Unfortunately for Mark Cuban, College Football Isn't a Business
If college football was run like a business -- that is, to maximize profits -- then there would be a college football playoff. We know this thanks to the Yahoo! Sports trio's book Death to the BCS.
Conservatively, college athletics is leaving in the neighborhood of a half a billion dollars on the table each year by continuing to adhere to the bowl system rather than embracing a playoff. Instead of a playoff, college football has created the BCS, a mechanism that severely undervalues college football's most lucrative asset, a playoff. That decision is infuriating to most fans, but it's downright mind-boggling to businessmen like Mark Cuban.
That's why every few years, a businessman looks at college football, compares the revenues that are produced without a playoff to the revenues that could be produced with a playoff and commences foaming at the mouth. How, the businessman wonders, can we have created a system where capitalism doesn't rule? In every other industry in America, I mean every single one, the goal is to maximize profits. Thus when Mark Cuban told ESPN, "It's (college football) an inefficient business where there's obviously a better way of doing it. The only thing that's kept them from doing it is a lack of capital, which I can deal with," he was wrong.
The only thing that keeps college football from creating a playoff isn't a lack of capital. It's the fact that despite what we may think, college football isn't actually a business.
Cuban's idea that he can change the way college football ends its season by dangling money at the issue would work if a business was involved. He could stage a corporate coup, unlock the hidden value of this asset. But college football is a weird hybrid between business and education. Instead of an organically grown business like the NFL, the NBA,or Major League Baseball, college sports are draped around universities as an outgrowth of those schools' educational missions. Now, you and I know that college sports are profitable and that the reach of a college athletic team extends well beyond the bounds of the current students, alumni and faculty.
But college football is still being run, to a certain extent, as if these are intramural teams designed to provide a more nuanced approach to educational life. You know, join the school paper, run for student body president, play a little wide receiver on the side.
We all know college football has all the trappings of big business, the massive television contracts, the shoe deals, the logoed merchandise on everything from baby sipping cups to caskets, seriously, but that's all okay because these are just teams that undergraduates happen to play on. This isn't a business, say the university presidents. This is just students who happen to also be athletes.
Spare me. If you want an analogy that will make you gag, by avoiding a playoff college football is working to preserve its technical virginity. Right now, college athletics is willing to do everything but a playoff. Technical virginity meet your closest kin, major college athletics. The mere idea of a playoff is just the tip.And it's that weird non-business hybrid that creates situations such as these, where the consumer market isn't being served what it wants. Consumers, those who pay for, watch and support college football teams, overwhelmingly want a playoff.
Most American industries have to spend billions to create demand for their product. Here college football fans are demanding the opportunity to consume a product more -- that is, have a playoff -- yet the college football industry is non-responsive. Name me any other industry in America that underserves its market, won't give them what they need. You can't find one.
Imagine if McDonald's started rationing Big Macs. The very idea is anti-capitalistic and it's anti-American. It just doesn't make business sense.
Precisely. That's the goal of the college football presidents. So long as there is money being left on the table, then the illusion of small-time athletics can remain. Of course it's nonsensical -- why compete so aggressively on television rights fees, for instance, while spurning the huge payday of a playoff? -- but it's a technical virginity. If there's still some money left on the table, then the illusion of athletics as a part of the educational mission can still govern. It's a tiny fig leaf, but it's something.
That's why a billionaire sports businessman like Mark Cuban looks at the college football market and thinks he can create a 12- or 16-team playoff. Because from a business perspective, it's a no-brainer. Any business in America would do it. Any other business in America would love the opportunity to serve a huge, clamoring, foaming at the mouth consumer group that is trying to spend more money. Any other other business in America wouldn't give the Heisman to its most loyal consumers. It would maximize profits and make its consumers more loyal than they ever were before.
Except when it doesn't. That's because the lack of a college football playoff isn't a money issue, it's also a political one. The middlemen of college football, the bowls, have created a system where they make the profits. So what if those profits aren't as much as they could be and so what if that profit angers your fans? These guys win. No other business in America would allow the middlemen to dictate terms, but, again, college football isn't a business. So there's no one to wipe out the middlemen and a huge industry is predicated upon the propagation of the status quo. American business has to evolve or die. College football is an antiquated dinosaur, the equivalent of a travel agent in an Internet age, the Dewey Decimal system in the Google era.
College football doesn't have to evolve, it just has to be.
That's why Cuban's idea, like other businessmen before him who have advocated a playoff, is doomed to fail. College football is unfathomable to businessmen like Cuban. Because they don't realize that college football isn't a business, man.
It's the final vestige of anti-capitalism in America, the last holdout, the only industry in America that doesn't give its customers what they want. And it's not changing for anyone. Until the government comes along and points out the BCS is a monopoly that violates the Sherman antitrust act. Then? Well, then, things may change.
Follow Clay Travis on Twitter here. With All That and a Bag of Mail back on a weekly basis, you can e-mail him questions at Clay.Travis@gmail.com.