Does NCAA March Madness Really Beat the BCS?

NEW ORLEANS ( MainStreet) -- OK, college football fans, we get it: You want a playoff instead of the Bowl Championship Series and will point frantically at the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament like a toddler in a toy store until you get what you want.

Have you ever actually stopped to think about what that playoff would look like, though? Because December Decadence or whatever other focus-grouped marketing term college sports' ranking officials use for it probably won't resemble March Madness in the slightest. Nor should it.

College football fans want a playoff, but automatic bids and big conferences may ruin their big dance.

Pete Thamel of The New York Times made the format pretty clear a few weeks ago when he revealed that college football's top administrators would likely have the framework for a four-team playoff in place before the start of the 2012 season and would implement it for the first time in 2014. Why four teams? Because an eight-team format would be tough to fit into the academic calendar and the current two-team format isn't cutting it with anybody.

"I expect that there will be a four-team playoff," says Brian Frederick, head of sports fan lobbying group The Sports Fans Coalition. "I think it's critical that proponents of the playoff ramp up their efforts now, because once it becomes locked in with a television contract it will be hard to change."

Back in 2007, a Gallup poll found that 85% of college football fans supported changing to a playoff system. President Barack Obama stated his support for such a system on 60 Minutes after his election in 2008. Most recently, the president told ESPN's Bill Simmons he'd like to see an eight-team playoff but considers four teams "a good place to start."

"Elected officials have more of a responsibility here than they realize or are willing to exert," Frederick says. "People always say that the government should be involved in sports, but that's certainly the case with college athletics where you have state schools and taxpayer-funded institutions making decisions about their future based on college football."

How those four teams are selected is where the process hits a March Madness-style snag. One suggestion being batted around by college football officials is to not select the four top-ranked teams, but to pick the four highest-ranked teams that won their conference championships. That would be great news for a mid-major school such as Boise State, which finished No. 7 in the BCS rankings last year and No. 10 in 2010 and was relegated to the Maaco Bowl Las Vegas in both years. Indiana's Butler University could speak volumes about the value of winning a conference tournament after the mid-major rode Horizon League Championship wins to the NCAA final in 2010 and 2011.

Those automatic bids might actually work out a bit better in football than they do on the hardwood. The University of Connecticut got hot in the Big East conference tournament and rode that momentum to an NCAA title last year, but its success made the top-ranked Big East squad from the University of Pittsburgh an at-large No. 1 seed. Pitt was the only of the four No. 1 seeds that didn't win its conference, and was subsequently the first to lose in the tournament.

Pitt's at-large seed bumped all the tournament-eligible Big East teams back a spot and, quite possibly, cost Virginia Tech and other bubble teams a shot at inclusion. Though mid-majors Butler and Virginia Commonwealth University made the Final Four, the tournament field was still heavily weighted toward the six most powerful conferences: The Big East, Big 10, Big 12, Southeast, Atlantic Coast and what was then the PAC-10. Of the 68 teams in the tournament field, 36 came from those major conferences. The Big East alone sent 11 teams, while the most successful mid-major conferences -- the Atlantic 10, Mountain West and Colonial Athletic Association -- sent three apiece.

There's little reason to suspect football will treat the major conferences any differently. For one, there's a lot more money at stake in college football than there is in basketball. The Final Four pulled in nearly $170 in ad revenue last year, behind only the Super Bowl ($228 million) and World Series ($269 million). Yet the $10.8 million deal CBS ( CBS) and Turner Sports ( TWX) signed with the NCAA for television rights to March Madness through 2024 pales when compared with the $15.2 billion ESPN paid to show the five BCS games from 2011 through 2014.

Simply put, more people watch the big game when it's on the gridiron. From 2009 through 2011, an average of 28.3 million people watched the BCS Championship. During that same span, an average of only 20.4 million watched the NCAA Tournament's title game. Don't blame Butler, either -- the nearly 24 million viewers who watched the Bulldogs lose to Duke in 2010 was the biggest audience the basketball championship had during that stretch.

Secondly, there's a big difference in what the host cities get paid. New Orleans raked in an estimated $500 million this January when the University of Michigan beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl and Alabama blanked LSU in the BCS Championship. During March Madness, meanwhile, Mayor Mitch Landrieu expects revenue to come in somewhere around $100 million. That gives BCS football five times the economic impact of the Final Four, even with three bowls tied behind its back.

Finally, there's the small matter of a very big football conference that probably won't like losing as much as $18 million in revenue per team. Teams from the Southeast Conference have won the BCS Championship every year since 2007. Last year, it sent two teams to the title game. Former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer told CBSSports.com last week that the best way to maintain the integrity of the regular season and conference championship games is to make sure all football playoff teams are conference champions. If the SEC is OK with Boise State, Texas Christian University of any of the other recent major-conference converts making like Butler and VCU and snatching bigger pieces of the revenue and spotlight, it may determine whether football will embrace a March Madness program in the future or exist basically as a bracketed BCS.

"I think what would be unfortunate is if it's a four-team playoff that just continues the same discrimination toward the non-power conferences," Frederick says. "The more open that they can make this process, the better it will be for everyone."

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.