BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 12/07/2016

Thiel: Hey, ESPN, CFP format needs makeover

The Huskies are in, but that doesn’t mean the College Football Playoffs had a good selection process. At least through the prism of ESPN, the owner-operator of big-time college sports.

Freshman Taylor Rapp holds up his Most Valuable Player award at the Pac-12 Championship. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

The arrival of Washington among the heavy equipment of the college football industry allows a Seattle viewer of the selection process to offer an opinion that cannot be criticized with charges of homerism.

The opinion: My, that sucked.

Since the Huskies were not excluded from the College Football Playoffs, criticism from the “sweet-grapes” corner of the country resonates a little more than the “sour-grapes” areas of the fruited plain.

For UW and its fans, contention in this three-year-old CFP was new. With a dawg in the hunt, it was astonishing to witness how much yammering, hand-wringing and weapons-grade argle bargle went into the selection of the four participants.

The scrutiny did provide one remarkable side outcome: For most of six weeks, the football programs at Rutgers, Portland State and Idaho received immense national publicity that millions of dollars could not have purchased. Granted, the references were all bad. But as we’ve seen, even bad reviews can get you elected president.

They were the three non-conference teams obliterated by the Huskies cumulatively 148-30, the opponents’ weakness making for a vulnerability in the Huskies’ profile that became a cantaloupe-sized wart during the cover-boy shoots.

As it turns out, it seems all the contenders had festering pustules, if one were to listen to ESPN’s legions of pundits, which seemed to include everyone in Bristol with the strength to hold a microphone. The repetitive nit-picking of who beat whom, where, when and how, created enough hamster-wheeling to turn the turbines at Grand Coulee Dam.

Even ever-polite Huskies coach Chris Petersen, who would have a hard time publicly criticizing brown shoes with a tuxedo, couldn’t resist a modest shot Sunday morning during his ESPN interview after UW was selected.

“It was a little nerve-wracking,” he said of the delay in the announcement. “You guys drew it out as long as you possibly could.”

The ESPN host — can’t remember who it was among the cast of thousands; Ernest Borgnine? — countered that they didn’t yet have the results from the 12-person star chamber appointed to be college gridiron gods, so they had to keep talking.

The retort conveniently omits the fact that ESPN owns the entire college football industry, lock, stock and ratings points. If the network, which is paying $7.3 billion over 12 years to televise the CFP, had ordered the committee to deliver the verdict before the show while standing on their heads naked, they would have done so.

College athletics programs, and by extension the colleges themselves, have become addicted to the crack of TV revenues. By itself, that isn’t the worst thing if it kept athletics departments from stealing from public schools’ general-fund budgets. But many, including six Pac-12 schools besides Washington, aren’t breaking even despite selling out to TV’s need for 2 a.m. game starts with one hour’s notice.

So the athletics departments are paying themselves more to lose more money, as the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins put it.

Which is why, now that I’ve experienced up close the awkwardness of the beauty-pageant contest that remains in college football even with a four-team field — ooh, isn’t Penn State’s comeback win over Wisconsin prettier than Washington’s 31-point rout of Colorado? — I’ve become an even greater fan of the eight-team format.

Unlike the CFP, we’ll keep the rationale simple:

  • College football has five power conferences and four berths
  • Limiting to four is leaving money on the table

Since college football is nothing if not about money, the unsatisfactory experience of the selection process the past weekend fairly screams for amendment that works for everyone.

Create a tournament field of eight teams — five conference champions, a sixth from the Group of Five kids’ table, and two wild cards — and rancor is reduced, revenue is up with another round of games, and ESPN can stop bothering its cafeteria staff for hot takes on the playoff field.

Yes, there is something of a kick-the-can-down-the-road element by still having  a committee for picking No. 6, No. 7 and No. 8, but the retching and heaving is reduced to a hanky and a pat on the head for No. 9.  The committee can be cut from 12 to two, and  Condi Rice and Tyrone Willingham can email their choices from the Pebble Beach clubhouse after the front nine and still have time for the back nine.

Then there’s the peace that comes from the dialing-down of selection chatter that will rejuvenate our souls.

CFP chairman Kirby Hocutt offered up a little insight during his interview. He said the committee analyzed much data, offering one tasty example of how they separated No. 4 Washington from No. 5 Penn State.

He said Washington ranked first in the significant statistic of turnover differential. Penn State was 50th. None among the gaggle of employees ESPN had servicing us with treacle offered up that nugget.

I confess I might have missed it, because I bailed on the four-hour show after the Petersen interview. Another 200 minutes of hamsters in the wheel,  and I would have joined the movement to build a wall, topped with a lead lid, around Bristol.



  • Jamo57

    Thanks, Art. Yes that was an awful experience. I texted my son Saturday night and said by the end of the weekend I am going to like CFB a lot less than when the weekend started.

    The analysis was terrible. No discussion of the time-lag element in scheduling non-conference games, IOWs Rutgers was 8-5 and a consistent bowl level team when the home and home was scheduled by UW (I remember being intrigued about seeing them at Husky Stadium), or the fact that UM probably saw CU as a doormat and an easy win when they scheduled the Buffaloes. And I didn’t realize until yesterday that that “awful” and “joke” team Idaho won 8 games this year.

    Also no discussion of the fact Pac-12 schools (and Big Ten) play 9 conference games, but those softies in the SEC and ACC play 8 and filled the extra game with a cake walk home game (often late in the year as a quasi bye—see Alabama)

    4 or 5 years ago I used to set my alarm to get up and watch Game Day (quite a statement for a Saturday morning). Each year I watch the pre and post game shows less and less. Next year I anticipate not even bothering at all with any of the noise. But I’ll appreciate the extra sleep.

    • art thiel

      ESPN is so in bed with CFB that honest commentary about corruption and incompetence is either banned or ghettoized to OTL.

      • Jamo57

        Not to mention the fact ESPN carries many more Big Ten games and the Pac-12 ends up more on Fox Sports. Any viewing of SportsCenter will tell the critical viewer that if ESPN did not have a broadcast contract with the conference, league (NHL for instance), etc., or broadcast the game, the event never happened.

        ….and then there’s the corporate tie-ins. On next year’s broadcast look for a segment, “Why the Pac-12 Champion doesn’t belong…..brought to you by Pizza Hut!”

        • art thiel

          At ESPN, the business relationship will always take priority over editorial.

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  • 1coolguy

    Well done Art – Couldn’t agree more. 8 makes the most sense, if they can figure out the time required, given finals week at most schools. FOUR hours? Really? Obviously i did not tune in, thankfully. Just one modification – As Condi was one of the first female members admitted to Augusta National, I’d use this as her and Tyrone’s venue.

    • art thiel

      The time requirement is moot, since only handfuls of players are equipped with the time management skills to do both. It’s not a priority.

      And Augusta could work, but I believe Condi and Ty are Californians. I’m for stacking the deck with Left Coasters.

      • 1coolguy

        Clint’s course works then. “Don’t try to understand ’em , just rope, tie and brand ’em” – What we’ll do to “Bama. Greatest TV show song ever, resurrected for the younger generations in Blues Brothers!

        • art thiel

          Rawhide. Never thought I’d be referencing that.

  • tor5

    Maybe I don’t obsess about all this enough, but I have a
    hard time seeing how adding more games accomplishes anything for the greater
    good. If you’re trying to diminish controversy or smooth the process, I think your
    kick-the-can-down-the-road analogy is apt. There will simply be that many more
    2- and 3-loss teams screaming when they don’t make the cut. And certainly for
    the ostensible student-athletes, it will only mean more athlete and less
    student. It’s already teetering on absurdity. At what point do we jettison the
    notion that the players actually attend the school? That will be a sad day, in
    my opinion. And more games will only make it more about money… if that’s
    possible. I’m not clear on how you figure the math on this, Art, but in the end
    I just see that the one-percenters buy bigger boats watching the rest of us
    give each other more concussions.

    • art thiel

      I advocate eight purely on the short-term virtues of extra revs/amusement. Your point about the bigger picture requires profound reform that includes complete profssionalism and abandonment of academic obligation. Argued that for more than 20 years. But CFB and NCAA are deeply invested in hypocrisy.

      • Jamo57

        I’m not surprised the 4 team playoff didn’t solve the controversy the old BCS had. It just transferred it from the #3 team being angry to #5. The 8 team idea seems like a less bad answer, but the 6 team format is something that I’m thinking more about as time goes by. Get the Power 5 champions in and one at large, perhaps an independent or deserving non-champion team. Give the top 2 teams a bye to provide incentive not extend the season not as far.

      • tor5

        If it comes to colleges simply paying outside guys to play football, I just don’t know what “college football” will mean anymore. Is that your idea? Of course, it’s hard to defend the current system. But that idea sounds like kissing your sister. The game’s the same, but the thrill is gone.

        • art thiel

          “College” football long ago lost its original meaning, except in the romantic sentiments of alums.

          Set up the athletic department as the for-profit entertainment unit of the university. The unit pays the university to rent the brand name and facilities sufficient to fund all the non-rev sports. Academic progress is free and optional for players who wish to take advantage.

          End of hypocrisy. End of colleges engaging in practices for which they are unfit and incompetent.

          • tor5

            That’s me: sentimental alum. Thanks for spelling it out, Art. My head sees your point. But my heart likes the romantic illusion, I guess.

  • rosetta_stoned

    After losing more than one million subscribers over the last two months, ESPN can’t die soon enough.

    • art thiel

      Oh, it’s not going away. It will be streamed on its own, so you can choose not to buy it. But that won’t stop it from owning CFB.

  • MrPrimeMinister

    Totally agree, does every city in the state of Florida have a bowl game now?

    • art thiel

      Required by state law.

      • MrPrimeMinister

        The Boca Raton Bowl? Boca Raton–a veritable hotbed of college football tradition and pageantry.

        • woofer

          Sorry. In the Age of Trump it will be illegal to have a bowl game with a Spanish name. Besides, Rat Mouth Bowl has an edgy alt-right ring to it.

          • art thiel

            In the age of Trump, the bigger threat is the banning of higher education.

          • woofer

            Maybe, but that will just free up college football from its current artificial constraints.

  • Paul Harmening

    Sounds as if there is zero chance of fixing this committee mess? And, are there any legit possibilities of an 8 team playoff coming to fruition in the near future?

    • art thiel

      I think eight will happen, probably sooner than later, for reasons of cash. The traditional bowl set-up was 25, 30, 35 exhibition games disguised as rewards.

  • JoeBlow

    Loved the use of argle bargle. Had to look it up. Turns out Scalia once used it in a dissent. Love those Scots!

    • art thiel

      Thanks. One of my most delightful finds in the English language. Impressed you bothered to look it up.

  • 3 Lions

    The fans, players and coaches deserve an eight team playoff. This year it would great to have Michigan, Penn State, Oklahoma & USC. Teams playing these cup cake games are also an insult to the fans also.