Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Patrick Hruby (writer, Sports on Earth and The Atlantic), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic) discuss college football's new postseason tournament, the College Football Playoff.
As far as product names go, it's less Kleenex, PlayStation, or Twitter than store-brand macaroni and cheese, an unimaginative exercise in what-you-read-is-what-you-get. Are you ready for the "College Football Playoff?"
I hope so, because that's literally what's coming.
Earlier this week, the sport's power brokers revealed the official moniker for their in-the-works four-team postseason tournament—a replacement for the much-reviled Bowl Championship Series, something fans long have clamored for—and while they claimed they hired a marketing firm to help with branding, it's hard to imagine the actual name-creation meeting consisting of anything other than: a) 25 seconds of brainstorming; b) a looooong afternoon guzzling martinis at the bar across the street. (Give the same people the Sports Illustrated account, and say hello to the annual "Mostly Naked Models" issue).
That said, I shouldn't poke too much fun. The name might be straightforward to the point of self-parody, but it still matters. It matters for what it doesn't include. Namely, four big letters: N-C-A-A. Just this week, association president Mark Emmert spoke at the annual Football Bowl Association convention in California, where he pronounced that "intercollegiate athletics has never been stronger in America." In one respect, Emmert is exactly right—college sports are strong, in that they're more popular and profitable than ever. Especially football.
And that's why the NCAA itself has never been weaker.
Forget administrative incompetence, the ongoing O'Bannon lawsuit, the fundamental unfairness and unsustainability of amateurism, the fact that college athletic directors are increasingly fed up. The biggest reason the NCAA is teetering is that the big-time football schools don't need the organization. Not anymore. Not when they can make tons of money without NCAA interference. In men's basketball, the association acts as a profit-skimming middleman, selling the multibillion-dollar television rights to the popular postseason basketball tournament and spreading the spoils around; in football, the power schools and conferences broker their own broadcast deals for even larger piles of cash, which they get to control and keep.
As Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports—and speaking of corporate names!—points out, "College Football Playoff" does not include the terms NCAA, FBS or Division I-A. The reason? "That way," Wetzel writes, "if the high-major college football schools decide to bail on the NCAA itself, the playoff isn't tied to outdated labels." And bail they will. Maybe not in five years. Maybe not in 10. But eventually, just as soon as institutional inertia gives way to full-fledged opportunism. The people who run big-time college sports adamantly refuse to share their profits with their own labor force; why on Earth would they indefinitely continue to share them with a bunch of redundant bureaucrats in Indianapolis? One day, we're going to have a College Basketball Playoff, too, and that point the NCAA as we know it will cease to exist.
Hampton, does the College Football Playoff mark the beginning of the end for the NCAA? If so, is that a good or bad thing?
The new playoff system a great thing. Nope, not because four teams can compete for the national title instead of only two. That's merely cute. It might even give non-SEC schools the chance to dream.
The CFP is great, though, because of another acronym. That one in Indianapolis.
As you rightly suggest, Patrick, the new system is one more bell toll of doom for the NCAA. With apologies to Churchill, the new playoffs may not be the beginning of the end, but only the end of the beginning. Still, this is phenomenally good news for anyone who wants to see college athletes treated more fairly.
The new system is one more bell toll of doom for the NCAA. This is phenomenally good news for anyone who wants to see college athletes treated more fairly.
Like you wrote, the conferences will gain more power. Soon they will likely see no need to share their TV billions with Indiana lawyers. Yay. With the NCAA a shell of itself, there will be no one to enforce their innumerable, inscrutable, mostly exploitative rules governing student-athletes. There will be no compliance officers. That means, simply, no one will comply. With nobody to stop boosters from giving cash and gifts, and no meaningful penalties for players taking them, it's simply bound to happen.