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Economists Request U.S. Probe of College Football’s BCS

College football’s Bowl Championship Series should be investigated for violating U.S. antitrust laws, a group of economists and legal professors says.

In a letter sent today to Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney in Washington, the 21-member group called the BCS a “cartel” that controls distribution of competitive opportunities and benefits associated with the postseason in major college football. It said the BCS is the principal impediment to a championship playoff system that would generate additional revenue for all schools.

Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and one of the letter’s co-signers, said the bowl series is similar to what would happen if Major League Baseball limited its postseason to teams with minimum payrolls of $100 million.

“So if a team like Texas last year becomes a Cinderella team, sorry Texas, but the New York Yankees get to play in the World Series,” Zimbalist said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. “You end up establishing a caste system.”

BCS Executive Director Bill Hancock didn’t immediately return messages seeking comment.

Gina Taloma, a spokeswoman at the Department of Justice, said the agency hadn’t received the letter “but we would look into it as any other matter and respond as appropriate.”

The Antitrust Division has previously reviewed information to determine whether to open an investigation into the legality of the BCS system and would continue to do so, Taloma added in a telephone interview.

Six Conferences

Under the 13-year-old Bowl Championship Series, the winners of six conferences -- the Big Ten, Big East, Big 12, Southeastern, Atlantic Coast and Pacific 10 -- automatically qualify for one of the five BCS games.

Five leagues -- Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West, Sun Belt and Western Athletic -- don’t have automatic qualifier status with the BCS. Those conferences also get less revenue from the system, a disparity Zimbalist’s group estimates to be $614 million over the past seven seasons.

Auburn University from the Southeastern Conference and the University of Oregon from the Pac-10 played in last season’s BCS championship game, with Auburn winning. Texas Christian of the Mountain West played in the Rose Bowl, where it beat the University of Wisconsin to cap an undefeated season after finishing third in the BCS standings behind Auburn and Oregon. The top two schools in the BCS rankings play for the national title.


TCU was the 11th team in the BCS’s tenure to go undefeated while playing in a league without an automatic qualifier. None have played for the championship.

“The BCS shields preferred schools from competition by erecting barriers to competitive postseason entry, provides favored schools with fixed benefits, and harms consumers of postseason college football,” the group told the Department of Justice.

On its website, the BCS says 93 percent of head coaches favor the current system over a playoff. It says the BCS has provided more access to the major bowls, more television exposure, and more postseason revenue than ever before.

Teams from conferences without annual automatic qualification have played in BCS bowls in six of the last seven years. The BCS called this a “drastic improvement” over the prior 56 years, when this occurred six times.

University Lineup

In addition to Zimbalist, members of the requesting group include professors Ira Horowitz at the University of Florida, Richard Thaler at the University of Chicago, Raymond Yasser at the University of Tulsa, Roger Abrams at Northeastern University and Daniel Rascher at the University of San Francisco.

“The BCS effectively cartelized BCS Bowls, which once encouraged and participated in competition for conference and team affiliation,” the letter said. “The BCS Bowl cartel also further immunizes the BCS from competition by mandating the key championship contenders not invited to the BCS’s ‘national championship game’ must accept BCS Bowl invitations rather than join a rival post-season system.”

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