Last month, Football Bowl Subdivision conference commissioners announced their plan to move to a four-team playoff beginning in 2014. It’s a long overdue step toward giving college football fans what they want. The inclusion of two additional deserving teams in the BCS “Final Four” will result in less frustrating “what if?” situations for mid-conference teams and other deserving squads.
While the four-team playoff is a smart move, it also underlines the weakness in one of the longstanding arguments against any playoff. For decades, countless university presidents have cited “missed classes” as a reason to reject a football playoff in favor of the bowl system.
Yet even the eight- and sixteen-team football playoffs which were recently taken off the table by the BCS would have taken less class time away from student-athletes than the four (!) postseason basketball tournaments that the NCAA sanctions.
The College Basketball Invitational (CBI) is the most ludicrous of these tournaments. It finishes with the only best-of-three final in college basketball, providing a pointless and often embarrassing final chapter to the season for the NCAA’s most pedestrian teams. Perennial powerhouses like the University of Pittsburgh and Butler University joined Penn in the CBI last season, and the results were predictably ugly.
Butler’s attendance reached a 40-year high for the 2011-12 regular season. Pitt had invigorated its fanbase with 10 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances prior to last season. Yet CBI attendance at both schools plummeted. Many Pitt fans considered the school’s CBI acceptance humiliating, and drew a crowd of only 1,400 when the Panthers defeated Wofford College in the first round.
The Panthers played two years ago during a state of emergency with the region under two feet of snow and drew three times as many fans.
Meanwhile, a crowd of only 3,700 fans watched Pitt down Butler at Hinkle Fieldhouse in the CBI Semifinals, only half of the Bulldogs’ 40-year high for average attendance during the 2011-12 regular season.
Penn, then, was just one of many CBI schools that suffered a financial and fan-fuelled backlash for its cumbersome epilogue to the season.
Published reports put the figures at $35,000 to host a CBI first-round matchup. Teams recoup costs in ticket and concession sales, as well as eliminated travel costs. Penn needed only to sell roughly 3,000 general admissions tickets at $12 for their first-round CBI matchup against Quinnipiac to cover the entrance-fee cost. But only 1,268 fans showed up at the Palestra, far short of its average of 4,400 per home game last season. Penn Athletics had to once again resort to giving out free student tickets to boost student attendance for their second-round matchup, a loss to Butler that reeked of anticlimax.
What the CBI is, then, is a fringe sporting event only good for keeping athletes from becoming full-time students and leaving schools in the red for hosting tourney contests. Any time you host a third-rate postseason basketball tournament, you had better be prepared for some apathy. That’s why only national championship events should follow the regular season.
One thing that the Ivy League’s athletic directors got right earlier this month was shooting down a proposal to hold an annual conference tournament. Conference championships are even more of a farce than the CBI or NIT (aptly nicknamed the Not Important Tournament).
Can you think of a professional sports league which makes its teams run a gauntlet of back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back games in a special single-elimination tourney before the championship playoffs even begin? Of course not.
Yet that is exactly the absurdity that ensues in conference tournaments after every regular season.
Although the Ivies continue to resist conference tourneys, they too need to place a higher value on the “student” in student-athletes.
The best way to do that is to get them back in the classroom as soon after the regular season as possible. That means skipping the many postseason basketball tourneys which profit from mediocrity at the expense of participating schools.
And every time missed classes are mentioned as a reason to oppose a four-team playoff in college football this summer, remember the CBI.