DOJ Starts Looking Into BCS Antitrust Claims, But We're Still a Long Way From a College Football Playoff

DOJ Starts Looking Into BCS Antitrust Claims, But We're Still a Long Way From a College Football Playoff


DOJ Starts Looking Into BCS Antitrust Claims, But We're Still a Long Way From a College Football Playoff

Goaded by expert urging and an attorney general’s political campaign, the Department of Justice sent NCAA President Mark Emmert a letter asking him three questions: Why does FBS football not have a playoff? What has the NCAA done to try to create a playoff? Does he think a playoff could be preferable to the BCS? Guessing the response will contain the usual level of evasion.

First, the government should have the right to get involved in college football. The sport isn’t a private business. Most big-time schools are public institutions. Most schools’ athletic departments are subsidized by public funding through students. The college football postseason involves hundreds of millions of dollars going to these public institutions. Thus, it is a matter for public and government concern.

The letter shows the government is investigating the possibility the BCS is in violation of antitrust law. This doesn’t mean the government will take the cartel to court. This doesn’t mean the government will have a conclusive case once it arrives at court. The government spent tens of millions and still failed to prove Barry Bonds knew why his head swelled to watermelon size.

Fortunately for Delany and Co., the BCS would not have to justify why it exists or why it is superior. They can stick with Bill Hancock’s inchoate rambling and vacant appeals to traditionalism. Whether it’s de facto unfair or less desirable than an alternative would be irrelevant. The burden of proof would be on the government to prove the AQ conferences, through concerted action, restrain competition in violation of antitrust law. With that burden of proof, the Anti-BCS case has some holes.

It’s hard to prove the AQ conferences “monopolize” access. Non-AQ schools are hurt under the BCS formula by voting and by computer formulas that account for schedule strength. Neither criterion is unfair. Nether is under BCS control. AQ status is not fixed. The BCS uses a competitive coefficient to continually reevaluate which conferences warrant automatic bids. They have mechanisms in place to ensure elite Non-AQ teams aren’t shut out of the BCS. The argument non-AQ schools receive less access to the title under the BCS, using Miami and BYU as examples is pushing it.

Arguing it harms schools and consumers is also a little nebulous. Playoff proponents claim AQ access provides schools with “stronger alumni networks, increased admission applications and improved academic rankings.” Do schools have these three things because they are AQ schools? Or are they AQ schools because they have these three things?

Moreover, there’s no official playoff proposal on the table. How can schools and consumers be harmed by the denial of the profits or competitive cost control from an alternative competition that doesn’t exist in practice or even as a fully formed hypothetical?

The government could have a case about the revenue. AQ schools receive a disproportionate amount, 86 to 91 percent, of the BCS revenue. Which isn’t justified competitively (Non-AQ schools have a 4-1 record) or financially (matchups with non-AQ schools have higher ratings, attendance). The BCS, however, could just concede this, since their future competitive advantage will come from TV deals.

A college football playoff is sensible, desirable in my opinion and, given the potential profits for schools and networks, nearly inevitable. However, a playoff is only going to work with the approval of those participating it. That will require a viable NCAA plan put forward and a Godfather offer from ESPN.

[Photo via Getty]

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