The Myth of College Football's "Most Compelling Regular Season"

College football kicks off on September 4th with LSU facing UNC. At the conclusion of that game, one of those two teams will all but be eliminated from winning the national championship this season.
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This season's "Kickoff Game" is on September 4 with LSU facing UNC. And at the conclusion of that game, one of those two teams will all but be eliminated from winning the national championship this season. Meanwhile fans at TCU and Boise State get to look ahead to a season where they may play perfectly and be eliminated as well. Get ready for another season of the BCS, sports fans!

In recent comments defending the Bowl Championship Series, BCS executive director Bill Hancock stated that college football has the "best, most compelling regular season of any sport." Hancock was concerned that if college football had a post-season playoff like college basketball, fans would only care about the post-season.

"March is so wonderful, but the regular season is losing its appeal," Hancock said. "It breaks my heart, but it's because everything is going into March. We can't take the risk of that happening in football because we have the best, most compelling regular season of any sport."

Hancock is a good man tasked with the unenviable task of defending a system that has lower public approval ratings than Congress. And one of his primary defenses is the "most compelling regular season" claim.

But there are several problems with that claim.

First, is Hancock really claiming that the NFL's regular season games aren't as compelling as college football regular season games? What about Monday night football? Speaking of Monday nights, does Hancock think that Monday night Big East and Big 12 conference basketball games in January aren't compelling enough?

Essentially, Hancock is arguing that every other sport that has a playoff is getting it wrong?

Second, under the BCS system, once a team falls out of contention for the national championship, don't their seasons become less compelling than if they were playing for a conference championship or an at-large playoff berth, not only for fans of those schools but for the rest of us?

Take the powerhouses where anything short of playing for a national championship is a wasted season. This year those schools included Florida, Oklahoma and Ohio State. If those schools lose one game -- and certainly two -- there is no way those schools are playing for a national championship under the current system. While this might make the games up until the losses more compelling, what happens after those teams lose one or two games?

How compelling was the 2009 season for Oklahoma Sooners fans after the team lost their opening game to BYU? A friend who is a Texas alum told me that if UT loses to Oklahoma in the Red River Shootout, he hardly pays attention to the rest of the season after that. Maybe those UT and OU fans still find their seasons compelling, but how about the rest of us? Why was there any reason to watch OU after losing that first game? On the other hand, if a team could still win the national championship in a playoff, the games after one or two losses would still be compelling.

A college football playoff would create a scenario in which a number of teams would still have a shot at winning their conference championship or an at-large berth and thus would still be in the hunt for the national championship.

Third, even if we grant that the college football regular season is more compelling than other regular seasons, what if the cost of saving it is a less compelling post-season? Does the NCAA really think that one national championship game and a few marquis bowl games would get better ratings and be more compelling than a series of playoff games each one becoming increasingly more significant. A 16-team playoff would give college football fans a reason to watch at least 15 meaningful postseason games. (That's in addition to any bowl games they might be interested in.) How many bowl games did the average fan watch last year? A few?

Bowl games just aren't that meaningful to any college football fans without a rooting interest. Sure, they can be entertaining (sometimes) but there is no larger post-season narrative. Just a series of random bowl games punctuated by one often-controversial championship game.

Moreover, by sticking with the bowl and BCS system, the NCAA may actually be losing money - a lot of money. writer Andy Staples writes:

Even BCS leaders will admit that there's more money in a playoff. The NCAA basketball tournament brings in an estimated $545 million a year, and college football is exponentially more popular than college basketball. The BCS brings in only $150 million a year, but it funnels most of it to the most powerful conferences. Government intervention would strip those conferences of their power. After that, given a choice between less money and more money, here's betting college presidents forget about their arguments against a playoff and opt for more money.

It's clear that the claim that college football has the "most compelling regular season" is simply a sleight of hand to cover up that college football's post-season is not only problematic and controversial, it's not even that compelling. That is, unless virtually every other sports league (and the NCAA itself with its Football Championship Subdivision) has it wrong.


Brian Frederick is the Executive Director of Sports Fans Coalition. He holds a Ph.D. in Communication and lives in Washington, D.C. His favorite teams are the Kansas Jayhawks, North Carolina Tar Heels, and whichever team his brother is coaching for. And the underdog. Email him at

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