College Football Approves Four-Team Playoff to Replace BCS

College football’s top division will implement a playoff system in two seasons to replace the Bowl Championship Series format.

A four-team, three-game playoff that incorporates the major bowls and may be worth $500 million annually in television revenue was approved yesterday in Washington by the 12-member BCS Presidential Oversight Committee. The proposal was put forward by the commissioners of the 11 conferences at the sport’s top level -- the Football Bowl Subdivision -- and University of Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick.

The playoff, which has been in demand for years by many fans, some lawmakers and even President Barack Obama, will start with the 2014-15 season. College football’s national champion since 1998 has been crowned by the BCS, which uses a formula that incorporates rankings and computer polls to decide the two schools that play for the title.

“What we’ve done is preserved the regular season and enhanced it with this four-team playoff,” said Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive, whose league has produced the past six national champions.

Under the playoff format, which was approved under a 12-year deal, the two national semifinal games would rotate among six major bowls, a group that probably includes the four current BCS games: the Fiesta, Orange, Rose and Sugar bowls. The games would be played on New Year’s Day or New Year’s Eve.

The national championship game would be played on a Monday night, at least six days after the semifinals, and the neutral site would be up for bid the same way the National Football League rotates its Super Bowl among bidding cities.

Selection Committee

A selection committee will determine the playoff participants, with weight placed on record, strength of schedule, head-to-head results and whether a team is a conference champion.

The composition of the selection committee, the name of the new system and how revenue from the playoffs will be distributed hasn’t been disclosed.

Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner John Swofford called the new format a milestone for the sport.

“It gives four teams rather than two the opportunity to play for a national championship and I think it’s good for college football,” Swofford said at the news conference. “Where we arrived is a consensus built on compromise.”

The BCS has been a source of controversy over the years and Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said the more the system was tweaked, the less confidence it inspired.

“We understood it was under a lot of criticism,” Delany told reporters. “So as we moved forward to identify a new model, we had a couple of really important issues: We wanted this to continue to support the regular season and we wanted it to be inside the bowl system. We also think the method for selecting teams is more rational, has fewer conflicts and will be more transparent.”

TV Rights

Negotiations on the next BCS television contract are set to begin later this year. The current deal, under which Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN and ABC pay $155 million annually for the title game and rights to the four BCS bowls, expires after the 2013-14 season.

The next contract may have a price tag that ranges from $400 million to $500 million annually, said Bob Boland of New York University’s Tisch School of Sports Management.

“Because we keep hearing that number repeatedly, that’s probably what’s being asked for,” Boland said in a telephone interview. “This could be exclusive television viewing.”

Last season’s BCS title game, a rematch between SEC rivals Louisiana State and the University of Alabama, drew the lowest television ratings of the BCS era.

Significant Competition

Former CBS Sports President Neal Pilson said the networks have been asking for a playoff for a long time and said he expects there will be significant competition for the rights, though he doubts the rights fee will reach a half-billion dollars a year.

“What you have here is an important television property and sponsorships would probably drive the total values up rather than down, but if you’re talking about a rights fee of $500 million per year, I don’t think that’s the right number,” Pilson said in a telephone interview.

The new playoff system will probably also be lucrative for sports books in Las Vegas.

“Any time you have a championship game, I don’t care if it’s a Super Bowl, the NCAA final or a college football BCS championship game, we’ve had terrific action on those games,” Johnny Avello, director of race and sports operations at the Wynn Las Vegas, said in a telephone interview. “Now we’re increasing that to three. I think those two playoff games are going to be huge.”

Crowning Champion

College football’s top level, formerly Division I-A, has been searching for a way to help crown its national champion for the past two decades. The Bowl Coalition was formed in 1992 as the SEC, Atlantic Coast Conference, Big East, Big 8, Southwest Conference and Notre Dame joined with six bowl games.

The system faced controversy because the Big Ten and Pacific 10 weren’t included, both conference having contractual ties to the Rose Bowl. The Bowl Coalition was changed to the Bowl Alliance in 1995, when it was restructured to three games, yet the Big Ten and Pac-10 still weren’t a part of the system.

The BCS was formed in 1998 and incorporated the Rose Bowl into the rotation of games and as part of the system that matched the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in a bowl to determine the national champion. The BCS used a formula of rankings and polls for its standings to decide the two highest-ranked teams.

While the Bowl Championship Series went through its own changes over the years, it still faced controversy. Voters in the Associated Press poll declined to be involved in the BCS formula in 2006, when the Harris Poll was included.

Antitrust Questions

Utah Senator Orrin Hatch in 2009 asked Obama for a probe of the BCS, saying the postseason selections process violated antitrust law. Obama had said at the time he favored a playoff series, as undefeated teams such as the University of Utah, Boise State University and Texas Christian University recently weren’t able to qualify to play for the BCS title.

Even with the changes, deserving schools may still miss a chance to play for the championship.

Delany said there are bound to be those who still want college football’s top level to adopt a playoff that involves eight or 16 teams. The Football Championship Subdivision, formerly Division I-AA, has a 20-team playoff, while there are 24 schools in the Division II postseason and 32 in the Division III championship.

“There will always be people who want more, but sometimes less is more,” Delany said. “We thought two worked for a while. I’m sure this is going to work for at least 12 years.”

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