Column: If you love a Group of 5 school, say no to a Group of 5 playoff
Last week, ESPN’s Brett McMurphy reported that a “growing number of Group of 5 officials” were beginning to warm to the idea of a separate playoff.
I was hesitant to comment on the article because, to be frank, I don’t believe it. McMurphy only quotes one official— Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier— while mentioning that others didn't want to be named. That's plausible; it’s a touchy subject, and I can understand a reluctance to go on the record. However, the fact that only one of these "officials" even gave an anonymous quote makes me very skeptical. Frazier may want a Group of 5 playoff, but I suspect that his opinion is not nearly as widespread as the article implies among those in a position to create such an event. Rather than a “growing number” of officials, McMurphy’s story is really just that Sean Frazier wants a Group of 5 playoff. Worthy of a story in DeKalb, perhaps, but not exactly national news.
Nevertheless, when ESPN floats a trial balloon, even non-stories become part of the national conversation. The same has happened here, although, to my surprise, most talking heads have rejected ESPN's little attempt to steer public opinion and panned the idea. Rightfully so, too, although it isn't unanimous.
It should be. A separate Group of 5 playoff is a terrible idea for anyone that cares about those schools.
On the surface, it's easy to understand the selling points. With the Power Five monopoly on college football's postseason, there's a cathartic appeal to the idea of everyone else putting on their own show. There might also be financial benefits, too, if the right television partner could be found. These things, though, do not reflect the big picture.
Coverage of college sports can be frustrating. Major media outlets tend to focus on the "sports" half of that term, thinking of college football like they would any other league. They ignore the "college" part, which is far more important. There is a fundamental misunderstanding among fans, writers, and television personalities as to why college athletics, particularly football, exists.
Most people in that group would say that it's about money, and there certainly isn't any doubt that major college football is big business. Television contracts, ticket sales, and merchandise sales generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. The impact of athletic revenue, though, is a bit overstated. Alabama's athletic department, for example, generated nearly $149 million in the 2014-2015 school year. That is a lot of money, but more so when considered in a vacuum. In the context of the school's overall 2014 revenue of over $1 billion, it's not that much. For the sake of comparison, tuition alone generated more than $419 million.
Keep in mind that this is all revenue, not profit. If making money was the real driver behind college football, you'd think that schools would do a better job managing their expenses. Almost every school in USA Today's NCAA Finances database spends as much on athletics as they earn. Several athletic departments are in the red. With schools spending as much as they bring in, college athletics aren’t about making money.
Instead, they are about crafting a brand. When colleges and universities choose to participate at the Division I level, they are making a strategic decision to position themselves as mainstream, national institutions. Athletics, especially football, are how regional schools gain a national profile. Participation in Division I athletics conveys a sense of quality and mainstream legitimacy. It's aspirational; university presidents want to associate with other schools that match the visions that they have for their own. Maybe the MAC will never be better than the Big Ten, but that's not the point. The notoriety gained from playing at the FBS level sets them apart from, say, the Missouri Valley Conference.
And this is why a Group of 5 playoff is a terrible idea. Having a separate playoff would sever that association. Group of 5 schools would be sacrificing the strategic investment they made in top-tier athletics. If the purpose of athletics is to promote the university, then it is better to fall short against the top tier then it is to separate from it.
Vanderbilt might never win the SEC, but do you really think they'd be better served by dropping out?
Besides, I'm not even sure that the supposed benefits to a separate playoff would actually be realized. The College Football Playoff is set to distribute $83.5 million to the Group of 5 conferences this year. If those conferences were to stop sending their highest-ranked champion to a New Year’s Six bowl as part of the College Football Playoff system, then a Group of 5 playoff would have to make at least that much just to break even. That’s a tall order. Even if all seven games of an eight-team playoff were worth $10 million apiece (they wouldn’t come close), that’s only $70 million. If you leave the highest-ranked champion in a New Year’s Six bowl, then what would be the point of the playoff in the first place?
A separate playoff today simply makes it easier for the power conferences to leave the Group of 5 behind tomorrow. While many would argue that this has already happened, it hasn’t. Yes, the odds are stacked against Group of 5, and the chances of one of those teams playing for a national championship are negligible. That is not a reason to quit trying. There is more to college football than what happens on the field.