired against each other in the Fiesta Bowl to ensure they did not shatter the image of the AQ conferences. Boise State went on to defeat TCU 17-10 in a virtual deadlock.

          In the 2010 season, TCU completed the regular season undefeated, receiving a bid to the Rose Bowl. Despite a late season loss to Nevada, Boise State still finished the regular season ranked #10 in the final BCS rankings. Having met all the at-large BCS selection criteria, Boise State was passed over by the BCS bowl-selection committee for AQ conference member, Ohio State, securing a second BCS bid for a Big Ten member.

          TCU’s at-large bid to the Rose Bowl in 2010 created the largest revenue for non-AQ conferences in the history of the BCS. However, there is still a huge split and disproportionate distribution of the revenue between the AQ and non-AQ conferences. Matthew Sanderson, founder of Playoff PAC, a political action committee aimed at prodding change to a playoff system, said the financial imbalance remains (Frommer, 2011). “That imbalance is unconscionable, given that it has no basis in post-season performance on the field and in the marketplace,” he said. “Only the BCS would try to pitch anti-competitive behavior as benevolence.”

          For the 2010 post-season, the four BCS Bowl games and the BCS National Championship game rotates on a yearly basis between the four different BCS bowl sites, paying participating teams $17 million dollars per bowl game, per team. The maximum of two teams per conference are allowed to participate in a BCS Bowl, bringing an additional $34 million in revenue to the conference teams (Duffy, 2011).

          College football conferences profited a record $170 million from this past year’s BCS bowl games, including a new high of $24.7 million for the five non-AQ conferences due to TCU’s at-large berth to the Rose Bowl (Frommer, 2011).   Although it seems like a hefty sum, the $24.7 million is a deceptive amount and are “tears in a pool” compared to the roughly $145 million the AQ conference netted (Duffy, 2011). While the BCS AQ schools split the proceeds with the other teams in their respective conferences, non-AQ BCS participants must share the proceeds with the four other non-AQ conferences in addition to their own conference (Frommer, 2011).

          Under the BCS system, six conferences get automatic bids to participate in top-tier bowl games while the other five conferences do not get an automatic bid. Those six conferences, which sent nine of the 10 teams to the BCS bowl games this year, received approximately $145 million. The Big Ten, SEC and Pac-10, which each had two teams in BCS bowls, received about $27.2 million each, while the ACC, Big East and Big 12 received roughly $21.2 million (Frommer, 2011).

         After the record profit margin, the AQ BCS-participating schools kept their profits within their respective conferences, and the non-AQ conference participant, TCU, shared their bowl payout with their own conference, the MWC, and the remaining four non-AQ conferences. The AQ schools received 85.2 percent of the available profits while the non-AQ schools received 14.5 percent. Had TCU lost during the regular season and been left out of the Rose Bowl, the non-AQ profit would have been reduced to 7 percent of the available bowl profits (Duffy, 2011).

          At $17 million per team, the BCS bowl games are very lucrative and beneficial to the participating teams and their respective conferences. The highest non-AQ, non-BCS bowl payout is the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, TN, featuring the C-USA champion against the #7 SEC team at $1.7 million per team. Although there are a few bowl payouts closer to $2 and $3 million, the majority of lower tier bowl payouts are $750,000 to $1 million per team (Poll, 2010).

        With all of its frustrations, the BCS has provided more access to the major bowls for all eleven conferences, more television exposure, and more postseason revenue than ever before (BCS, 2011). Although the statement, “more access” is debatable, the key word in that sentence from the BCS official website is revenue. Money is the most significant link between the media and professional sport (Woods, 2007). I would argue, thanks to the BCS and ESPN, money is the most significant link to media and FBS college football than ever before. The BCS Bowl games are all broadcast on ESPN, highlighting the AQ conferences and protecting their investment even more.  

            On the front page of the May 09, 2011 issue of the Sports Business Journal, there was a feature on sports media giants, ESPN and Fox establishing “one of the most unlikely unions in U.S. sports media history with the Pac-10’s media rights” (Durand and Smith, 2011). A few weeks prior to the agreement, Comcast was almost a lock to win the Pac-10 media rights with their bid of $225 million per year. Neither ESPN nor Fox had the ability to bid that much individually. Over a seven-hour meeting on April 28, both networks ‘pooled’ their assets and came up with a joint bid that would split the rights to the Pac-10 games at 22 football games each and pay the west coast conference $250 million dollars a year, equaling $3 billion over 12 years (Durand & Smith, 2011). Comcast’s best bid of $235 million fell well short of this huge financial windfall for Pac-10, an AQ conference.

            This media deal is by far the largest annual value of any media deal for an FBS conference. The next closest conference TV media deal is the Big Ten conference at $232 million annually with the Big Ten Network, followed by the ACC $155 million with ESPN/ABC and the SEC and ESPN/ABC at $150 million a year. All three of those conferences are AQ conferences. Media revenue deals between ESPN/ABC, Fox, and CBS College Sports networks and the AQ conferences total upwards of $1.05 billion annually (Durand & Smith, 2011). When you look at the money invested in these conference TV deals, why wouldn’t they protect their investment and promote the AQ conference teams? C-USA and the MWC are the only two non-AQ conferences with TV deals. Yet, their deal with CBS College Sports pales in comparison to the AQ conferences, totaling $27.8 million in annual revenue.

            ESPN analysts continually sell the argument that every week is a playoff. If you win, you move forward. If you lose, your chances of being in the championship game are slim-to-none. In essence, the BCS has made it so every week matters. For the AQ schools, they can still lose and win their conference, and get a bid to the big money bowl games. As for the non-AQ schools, due to the perceived false-perception of non-equality to the AQ schools, they cannot afford to lose if they want a chance at the big money BCS bowl games.

         However win or lose, ESPN and the media shape the opinions of the uneducated. The media slant favoring the AQ conference schools is further enhanced every Saturday morning as ESPN hosts its popular weekly live college football program, College GameDay. Since 1993, College GameDay has broadcast live from various college campuses across America, normally featuring the game they deemed the biggest of the week while previewing other key Top-25 games. Since the inception of the show seventeen years ago, of the 225 live broadcasts, only fourteen have featured non-AQ schools (Wikipedia, 2011). Non-AQ teams have been featured six times in the past two seasons. Arguably the most popular college football show in America, College GameDay has featured these schools only 6% of the time. Prior to the November 3, 2001 broadcast in Colorado Springs Air Force Academy campus for their game against Army, no non-AQ schools had been featured (Wikipedia, 2011).

            From Sports Illustrated to ESPN, the media favors the AQ conferences more than the non-AQ conferences. With over $1 billion in annual television revenue, any business-savvy individual can understand the sports networks’ need to protect its investment with creative reporting and a media slant. This continual trend brings into question the ethics of the media and ESPN in particular, and the fair and balanced nature of the leading sports networks and publications.

            The media creates the false perception of a huge gap of capability between the AQ and non-AQ conferences. Although financially, this is true, there are three non-AQ teams that have consistently performed well against schools in AQ conferences: Boise State, TCU and Utah. These three teams have two BCS bowl appearances each since the inception of the BCS and have won all of their matchups against BCS automatic qualifiers. Again, in 2010, in an effort to protect the image of the AQ conferences, the only time two non-AQ teams finished the season ranked high enough in the BCS rankings to earn an automatic bid (2009), they were not given a chance to prove the dissenters wrong and play an AQ school in a major BCS bowl. Still, these three teams have the highest winning percentage of all non-AQs against AQ opponents (Wikipedia, 2011).

            The BCS has provided something for the media to talk about every week. The BCS creates controversy, which fuels increased TV ratings. Interest in college football is at an all time high, producing revenue second only to the NFL (Woods, 2007). Even though 1/3 of the BCS rankings are a computer formula based on strength of schedule, it is still created by humans. The Coaches’ Poll which accounts for 1/3 and the Harris Interactive Poll accounting for the remaining 1/3 of the BCS rankings formula are both human polls (Poll, 2010). This means it is the responsibility of the voters to actually do their research and pay attention to the games and teams for whom they cast their vote. If the voters and uneducated indirect spectators continue to listen blindly to the media and the agenda they push, the controversy will never go away and there will never again truly be a fair consensus BCS National Champion in college football.

          Instead of fighting the powers that be, two of the constant headaches to the AQ vs. non-AQ perception have now been eliminated. Later this year, Utah joins the newly formed Pac-12 conference and TCU joins the Big XII Conference in 2012. With the third headache to the BCS, Boise State, being the only remaining non-AQ powerhouse, the media bias towards the AQ conferences and TV revenue at the top tier of college football will not change any time soon, although there is a viable solution out there. In Death to the BCS, the authors lay out a fair and balanced playoff system that equalizes and increases the revenue to all FBS conference schools, while finally providing equal access and credibility to the National Championship game, once and for all (Wetzel & Peter & Passan, 2010).  

         Although not yet official, with the results of today’s NCAA vote for autonomy for the “Power Five,” the five biggest revenue-producing conferences are one step closer to establishing self-rule. With this move, they will create a gap of haves and have-nots greater than ever before. Part of the appeal that simultaneously made the BCS the most intriguing and hated national championship producing system ever, was the Utah’s, TCU’s, and Boise State’s earning the opportunity to take out the Alabama’s, Wisconsin’s and Oklahoma’s, respectively. Unfortunately, the likelihood a David will ever rise to defeat the Giant again may have faded just like the former BCS.

References

BCS. (2010, April 26). Bowl Championship Series. Retrieved June 3, 2011, from BCS football.org: http://www.bcsfootball.org/news/story?id=4819597

College Football Poll (2010, July 30). CollegeFootballPoll. Retrieved June 3, 2011, from CollegeFootballPoll.com: http://www.collegefootballpoll.com/bcs_explained.html

Durand & Smith. (2011). For rivals, it was unite or lose. Sports Business Journal, 14 (4), 1,8,9.

Duffy, T. (2011, January 26). The Big Lead. Retrieved June 3, 2011, from big lead sports: http://thebiglead.com/index.php/2011/01/26/misleading-headlines-non-aq-schools-receive-record-payout-from-bcs/

Frommer, F. (2011, January 25). AP Sports. Retrieved June 03, 2011, from AP College Football: http://sports.ap.org/college-football/story?id=p2e6c481ce69641e58e66d87a4c8500fb

Magazine. (2011, June 23). MagazineCost.com. Retrieved June 3, 2011, from Magazine Cost: http://www.magazinecost.com/popular-sports-magazines/

Wetzel & Peter & Passan (2010). Death to the BCS. New York, New York: Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Wikipedia. (2011, June 3). Wikipedia. Retrieved June 3, 2011, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/College_GameDay_(football)

Woods, R. B. (2007). Social Issues in Sport. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

-MCW

@MCWingate

mcwingate@me.com

©2012 Matthew C. Wingate

 

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