April 26, 2010 in Sports

It’s time to think big

Expansion could lead to playoff
Blair Kerkhoff Kansas City Star
File Associated Press photo

Alabama players celebrate after winning the BCS Championship in January. The party would get even bigger under Blair Kerkhoff’s plan.
(Full-size photo)

Four superconferences of 16-20 teams split into divisions. Each plays a conference championship game. Those winners meet in the national semifinals, and the survivors advance to a lucrative BCS national championship game.

There, was that so hard?

The Big Ten expansion exploration is about five months into a 1 1/2 -year timetable, and commissioner Jim Delany had no interest in playing guessing games about the future of his conference or college sports with reporters who flocked to BCS meetings last week in Phoenix.

So speculation will continue, and mine takes change well beyond Big Ten expansion.

Simply, it’s about advancing college football as a whole. Big Ten expansion and Southeastern Conference expansion along with consolidation of other major conferences create a future college sports landscape that could maximize revenue with a playoff system using the BCS bowls.

Think about a 16-team Big Ten that stretches from Missouri to Connecticut, and an equal-sized SEC that includes Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.

Put together remaining Big 12 and Pacific-10 schools along with the strongest from the Mountain West and Western Athletic Conference. Do the same in the East with Atlantic Coast Conference and Big East schools.

What you’ve got is the nation separated by region NCAA tournament style: East, South, Midwest and West.

With each conference split into divisions, the league championship games would serve as national quarterfinals, an Elite Eight if you will: Big Ten in the snow at Soldier Field, SEC in the Georgia Dome, ACC/Big East at new Giants Stadium, Pac-10/Big 12 in Glendale, Ariz.

West winners meet in the Rose Bowl, East in the Orange Bowl. Rotate the national championship game among Dallas, New Orleans and any other bidders.

Even a BCS-system guy like me can get behind that kind of structure.

But this is college sports, specifically football, so nothing is easy.

For starters, such a grand plan would require a cooperative effort from a sport that doesn’t think outside its boundaries. In Phoenix last week, commissioners weren’t talking about the growth of college football as a whole but instead how they would protect their turf if and when the Big Ten moves.

The Big Ten isn’t concerned that its growth could blow up the Big East, Big 12 and others. The conference owns one of the greatest forces in college sports today, the Big Ten Network. It’s a large part of a media-revenue stream that pays its members double what the Big 12 distributes to its schools.

The Big 12 and Pac-10 can’t match that. Just as the ACC and Big East can’t compete with the SEC media deals. That’s simply market value. But creating semifinal and final football games with revenue to be shared equally among all conferences or schools would help narrow the gap.

And if you think networks have lost an appetite for college sports championships, look at last week’s $10.8 billion agreement between the NCAA and CBS and TBS for the men’s basketball championship.

This four-conference plan creates many issues. It excludes many Division I-A programs. It doesn’t address the likely weakening of bowl games.

It doesn’t speak to basketball and other sports, though the divisions could run their own tournaments with winners receiving NCAA automatic bids (Big 12/Pac-10 East in Kansas City).

But what this idea does is get college football beyond the havoc that Big Ten expansion alone will create.

It also brings to college football the best of other sports to which it is most compared – pro football and college basketball. The NFL rules because it shares wealth and treats all members as equal partners. Four college conferences without wild revenue differences would keep the entire product healthy.

College basketball gives everybody a shot at the national championship – just win your conference tournament first. This new college football structure eliminates BCS standings. Nobody gets voted into the conference championship game or playoff.

And college football keeps its uniqueness, the rivalries (the Missouri-Kansas loathing will endure no matter the conference address), bowl games, regular-season polls all stay.

The best part is, by having Delany, the SEC’s Mike Slive, Big 12’s Dan Beebe and other bosses work together on this now, we can save time.

Fallout from the previous college football earthquake – the 1984 Supreme Court ruling that turned over ownership of college football television rights from the NCAA to the schools and conferences – lasted more than 20 years with conferences forming, folding and expanding.

College football can learn from that experience and use this Big Ten expansion exploration as the opportunity to create a landscape that works for nearly everybody.

Change nothing, or change everything.

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