President Obama recently sat down to talk with ESPN’s Bill Simmons, and the two had the following exchange:
Simmons: “Tell me about the college football playoff system that you once upon a time pushed for.”
Obama: “Looks like — I hear there’s talk that they’re going to at least start maybe with a four-team playoff, which — ”
Simmons: “So you’re happy about this?”
Obama: “Well, I’d rather see it eight teams, but four is a good place to start. I think that gets us on the right trend. Nothing is more frustrating than at the end of the season, nobody knows who won. And what, there is some poll? Coaches make a decision? Nobody knows what that means. Because part of what makes sports great, part of what makes March Madness great, the NFL playoffs great, is every once in a while something happens during the playoffs that shows the character of a team.”
That sounds like a reasonable criticism of college football — circa 1997. That was the year before the introduction of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), which has since paired college football’s top two teams at the end of the season to play for the national championship. Therefore, far from having it be the case that, “at the end of the season, nobody knows who won,” everybody who watched, say, the Alabama-LSU game this January could tell who won (Alabama, 21-0). And far from there being “some poll” afterward, in which “coaches make a decision,” the coaches’ poll automatically awards its national championship to the winner of the BCS National Championship Game. All of this has been true for the past 14 seasons.
And, sure, March Madness is great, but at what cost? College football has by far the best and most meaningful regular season in all of sports. Its regular season is full of drama and plot twists, as every game truly does matter — and that’s followed up by the unique color and pageantry of the Rose Bowl and the other bowl games, including the BCS National Championship Game. In contrast, college basketball plays a 4-month de facto exhibition season just to whittle down the field to an elite subset of 68 teams before finally declaring in March that the games from that point onward will really count.
Not surprisingly, average attendance for college football’s Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) — the part of college football that features bowl games instead of a playoff — has risen more than 10 percent since the formation of the BCS, while the average attendance of Division I men’s college basketball has declined almost 5 percent (from here to here) over that same span.
As for “the character of a team,” isn’t that best shown by whether a team can persevere through the ups and downs of a long and grueling season, rather than by whether it can get hot in a playoff?