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‘Cha-Ching’ expands NFL and NCAA playoffs

| Friday, February 2, 2018

This Super Bowl weekend might have showcased the Seahawks or Lions against the Ravens or Chargers had the NFL included four wild card teams and eliminated the bye round. If the NCAA had enlarged its playoff pool, Alabama may still be the champion, but wouldn’t matching them against an undefeated University of Central Florida (UCF) have been a highlight of the collegiate playoff season?

Surprisingly, expanding both NFL and NCAA playoffs is an easy process. More surprisingly is the notion that the football guardians of both sports organizations have yet to hear “Cha-Ching” in their ears. It is obvious that the professional and collegiate football hierarchies foremost cherish a business enterprise existing within their respective enclaves, so that expansion will soon rise on the horizon.

Look no farther on the amateur collegiate level than at Notre Dame’s history of reliance on football revenues that leverages its entire existence. Without Knute Rockne radically transforming the game’s fundamentals during its early era, Notre Dame would never have been able to maintain its partial independence from college conference affiliations, nor negotiate an exclusive NBC television football coverage contract. The University might well still be a small, midwestern cow-pastured, private, religious college boasting an endowment in the million-dollar range rather than beyond its current billion-dollar threshold.

For whatever “academic,” “religious” or “life does not revolve around football” rhetorical reasons Notre Dame may have cited, the Irish simply refused to participate in bowl games from 1925 when they beat Stanford until given an opportunity to play in the 1970 Cotton Bowl matchup against top-ranked Texas. In those days, teams only played a 10-game regular season schedule, and national championships hung on the whims of two national ranking systems: coaches through the Coaches Poll and journalists within the AP Poll. However, in 1970, Notre Dame could complete a trifecta: 1) compete against the top-ranked team, 2) claim the national championship by beating that No. 1 team, but most importantly, 3) proudly collect a handsome bowl paycheck to the tune of “Cha-Ching!”

The 1970 decade not only dawned a new era for Notre Dame bowl participation and television revenues, but also gave birth to a super-money chase era whereby nearly all of the major Division I football programs competed for exposure and revenues. Eventually, schedules extended into the present-day standard 12-game season. Regional conferences — for example The Big 10 which now is comprised of 14 teams — expanded into divisions and added one extra revenue-generating conference championship game at their season’s conclusion. Conferences chased television revenues and shared proceeds throughout their memberships with weak-performing teams.

The NCAA can easily inflate its four-team, two-week playoff system by accommodating at least 16 teams that begin play during the last two Saturdays in November. Those two rounds would not only substantially expand their playoff system, but by early December would morph back into the present-day system with the final four teams selected for January competition. Logistics would not substantially hinder individual football schedules other than to free the last two Saturdays in November.

The NCAA would further control the flexibility to simply include any two teams playing in their conference title games as an automatic seed within their 16-team playoff brackets. Imagine each November the top 16 ranked football teams playing each year in a “big dance” like NCAA basketball. This structure could include more independent teams but would eradicate any bias against lesser-known programs with undefeated records like Boise State or UCF. An undefeated UCF this year was ranked behind twice-beaten longtime renowned Ohio State and Penn State. Ironically, Penn State fought the same bias fifty years ago while undefeated five times but only awarded two championships.

Turning to the NFL, expanding its field of playoff participants is simple: add two Wild Card teams to each conference and eliminate the current bye week for the top two seeds. That adds four new teams and four additional revenue-rich playoff venues. Each division winner would still host a first-round game against a Wild Card team. However, a better form of parity would occur after each division winner is rewarded the initial home game whenever teams with the best overall records are rewarded with a home game during the later rounds. More teams would generate more revenue for themselves and the playoff process.

Reshuffling the host teams each round more equitably shares the playoff experience in additional cities. Potentially, for example, a good 12-4 Wild Card team that placed second to a 13-3 division foe in its difficult division could now host a second-round game against a division winner sporting a more modest 11-5 or mediocre 9-7 record. This year, adding the four Wild Card teams would have included the 9-7 Ravens and Chargers along with the 9-7 Bills and Titans in the AFC. It is anyone’s guess if the Patriots would have survived. In the NFC, two of three 9-7 teams that missed the playoffs — the Cowboys, Seahawks and Lions — would also have been playoff bound.

In the age of Social Media when “Cha-Ching” rings long and loud, NFL owners and NCAA officials will soon explore extending their perspective playoff systems. Like the irresistible mythological siren songs, expanded amateur and professional football playoff systems are beckoning. The sound of cash is a promise that can always be taken to the bank.

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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