University of Arkansas Researchers Add Facts to BCS Debate About College Football

Papers examine game scheduling, political interest

Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Fans cheer on the Razorbacks at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Arkansas plays in the Southeastern Conference, one of the athletic conferences whose champions receive an automatic berth in the Bowl Championship Series. (Photo by Russell Cothren, University Relations)

Fans cheer on the Razorbacks at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Arkansas plays in the Southeastern Conference, one of the athletic conferences whose champions receive an automatic berth in the Bowl Championship Series. (Photo by Russell Cothren, University Relations)

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Many college football fans love to hate the Bowl Championship Series, but do they have any facts to back up their rants that the BCS system is unfair or in general not good for college football?

University of Arkansas professor Steve Dittmore and three of his students have researched several questions about the BCS and come up with some answers that could fuel the fire on both sides of the debate.

Dittmore, an assistant professor of recreation, and undergraduates Brittany Pair and Christian Moore presented a paper the third week of April at the annual Scholarly Conference on College Sport held on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A graduate student, Kristin Durant, worked on a second paper with Dittmore but was not able to attend the conference held by the College Sport Research Institute.

The BCS uses a rating system based both on polls of humans and computer models, rather than a playoff. According to the BCS, the two top-rated teams will meet each year in a national championship bowl game, but several undefeated teams have not received bowl bids in the past.

"You hear debates all the time, but nobody boils it down as to why they don't like it beyond the lack of a playoff," Dittmore said. "It's a perfect storm; no one is happy. We want to try to provide some facts for people to consider."

The paper Dittmore and the two undergraduates in recreation wrote examines the "economic risk-reward dance" that BCS schools face. It looks at the effect on game schedules of the 2006 NCAA rule change allowing teams to schedule 12 regular season games and how the BCS structure dictates the scheduling of that 12th game. The longitudinal study went back to 1994 to also allow a comparison of schedules before and after the implementation of the BCS in 1998.

The researchers expected to find that the number of times BCS teams that were not in the same conference played against each other in the regular season would decrease, but they didn't. Instead, the number went up slightly, from 83 BCS versus BCS non-conference games in 1997 to 90 BCS versus BCS non-conference games in 2009.

The second question they put to the test was whether the number of BCS vs. Division I-AA regular season games would increase after the rule allowing 12 regular season games. They thought the number would go up and it did, from 32 to 56 games. Despite the increase, however, the extremely low correlation they found between games against I-AA opponents and wins suggested this practice does not always produce a better record.

Pair and Moore each reviewed game schedules from three of the six BCS conferences and analyzed the game payouts with information obtained from a Des Moines Register database. Overall, the results showed the 12th game addition and the BCS structure had a negative impact on the quality of competition scheduled.

"Except for longstanding rivalries such as Florida versus Florida State, we found these conditions create a strong disincentive for BCS schools to schedule other BCS schools in non-conference games," Dittmore said. "Although the scheduling of BCS non-conference teams went up, we think teams carefully chose only BCS schools they could beat."

Arkansas is one of those BCS teams that scheduled another BCS team in non-conference play with its commitment to play Texas A&M in Dallas every year for 10 years, Dittmore said.

"I think, for both schools, that game is more about getting access to the Dallas-Fort Worth area to recruit students and network with alumni than it is about scheduling another BCS school," he continued.

The issues are not just talk for fans tailgating or watching football in sports bars. Hundreds of millions of dollars in media rights paid to broadcast games are at stake as well as the marketing and attendance revenue colleges and universities receive for games. That's one reason Congress has debated the BCS, Dittmore said.

"The six BCS conferences are the primary beneficiaries," he said, "and that creates a clear case of the 'haves' and the 'have-nots.' If the trends in scheduling continue to play out, it will be even more difficult for teams such as Boise State and Utah to break through. The BCS maintains the status quo."

When Arkansas beat Eastern Michigan last year at Homecoming by a score of 63-27, that game aided a "have-not" in Eastern Michigan and served as a preventive measure for Arkansas.

"It's a game that does two things," Dittmore said. "By Arkansas winning, it counts toward the six wins a school needs to be bowl eligible. And, it prevents the team from getting beat up physically by playing a stronger school."

Dittmore and Durant pored over congressional testimony to prepare the other paper he presented in Chapel Hill. It used the public choice theory, or the application of economics to political science, to explain the interest of politicians in college football. Most recently, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, requested a Justice Department review of whether the BCS violates antitrust laws. While still a candidate, President Barack Obama stated that he would prefer a playoff to determine the national champion.

The researchers found politicians tend toward self-interest by pandering to celebrity athletes and coaches and emphasizing specific issues such as a home state team to appeal to voters. They also concluded there's no consensus in Congress to legislate a change; some members feel they fulfill campaign promises by bringing up the issue or introducing a resolution or bill, even if it doesn't go anywhere.

Pair and Moore graduate in August following summer internships. Pair will work at the College Sport Research Institute at the University of North Carolina and plans to enter a master's degree program in sport management at Wichita State University in the fall. She plans to work in collegiate sports and conduct further research. Moore will go to Denver for an internship with the Colorado Rapids major league soccer team. He will enter a master's degree program in sport management at Long Beach State University. He wants to work in professional soccer.

Durant has one year left in her master's program. She works as a graduate assistant in the university's intramural and recreational sports department.


Stephen W. Dittmore, assistant professor of recreations
College of Education and Health Professions

Heidi Stambuck, director of communications
College of Education and Health Professions

News by Keyword