BCS mess turns into big play for Alphabet

This article was updated at 8:45 p.m.

Amid the hubbub surrounding the misbegotten Bowl Championship Series rankings that left top-rated USC out of this year’s Sugar Bowl, few have bothered to cite ABC’s role in enabling the madness by underwriting a flawed system.

Despite the $930 million the network is paying for rights to televise the key bowls from 1998 through 2006, ABC has been presented as little more than an interested bystander in the BCS process. Yet that deal provides university presidents awash in its largesse scant incentive to fix things, and it initially allowed them to stave off pressure for a playoff by theoretically pairing the top teams in a title showdown, hosted each year by one of the existing bowls.

If it sounded like a good idea at the time, the reality has seldom worked out that way. And for those who say that the networks can’t bring pressure to bear on the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. to put its house in order, one need only look at the sacrifices sports already make on the altar of the TV gods.

These observations, by the way, come from a UCLA grad who has no desire to see USC add another football championship to its trophy case; in fact, nothing would please me more than to see the earth open and swallow the Trojans’ Traveler V.

Nevertheless, the current structure is not only unfair but hopelessly misguided, taking the 28 bowl games that will be televised over the next three weeks and technically dictating that only one of them counts for a damn thing.

Loren Matthews, ABC Sports’ senior veepee of programming, insists that despite the BCS’ shortcomings, it’s preferable to the old polls-only method of choosing a champ — which is sort of like saying Joe Lieberman is a more exciting presidential candidate than Dennis Kucinich.

As for the controversy, Matthews said, “Here’s what I am sure of: I think it’s going to lead to a further inspection of the rules for this current contract,” conceding there won’t be any radical changes during the next two years.

Alphabet gains

The irony is that ABC benefits this year, however perversely, from the NCAA being as dysfunctional as it is. Having USC — No. 1 in both key polls –excluded from the title game on ABC (which pits Oklahoma against Louisiana State) should heighten interest in the Rose Bowl with USC vs. Michigan, which ABC also will broadcast.

Moreover, the controversy sustains sports radio and cable channels such as sister Disney property ESPN by giving them something to hash over endlessly, making this the most-discussed voting screw-up since Floridians went to the polls in 2000.

College sports are big business, as ABC’s bowl contract and CBS’ multibillion-dollar broadcast deal for the NCAA basketball tournament clearly indicate. Despite the money flowing to the colleges, however, they remain a fractious and hypocritical body, voicing concerns about amateurism when that horse left the barn years ago and penalizing players for absurd violations of their arcane rules.

For all the media disdain heaped on the BCS, it’s by no means assured a more equitable and logical approach will emerge when negotiations on a new contract get under way, likely during the second half of next year. That’s pretty amazing, considering how simple it should be — even for a coalition of academics — to diagnose the problem.

Playoff option

Any rational group would recognize the value both commercially and publicity-wise in inaugurating some kind of post-bowl playoff to determine a true champion — either in the form of a single game or a two-round, four-team elimination tournament.

That way, various bowls would be of interest, since participants would be decided based on the final polls — meaning if a streaking No. 7 or 8 team routed a quality opponent, it might actually have a shot at sneaking in.

Such a playoff would avoid the idiotic scenario where two teams have a legitimate championship claim and never face each other. Even under something as simple as a title-game-only structure, the No. 1 and 2 teams would meet a week or two after playing all the bowls.

As for university presidents’ assertions that this elongates the football season and exacts a toll on “student athletes,” forgive my little laugh. Said athletes are little more than slave labor for an organization and member institutions that reap billions from TV revenue, donors and ticket sales.

TV execs know all this, but because the NCAA operates with about as much openness as the College of Cardinals, they’re reluctant to discuss it publicly; however, it’s time for networks to start throwing their weight around and demand concessions before they pony up more cash.

If this sounds fruitless, remember that games are regularly shuffled for the sake of television already. Even schools in cold-weather climes accede to 7 p.m. kickoffs in freeze-your-ass-off venues like Seattle and Columbus.

Fans also endure interminable stoppages for TV, as evidenced by the 3½-hour duration of an average college football game. Compare that to the last game I attended that wasn’t televised (these days a rarity), which took less than three hours to play without TV timeouts bloating the proceedings.So before the colleges and networks make another big mistake or a bad situation worse, they need to add some pages to a tired playbook. At the very least, someone should probably call for a TV timeout.

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