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Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Current BCS system limits competition

By Orrin Hatch
Special to ESPN.com

During the June 7 hearing before the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee, University of Nebraska Chancellor and Chairman of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) Presidential Oversight Committee Harvey Perlman was asked what more last year's University of Utah undefeated football team could have done to get a shot at the national championship.

His answer to this question perfectly described the problem that so many of us see with the BCS.

Senator Orrin Hatch
Sen. Orrin Hatch says the BCS needs to change its ways or the government might get involved.

Put simply, Chancellor Perlman said that the one thing Utah could have done more to qualify for the national championship would have been to play the University of Nebraska's schedule.

However, as the Chairman undoubtedly knows, college football's regular season schedules are set years in advance and the majority of every team's schedule consists of teams from its own conference.

So, in essence, he argued that, if the University of Utah would have had the foresight a few years ago to cancel its 2008 conference schedule and fill it with games against Big 12 teams, it would have had a shot at a national championship.

Who knew it could be so easy?

Sarcasm aside, the Chairman was correct. Utah's 2008 schedule did not compare favorably to Nebraska's, or Florida's, or Oklahoma's.

No one, including University of Utah President Michael Young, who also testified at the hearing, argued that it did.

But, what the Chairman's statements confirmed, perhaps not purposefully, is the plain and simple fact that teams from the BCS's less privileged conferences are categorically eliminated from playing in the national championship game before a single game is even played.

This was the perception most college football fans held before the hearing and, if anything, it was cemented by testimony of the BCS's own witnesses.

Sadly, the exclusionary system of crowning a national champion only scratches the surface of the unfairness and questionable legality of the BCS.

Both prior to and during the recent hearing, BCS officials have argued that schools in the unprivileged conferences should be grateful for the increased exposure and revenue they've enjoyed since the establishment of the BCS.

True enough, in the decades before the BCS was created teams from the currently disfavored conferences were very rarely invited to play in most of the prestigious bowl games.

Yet, in the last five years alone, four teams from these conferences have been able to play in BCS games.

BCS officials want more credit for these developments, acting as if the BCS were responsible for making Boise State good enough to beat Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl or giving Utah enough talent to rout Alabama in this year's Sugar Bowl. However, these teams earned the attention they received as a result of these victories.

While no one can argue that the Mountain West is equal to the SEC in terms of competitive football teams, it is simply a fact that, in recent years, more and more teams from non-privileged conferences have been deserving of national attention.

Sadly, the exclusionary system of crowning a national champion only scratches the surface of the unfairness and questionable legality of the BCS.

-- Utah Senator Orrin Hatch

While BCS officials claim they have been rewarding this success with unprecedented reward and recognition, their system is specifically designed to keep such success at a minimum.

Besides reserving national championship eligibility for the teams in the six favored conferences, the BCS explicitly limits the number of outside teams that can be invited to play in the other lucrative BCS bowl games.

Last year, for example, Boise State and Utah were the only two teams to go undefeated in the regular season. Both met the extraordinarily high bar placed upon non-privileged teams to earn an automatic BCS bid and both could have been invited without displacing a champion from one of the big six conferences.

Yet, because the BCS rules explicitly limit the number of automatic bids that can be awarded to outside teams, Boise State was left out the picture entirely.

Worse still is the fact that the BCS doesn't even provide equal rewards for the schools they do allow into their games.

Instead, revenues from the BCS are distributed according to pre-arranged agreements, making performance on the field almost irrelevant.

By illustration, four conferences had exactly one team playing in a BCS in the 2008 post-season. Three of those conferences were guaranteed nearly $19 million to distribute among their schools. One of those conferences, the Mountain West, had to settle for slightly more than half that amount.

It was not because they were less deserving. In fact, as a conference, the teams from the Mountain West had a better overall record in inter-conference play than any of the automatic-bid conferences. But, if you ask BCS officials about this disparity, they say that the Mountain West should feel lucky to receive any revenue at all.

Obviously, many of the schools from the BCS's privileged conferences enjoy a number of legitimate advantages, including enormous budgets, attractive locations, winning traditions, and market attractiveness.

BCS officials have claimed that the inequities of their system are the natural result of these pre-existing factors. If the only problem were that SEC schools typically have better teams than schools from the Mountain West, it would difficult for anyone who believes in the free market to complain.

The problem with the BCS is that it creates disadvantages that are systemic. At the most basic level, it is an agreement among schools and conferences that are supposed to be competitors to reduce competition among themselves and, even worse, to limit the competition they receive from the outside.

This is precisely the type of arrangement that our antitrust laws are meant to prevent. That being the case, the ultimate consequence of the BCS's refusal to acknowledge the outcries of football fans throughout the country may end up being intervention by the courts or the Justice Department.

This, of course, would be regrettable. But, up to now, the architects of the BCS seem to have purposefully eliminated any more desirable options.

Orrin Hatch is the senior senator from Utah, having served since 1977.