Friday, May 6, 2011

soapboxing: antitrust? really?

I guess if there's a downside to the Sunday raid that iced Osama bin Laden for good, it's that I can't use him as an example of Don't You Have Better Things To Do anymore when the feds start nosing around in college football.

This is ridiculous, frankly, and not just because I don't want to see a college football playoff.  Look, I hate to get political around here and I think I've been good about never doing it, but if you or I want electricity we have to buy it from a monopoly, so I can think of at least one better example of antitrust operations in this country than the BCS.

But that's not the point.  Apparently the point is that the BCS "may not be conducted consistent with the competition principles expressed in the federal antitrust laws."

Let's examine this.  Antitrust laws are supposed to protect the consumer.  Well, the consumer is us, the fans.  We pay money for their product.  But the point of this particular incursion is to eventually force a playoff, not give us choices for our football-watching desires.  So the laws are being applied to try and protect a different kind of consumer, the TCUs, Utahs, and Boise States of the world that are somehow being unfairly prevented from a shot at the national championship.

But what are the criteria for a shot at the national championship?  There's only one, actually: Be #1 or #2 in the BCS standings at the end of the season.  It doesn't say: "Be #1 or #2 in the BCS standings and be affiliated with a particular conference."  If Middle Tennessee can achieve #1 or #2 status, then the Blue Raiders will play for the title the same as Auburn would.

No, the conference affiliations matter for one thing only: an autobid to a "BCS bowl."  The ACC is a BCS conference, so it has an autobid to the Orange Bowl.  And besides the label "BCS" and the method of choosing an opponent for the ACC champion, what is the difference between that and Conference USA's autobid to the Liberty Bowl for their champion?  We have a bid to a bowl.  They have a bid to a bowl.  The fact that the national championship game is tied in by affiliation to other bowls under the umbrella of the "BCS" is totally irrelevant - in fact, the national championship game is far more open and achievable than the Orange Bowl or the Liberty Bowl or the Bowl, because it is the only bowl game without conference affiliations.  It is part of the BCS only because it's hosted on a rotational basis by other bowls that have allied themselves with each other and called themselves the BCS.

So the BCS is simply an alliance of bowls that have done what every other bowl in the history of bowldom has done: signed agreements with conferences to host a team from that conference.  Except for one major difference: the BCS bowls have only one conference affiliation (except for the Rose Bowl) and the non-BCS bowls have two.  The BCS bowls have an "in" for all other comers, which has opened, not closed, participation by teams traditionally thought of as mid-majors.  Let me illustrate this with a crude graph:

I'll let you stare at that all you want.  Prior to the BCS, the Rose Bowl was an exclusive, members-only, Big Ten or Pac-10 or GTFO, millionaire's club.  (And we liked it that way in the Big Ten, thank you very much.)  TCU would never have played in the Rose Bowl without there being a BCS.

But since the Rose Bowl, look what TCU has done to capitalize on their success: joined the Big East.  Utah made a similar move.  There's no monopoly or cartel holding them back from advancement.  That's capitalism for ya.  With the money I have, nobody is forcing me to buy inferior products; I can buy the ones I want.  With the money (or otherwise capital of various kinds) the Big East invited TCU.  They weren't forced to, either.

College football is very capitalistic, in fact.  Much more so than the monopolization of postseason play that's gone on in the basketball world.  This is a key point.  Remember that the NIT, which was once owned by a third party, actually sued the NCAA in an antitrust lawsuit, because the NCAA was compelling its members to play in the NCAA tournament if invited, even if they preferred the NIT.  That may seem crazy, but it used to happen and the NCAA put rules in place to stop it.  In order to make the lawsuit go away, the NCAA paid $56.5 million for the rights to the NIT, and now you're compelled to go to both tournaments, whichever you're invited to.  Now it's even more of a monopoly than it was before.  On the other hand, conferences and teams are free to negotiate their own bowl destinations without outside interference.

$56.5 million. If the feds get their way and force a playoff to be instituted, all 35 bowl games would remember that.  And they're each going to want that kind of money to go away.  Can the NCAA afford to pay out almost $2 billion to make the inevitable antitrust suit from the bowls disappear?

So, yes, the whole thing is lunacy.  It'd be like the British government intervening on behalf of, oh, say, Burnley FC, which plays under exactly the same rules as the big boys at Man United and Liverpool but hasn't a fucking prayer of ever winning the Premiership anyway.  And the Brits don't seem to mind.  If the feds find the BCS in violation of antitrust rules, we can go one of two ways: Back to the dark ages, or straight to a playoff.  During the former, there was no mechanism at all for "the little guy" to get into the big bowls or ever win the national championship; the latter would open up the NCAA to actual, real antitrust lawsuits that in the past have cost them actual, real money.  This is not to call the BCS the perfect solution to anything, but if you're hankering for a playoff and you think the federal government is the best way to make it happen, be exceedingly careful what you wish for.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Let 'em snoop. If the investigation reveals no infractions, no big deal, nothing results. But I kindof hope it reveals a larger antitrust problem, that of the student-athlete who can't receive market value for his services while bowls, ADs, and coaches get rich.