August 7, 2012 | 4 Comments | by Chuck Thompson
The 2012-13 college football season will once again play out according to the BCS/ESPN business model with assurances that the organization’s largest investment—the Southeastern Conference—will once again be installed in the championship game.
This season’s game will be played in Miami on January 7, 2013, between the SEC champion and another team, very possibly one from the SEC, as was the case in 2012.
Slavishly following the directive laid out in spring by ESPN (“LSU faces smooth road to title game”), the recently released USA Today coaches poll has SEC teams occupying the top two spots (LSU, Alabama) and includes five SEC teams in the top ten and seven (more than half the conference) in the top 25.
The all-important “strength of schedule” title thus gift-wrapped, the SEC’s seventh-straight title shot is virtually guaranteed before a single ball has been snapped or groin muscle pulled.
Once again, it’s the SEC vs. the field.
Here’s how the game is fixed
For those who still haven’t figured out what goes on behind the smoke and mirrors, the BCS/ESPN business plan works like this: preseason rankings, which function like pole positions in an auto race, typically include three or four or five SEC teams among the nation’s top ten, more than from any other conference.
This year is the snoozy rerun that proves the rule.
From the outset, this bias for SEC teams builds into the system a near insurmountable advantage.
Start the season with two of the top four teams from the SEC, as was the case in 2010 with Alabama and Florida, and in 2011 with Alabama and LSU, and the conference is virtually guaranteed to be represented in the title game—and this is an important point—even if neither of those two schools end up winning the conference.
To be the best, so goes to the old sports adage, you’ve got to beat the best.
But since only SEC teams are consistently declared the best, only SEC teams get the chance to prove themselves against “the best.”
It’s a chicken-or-the-egg situation. Does the SEC get favorable rankings because they’re so good? Or is the SEC so good because they get favorable rankings? I argue for the latter.
In 2010, for example, the Auburn Tigers began the season with a consensus ranking of #23, behind SEC rivals Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, and Georgia.
The only way a team regarded so lightly early in the season can possibly climb into the national championship game—which Auburn did that year—is to beat a slew of highly ranked opponents, which Auburn also did that year.
Because polls are pre-arranged so that SEC teams will face the most highly ranked opponents over the course of a season—in the jargon of the BCS this is called “strength of schedule”—only teams from the SEC are time and again able to manage this feat.
Why the SEC always comes out on top
ESPN, of course, is the commercial entity that dominates the college football landscape and has a near incalculable economic interest in promoting the nationwide perception of the SEC’s elite status.
Actually, you can calculate that interest.
In 2008, ESPN and the SEC signed a fifteen-year, $2.25 billion agreement allowing the Worldwide Leader in Sports to televise the conference’s football games.
In addition, ESPN owns the rights to televise all BCS games, including the national championship game.
In 2011-2012, ESPN and its partner ABC broadcast 33 of the 35 college bowl games. Which is to say that for all intents and purposes ESPN, a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company, the most successful spinner of dreams and fables in world history (not counting the Republican Party) owns college football as a commercial entity.
Think about it this way—if you’d invested $2.25 billion in a commercial enterprise, would you just sit back and “hope” the chips fell your way each year? Would you just place your bet with the sports book and pray that your side covered the spread?
Or would you—as a prudent businessperson—take every step you possibly could to ensure that your investment paid off?
You’d be an idiot not to do the latter—or believe that people who deal in billions of dollars don’t know how to guarantee that their investments pay out.
So go ahead and cheer for your teams this year—I’ll cheer for mine. So long as these bullshit rankings are based on multi-national corporate investment strategies, however, please don’t try telling me anyone knows for certain which teams and conferences are the best in the nation.
Oh, and by the way, spare me the “SEC is the toughest conference top to bottom” bluster. For God’s sake, it’s tougher to go undefeated in the Colonial Athletic Association than it is to run the table in the SEC. That putative miracle has been pulled off for the last four straight seasons.