"THIS IS important," President-elect Barack Obama said with a grin on 60 Minutes last week. CBS's shrewd correspondent Steve Kroft had just asked him what sounded like, but was actually not, a softball question about football: What would he do to get the nation a college football championship?
"I think any sensible person would say that if you've got a bunch of teams that play throughout the season, and many of them have one loss or two losses, and there's no clear, decisive winner, then we should be creating a playoff system," Obama said, building momentum. "Eight teams. That would be three rounds to determine a national champion. It would add three extra weeks to the season. You could trim back on the regular season. I don't know any serious fan of college football who has disagreed with me on this. So I'm going to throw my weight around a little bit. I think it's the right thing to do [big smile]."
Meanwhile ESPN, in full consumption mode, was vacuuming up the rights to the Bowl Championship Series from 2011 to 2014 for a reported $125 million a year. Executives at Fox, which had been paying $82.5 million a year for the current four-year deal, made the point that it was too bad the games would no longer be broadcast free to every home in America. "Unfortunately, the university presidents and BCS commissioners were not satisfied [with our bid]," Fox said in a statement, "and they've decided to take their jewel events to pay television." Ka-ching!
Beyond TV, the $500 million deal also gives ESPN radio and digital rights, which include the operation of the official BCS website and the simulcasting of games online and for mobile devices. Sure, colleges have a right to license their games, but not when they squash the ability of non-rights-holding media (anyone they're not in business with, including SI) to cover those games, especially online.
The most recent BCS press credentials prohibit both the reporting of scores and game statistics sooner than the end of every quarter and the posting of more than 10 game photographs online. Equally troubling for fans interested in great games beyond real time, both the BCS and the NCAA want to prohibit any "delayed editorial" use of photos, video or audio.
This tramples the public's free access to information even as it sells out supposedly amateur athletes. But the money is just sooo good; and in that context it is impossible to imagine the BCS giving up its cash cow bowl games no matter what fans (or the new president) want. If it makes sense for every other division of college football to have a playoff system, what other than money is motivating the six major conference commissioners and their direct bosses, the presidents of their member institutions? Ka-ching!
Hold that thought while you imagine a future in which you and other (paying) fans will only see, hear or read about BCS games through ESPN, which emerges not so much as an evil empire but as a kind of generic sports mall. A good place to shop once in a while, but do you really want to live there?
Latest polls underline Obama's argument for an eight-team playoff. Forget sportsmanship, the rest of the season will be about running up scores.
ILLUSTRATION BY KEITH WITMER