College Football’s “Final Four” Could Quell Antitrust Fight

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A Final Four is coming to college football. In a nod to longtime clamoring from fans — and in a move that may undercut legal questions over the fairness of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) — a committee of university presidents approved a plan Tuesday to introduce a playoff to decide the sport’s national champion.

The new format, scheduled to begin in 2014, replaces a system that currently determines a champion by pitting the nation’s two top-ranked teams against each other. The changes are likely to reap a windfall for the BCS, which saw ratings for last season’s title game between the University of Alabama and Louisiana State University hit a record low.

Perhaps equally important for the BCS, the changes carry the potential to “diminish the strength” of legal challenges it is facing over its bowl system, said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College.

Those challenges stem from a system critics argue violates long-standing anti-trust laws. A total of 11 conferences participate in the BCS, with the champions from six so-called automatic qualifying conferences guaranteed a berth in a BCS bowl game. By contrast, champions from the remaining five conferences must finish in the top 16 of the BCS standings in order to be eligible for an automatic bid.

With those automatic bids comes significant financial gain. Each of the system’s six automatically qualifying conferences wins approximately $22 million for sending a team to a bowl game. By comparison, the system’s five remaining conferences are left to split a sum equal to about $24 million. In the high-stakes theater of college athletics, such financial disparity can carry major implications in terms of building and maintaining facilities, coaching, and recruiting.

Last May, the Department of Justice acknowledged as much in a letter to Mark Emmert, the president of the NCAA. In it, the department warned that “serious questions continue to arise suggesting that the current Bowl Championship Series (BCS) system may not be conducted consistent with the competition principles expressed in the federal antitrust laws.” The department also asked why college football lacked “a playoff, when so many other NCAA sports have NCAA-run playoffs or championships.”

Emmert referred the Justice Department to BCS officials, pointing out that other than licensing bowl games, “the NCAA has no role to play in the BCS or the BCS system.”

While the Justice Department has yet to launch a formal investigation, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff — who has called the BCS “an illegal monopoly” — this week said he was moving ahead with his own investigation of the system.

The BCS plan addresses several of the concerns regarding antitrust law, according to Zimbalist, who called the move “a step in the right direction for a system that deprives fans.” He added that the BCS “has tweaked itself over the years … in order to avoid being demolished legally, and so this is yet another tweak.”

In a joint statement announcing the changes, the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee said it recognizes “that the BCS has been controversial in some years, but we also believe it has turned college football from a regional sport into a wonderfully popular national sport, much to the benefit of our alumni, student-athletes and fans.”

Under the new plan, teams from all 11 conferences will be considered for the championship playoff by a committee grading on factors such as strength of schedule, head-to-head results, and whether a team is a conference champion. The changes also do away with the system’s automatic qualification designation.

Nonetheless, several critical issues remain unresolved — most notably, how revenue from the playoff system will be distributed. The current television contract between the BCS and Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN and ABC nets $155 million annually for the sport’s national championship and four BCS bowl games. Industry experts expect the new playoff structure to fetch as much as $500 million per year when the current BCS contract expires following the 2013-14 football season.

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