Can Profit-Maximizing Enterprises Systematically Leave Money on the Table? The Curious Case of the BCS

For years the public has been clamoring for a playoff system to crown a champion in college football. Yet the geniuses at the BCS stubbornly defended—at least until now—their computer-knows-best system for inviting the two most worthy teams. By injecting doubt over the legitimacy of its invitees, the current system diminishes the meaning of the BCS title game, as evidenced by the abysmal Nielsen ratings for Monday night’s Alabama-LSU game (only 13.8 percent of U.S. television households tuned in to watch the television equivalent of paint drying) and last year’s Auburn-Oregon title game (15.3 percent). By comparison, the title game between Alabama and Texas just two years ago drew 17.2 percent of U.S. households; if this were a publicly traded firm, its shares would be falling fast.

Even worse, the current system diminishes the importance of the other BCS games. Besides alumni, who wants to watch an exhibition game between Oregon and Wisconsin (this year’s Rose Bowl) if the winner cannot advance to the next round? This year’s Rose Bowl drew a meager 9.9 percent of U.S. television households, down 15 percent from last year’s Rose Bowl between TCU and Wisconsin. And last year’s Rose Bowl drew 11.3 percent, down 15 percent from the prior year. Can anyone spot a pattern?

In contrast, the first round of the NFL playoffs this year drew massive audiences. For example, NBC’s coverage of the Saints-Lions earned a 19.3 overnight rating, the third-best overnight for a Wild Card Saturday game since the 1999 playoff season. Along with 42.4 million of my closest friends, I found myself compelled to watch the Broncos-Steelers Wild Card game (25.9 rating), not because I care about either team, but because the investment of my time would pay off in even greater happiness next week.

It is a tragedy that the BCS would run these valuable assets into the ground. Imagine the excitement of a Cinderella team like Baylor, Boise State, or TCU sneaking into the championship. Organized as a playoff, the Rose Bowl (or any BCS non-title game) would experience a significant lift in ratings, along the lines of the lift enjoyed by NFL post-season games relative to NFL regular-season games. To be fair, the profit function of the BCS conferences is presumably much more complicated than “maximize the value of the television revenues for the BCS games.” But these television revenues must be a critical component of their joint profits. Which begs the question: Why would the BCS systematically err when so much money is at stake?

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