Reflection on meaning of my interview w/ BCS Oversight Committee Chairman Charles Steger

Huzzah! We might live to see a D-I college football playoff, if that apocalypse doesn’t go down.

Though 2014 feels extremely far off, I’ll just have to patiently wait — but with much more ease than after my interview with current BCS Presidential Oversight Committee Chairman Charles Steger. Back in February 2009, I got a chance to chat with him about the potential for a D-I playoff and his hypothetical playoff’s make-up once the BCS television contract runs out in 2013.

He gave me ample time from his busy schedule and ostensibly genuine answers, but his tone when speaking about a playoff in ‘09 differed greatly from that of his quotes coming out of Tuesday’s big announcement, as does the known anatomy of this no-longer hypothetical.

Tuesday take on BCS playoff decision via CBS Sports:

“It’s a best of both worlds result that capture the excitement of the playoff while keeping the best regular season in sports and the tradition of the bowls,” Steger said in the press conference following the meeting.

An excerpt from my ‘09 interview with Steger when he was part of the BCS Oversight Committee but not yet the chairman:

Emerick:

I’m assuming you probably saw (Barack) Obama’s (negative take on the BCS and urge for a college football Division I-A postseason tournament) during the Nov. 3 Monday night football halftime show… Do you think he was onto something?

Charles Steger:

It all depends on your point of view. For the schools that are in the BCS, obviously, it’s a lucrative deal. … From the point of view of a fan watching football on television, I can see how they would like to have a playoff and whatever else, like they do in basketball. Except when you go to the basketball things, they’re on the weekend (and) there are 10, 12, I don’t know how many games going on.

Whereas, going to a football bowl is a very expensive proposition for the average family. They can’t go to the quarterfinals and then semifinals. They’re going to be able to go to only one. And then (there’s) the logistics of moving the football team around. It’s not like a basketball team. (When the) football team goes, we have truckloads of equipment and 140 people, not to mention all the other fans and everything else. And I think the logistics would have to be changed pretty dramatically so that the playoffs would occur at stadiums of the institutions, and not in the cities where the current bowls go.

And then you …. change the economic equations for the cities, you know, Tampa or Miami. Having us come for a bowl pumps millions of dollars into the local economy. So, if you’re from the point of view of a city that hosts the bowl, it’s not a good idea. … But the bottom line is, we’ve just signed a four-year contract, and nothing’s going to happen until that’s played out.

(Blog editor’s note June 2012: I wonder if he pushed for home playoff games in the playoff system, but met too much resistance to get that pushed. My guess on why home playoffs didn’t fly for the committee is bowl politics/relationships/dealings….And more than anything, more revenue(?). Conjecturing. I wouldn’t exactly contend any of Steger’s points above. It seems easier to stage a big tournament for college basketball logistically.)

Emerick:

(Oregon President) David Frohnmayer, the current chair of the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee, returned an e-mail to ESPN.com saying that he thinks Obama really enjoys the sport in part because of its compelling regular season. Do you think the Division I-A college football postseason is as compelling as college basketball’s?

Steger:

Well, I think a couple things. One is the precedent of the postseason playoff for basketball has been established for a long time. Secondly, it can be implemented much more easily and quickly … And then you’re off one day if you win and the next day you play and all that. So, for football, to me, I guess I don’t have the same desire as to, quote, see who is the national champion. I’m really much more interested in who wins the ACC.

And I don’t have a great interest in professional football except for when Virginia Tech players are on the team, then I’ll watch them but I’m really interested in the teams we play on a regular basis, and who comes out ahead on that, and after that the interest kind of drops off for me.

And the bowl games are kind of fun; they’re good for our players to get national visibility if they’re candidates for the NFL and all that. But I think it kind of drags out too long. And then you got the other issues of player welfare … How many games is it good for the players to have to play? Is one more postseason game and the risk of injury, which could jeopardize somebody’s pro career, is it really worth it? How much time are they away from the classroom? Only 1.5 percent of the college players go on to the NFL, so the other 98.5 percent need to walk away with a very good education … So you’ve got to balance all those things … It’s not just the welfare of the TV fans, it’s the welfare of the fans that travel to the games, it’s the welfare of the players and it’s also important for our students.

All the student fees that go into athletics — you guys are entitled to benefit from that. You’re not subsidizing the national TV networks.

(Further conjecture: Adding one more playoff game won’t drastically increase the pressure on student-athlete and fan schedules — there were certainly more audacious changes that could’ve been made — so I do wonder how much that factored into the four-team format and if this will limit it to just that. The student-athlete angle has been one general narrative that many people don’t totally buy, but many people in positions like Steger’s make it.)

Adam Himmelsbach’s New York Times story summed up the ostensible reason for the massive change of heart in 2012.

When asked how the revenue system might change, Ed Ray, the Oregon State president, had a succinct but apt prediction.

“Up,” he said.

It reminded me of a great piece of advice USA Today’s Michael Hiestand once gave me, something along the lines of “To understand sports leagues you must keep in mind that these leagues are a business more than they are anything else.”

I don’t think Steger was disingenuous when he spoke to me about the BCS. I’m also not cynical enough to think this new format was chosen more because the way it fills personal pockets than draws money to the NCAA, conferences and schools.

But I do keep in mind that it makes sense for Steger to be unified on message with his cohorts and that the committee practically all simultaneously started pushing for a playoff in January, but not before decades of fans begging for it. So obviously, they realized getting this postseason ball rolling in January is the best way to make way more money.

It isn’t “Oh, I now realize this is what’s best for the players and the fans’ schedules, and that a playoff system is superior end-of-season entertainment compared to this obsolete BCS system.” It’s more so “All right, it seems that if we can pull the trigger for 2014 playoffs in spring 2012 then $$$$$$$$.”

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