Commentary: Jim Delany and His Fight for Big Ten Monetary Supremacy
by Jonathan Hodges

Well, another year and another controversy surrounding the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) as this year features two teams from the same conference (and same division within that conference) reaching the title game. Calls for a "Plus One" four team playoff have grown in intensity with the third place team left out of the championship tilt by one of the narrowest margins in BCS history. And add to that two at-large Sugar Bowl berths taken by less-deserving teams (at least according to their BCS standing when compared to teams that were not selected), and there are further calls for change. Well, change may come relatively soon with the current BCS contract expiring after the 2013 season and talks already commencing between the concerned parties about what will come next. But, that change may not be what fans desire most (a playoff) considering one of the (if not the) most powerful men in college sports stands in its way: Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany.

Delany's Success

For Delany, it's not just about tradition or just plain stubbornness, instead it's all about the money (and power, to some extent), and the fact is that he's acting in the best interests of his constituents in the Big Ten conference, which has certainly prospered during his tenure as its leader. One of his first major moves was to bring Penn State on board in the early 1990's, and that has been an unequivocal success with the Nittany Lions adding a strong power both in terms of on-field performance and a large national fanbase (the recent off-field issues notwithstanding). Next up, he stocked up on bowl affiliations while working with the TV networks to set up one of the best TV deals around to put the conference onto over-the-air broadcasts around the nation every week while building the Big Ten's relationship with then-fledgling ESPN. Going into the 1998 season he finally yielded along with the Pac-10 to create the BCS, and although there are certainly many detractors, it's hard to argue with the success of the current bowl setup purely in terms of attention and revenue. Delany continually focused on parity and equality within the conference which has allowed it to send a slew of representatives to the Rose Bowl or other BCS games, and the equal revenue sharing has certainly allowed some of the smaller schools to prosper (certainly Northwestern, but also teams like Indiana, Purdue, and Minnesota). All of the schools have vastly improved their facilities over the last two decades (including Minnesota, who built an entirely new stadium). And most of this happened before the year 2000 arrived.

In the current century, he's continued to lead the conference, and the conference has in turn led the nation. Instant replay was born in the Big Ten, for example. Then came one of the boldest moves that has ended up paying massive dividends: the formation of the Big Ten Network. At first, things didn't look so great as the BTN had to confront distributors in order to carry the network for a hefty subscriber fee, but in the end content won out thanks to the ability to watch one's favorite team on the gridiron no matter where one is in the nation, along with plenty of other compelling content. Once distribution reached essentially everyone, the revenues flowed into schools' coffers and the benefits were easily seen: schools could run revenue-neutral (or, in some cases, profitable) athletic departments even with exponentially increasing coaches' salaries and having to keep up in the facilities race. While schools from other conferences are having to consider cutting programs (Cal and Maryland come to mind), the Big Ten is prospering (with Penn State bringing men's ice hockey on board, the conference will now officially sponsor that sport). In Northwestern's case, it has allowed the school to retain Pat Fitzgerald as head coach with a 10-year (reportedly) $1.8 million per year contract, hire and keep a top tier athletic director in Jim Phillips, hire assistants at competitive salaries, and even bring in the marching band under its financial umbrella (something that was desperately needed for some time).

His most recent home run was the addition of Nebraska and the inaugural Big Ten football championship game, which was, by all accounts, a huge success. These additions have allowed the conference to further increase revenues for its members even with another school with which to split the pie. With virtually every other conference scrambling to find new members, the Big Ten found a perfect fit and has been able to sit back and relax while other conferences fight for their lives.

Why do we recount all of this? The central theme has been financial viability and success; the conference has certainly built that up and is poised for a bright future, particularly when the next round of TV contracts come to bear. And the conference has already made a preemptive move to strengthen their negotiating position: there will be a nine game conference schedule in just a few years that will bolster the TV inventory and will make the schools even more money.

Money and the Bowls

This is all important to keep in mind when considering what to do with the college football postseason because it, again, all comes down to money, something the casual fan rarely considers when screaming about a playoff. While the current bowl system may be corrupt in some cases, unfair in many situations, and confusing all of the time, it has allowed the sport to maintain the value of its regular season by keeping games important while also expanding the number of games while keeping the season a reasonable length. It has also provided a mostly equitable system monetarily, at least among "BCS AQ" conferences, with teams splitting money within conferences but also giving the "non-AQ" conferences a shot at big appearances and big paydays by reaching the top 10% of teams. The number of bowls has grown thanks to demand for TV content over the holidays, and the sport has obliged by expanding its offerings; and though many fans groan at the minor bowls, there are still plenty who watch on TV or travel to support their teams.

In terms of deciding things on the field, a large (8+ team) playoff system would certainly be more fair, given that it's hard to fairly assemble a small field (2 teams) with a sport that has so many teams (120) and is very regional in terms of matchups. Some schools/conference and certainly the fans and media advocate this approach from purely an on-field standpoint, but the fact is that more has to go into it than that: the current revenue streams cannot be reduced as many teams are revenue-neutral (at best) with football revenues essentially funding all other sports on campus (men's basketball is also somewhat profitable, but most of that revenue goes to the NCAA from the tournament to fund its operations). Jim Delany is clearly considering long term financial viability and equity when holding off on putting his support by any kind of a playoff.

In terms of a full playoff, it would certainly reduce revenue for the majority of teams by reducing the regular season and putting the postseason revenue in the hands of fewer conferences and teams. First off, college administrators will be extremely wary of greatly increasing the number of games, somewhat out or concern for the student-athletes (I fully acknowledge that this is essentially debunked by their recent permanent addition of a 12th regular season game as well as the addition of more than a few conference championship games over the past couple seasons), but also somewhat out of concern of diluting the product on the field. While the NFL sets the bar of success of all sports leagues, look at some of those individual stadiums late in the season and how many empty seats there are; college does not want to go down that road, particularly since ticket and game day revenue are still vital for the health of an athletic department. With colleges not wanting to vastly increase the number of games, the only real way to implement a full playoff is to start chopping off regular season games, and, as just mentioned, this would cut off critical revenue streams to the vast majority of schools with the resulting playoff payouts going to a select few (likely the "traditional powers" who make the playoffs as well as the "AQ" conferences from which those teams come).

Although fans are certainly clamoring for a playoff, the fact is that the money continues to flow in large enough amounts to everyone involved (from the big conferences and big schools all the way down to the non-AQ schools and even FCS teams who get payouts every year that they play an FBS team in the regular season) to keep the floodwall intact against the rising tide for a playoff. And it doesn't matter how corrupt the bowl system is because they keep enough money flowing to the schools to keep them in their favor. And until a group that includes a TV network and major conferences figures out a way to make a playoff work within the current collegiate political climate and make EVERYONE more money than the current system, that full playoff will remain a pipe dream.

Potential Changes in Near Future

The most basic change that's been floated around is removing the "BCS AQ" status and essentially allowing the BCS just to stage the No. 1 vs. No. 2 game, while letting all other bowls revert to the "old system" of aligning with specific conferences. This would remove potential anti-trust liability in the current system (though the current system currently pays everyone at least a nominal amount, so they are all complicit) and would seemingly remove some the unfairness in certain situations (like this year, which will feature no non-AQ teams in the BCS). But, it would essentially lock "non-AQ" teams out of any high profile bowl games (no such team has ever reached Nos. 1 or 2 in the final BCS rankings) as the major bowls will certainly flock to the major conferences to fill in their spots. And it may even create worse matchups than the current BCS because the NCAA requires bowls to be affiliated with specific conferences instead of having "at-large" spots; it's possibly that bowls may trade selections amongst themselves (which is done now at times mostly in minor bowls), but we've never seen BCS bowls trade selections in the current system (which is allowed) even in cases of regular season rematches and such. So, while the big conference may make more money and get more teams into bowls under this new situation, expect overall worse matchups and any sort of cinderella/"BCS Buster" will become exceedingly rare to impossible.

One idea that clearly won't happen is my unique playoff proposal, which essentially seeks to hone down the ranks of the unbeaten to one, which would be the national champion, while also preserving the bowl system. This year, LSU would have already won the title and could have opted to participate in a bowl game (but could lose the title if they lose their game, in which case it would be vacant this year). It's clear that most people only see an undisputed champion when that team is undefeated and there are no others without a loss, so this option would actually fit what most people value in college football. Unfortunately, though, it will never happen due to its variable nature, so onto something that is actually feasible.

A seeded Plus-One seems to be close to the horizon, with some even calling it inevitable for this coming round of BCS negotiations. As mentioned earlier, the biggest obstacle seems to be Jim Delany, and his biggest objections are: Big Ten/Pac-12 access to the Rose Bowl (current situation is acceptable and he would like improvement there), and avoiding any slippery slope to a larger (more than 4 team) playoff for reasons described above. And, there seems to be a way to make that happen.

A seeded Plus-One (1 vs. 4 winner meeting 2 vs. 3 winner for the title game) would involve rotation amongst four or five bowls with the Rose Bowl always getting to host its traditional rivalry game unless a participant is in the top four. And there would likely be an elimination of "AQ" status, allowing the bowls not involved in the national championship (including the Rose) to remain affiliated with specific conferences and pick one of those teams even if its champion heads to the Plus-One. And, to further appease Delany, there could be specific clauses in the contracts excluding further expansion of the playoff for a significant period of time. With the backing of some major conferences and some others now seemingly open to the idea, this very well could be possible.

But, one large obstacle remains: changes to the NCAA bylaws allowing such a game. Right now, NCAA rules allow just one postseason game for each team, and this would obviously need an exemption for the two teams winning the semifinal games. This requires a vote from all affected members (FBS teams, all 120 of them as of right now), and in order to get this passed many of the smaller teams will likely demand a chunk of the revenue generated by the additional title game, and likely in excess of the amount they receive from the BCS now. They'll demand this increased payout particularly since their level of access will likely be diminished, though it's conceivable a "non-AQ" team could sneak into the top four (but still not likely); also with traditional powers flocking out of the Big East, there are really only five power conferences remaining and the rest will do the best that they can to block this from taking hold without a share of the pie.

Conclusion: What's Likely

The most likely scenario is that the BCS will shrink down to setting up the 1 vs. 2 game only while the "AQ" status disappears, the remaining "BCS bowls" partner with specific conferences, and, as a result, the major conferences make off with a larger share of money while the public seemingly gets further away from a playoff while also getting saddled with worse bowl matchups. The obstacles in the way of actually improving the system from an on-field competition standpoint all have to do with money. If someone can get major players (TV, conferences, sites for games) together and work out a deal that will increase everyone's piece of pie, then this may very well work. Unfortunately it is close to impossible to get all of those players together (due to the fractured nature of the sport) let alone get them to agree on something, even if the theoretical revenue is there.

This year's situation is at least getting people talking and some are saying that we're closer, though we'll only really be able to tell when the next BCS contract is signed. Most likely, though, we'll end up further away and the grumbling will continue.

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.