Illustration courtesy Cary Shulman

The first ever NCAA Division I men’s football playoffs are about to begin but not without some controversy. Of course the previous system known as the BCS (Bowl Championship Series) had even more detractors, some leaving off the “C” and just calling it the BS system. Now four teams will vie for the prestigious (and remarkably lucrative) Championship. The conference of the winning team stands to make a whopping $40,000,000 or $22,000,000 more than last year.

The playoffs will include four teams: Alabama will play Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, which has an $18,000,000 payout to each team’s conference, while Oregon will play defending champion Florida State in the Rose Bowl, which also has the $18 mil payday. The biggest loser is TCU. The week prior to the final selection TCU was ranked 3rd.

All TCU did in their final game was slaughter Iowa State 55-3. And yet, inexplicably at least certainly to TCU’s Gary Patterson, the Big 12 Coach of the Year, his team slipped to #6. This cost the Big 12 $14,000 (difference between the $4,000,000 they’re going to get and the $18 mil of a semi-final game) and possibly $36,000,000 should TCU have won the national championship.

Picture Coach Patterson walking dejectedly into the locker room after TCU’s one-sided victory. His puzzled assistant asks, “Why the long face, Coach?” “Letting them have a field goal is gonna kill us.” Since TCU dropped from #3 to #6, apparently it did. (Or could it have been that Ohio State has a larger national following and thus potentially greater TV ratings?)

Meanwhile the amounts of money the bowls generate are mind-boggling. It’s almost akin to drug money, as harsh as that sounds. In fact, it may not be such a bad comparison because as a country we’re certainly addicted to football. With all the money flowing it’s a bit ironic that NCAA stands for National Collegiate Amateur Athletics. $40 mil hardly sounds “amateur.” Naturally, the players don’t get a dime of the windfall but in April they got an increase in money for “meals and snacks.” Great, the schools get millions and the players get an extra energy bar!

Interestingly, the 12-person committee selecting the Final Four included Condoleezza Rice, George Bush’s former National Security Advisors. Rice is affectionately known as Condi, though given the spelling of her name she could just as easily be called Condo.

Who can forget Condi’s unique response to the Presidential Daily Briefing of August 6, 2001, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” The PDB suggested the attacks could involve commercial airliners hitting high-rise buildings in financial centers. But Condi pointed out “It didn’t say when the attacks would take place.” Hopefully Condi knows more about football than National Security.

But back to the new playoff system, one huge improvement is that previous to this year if your team finished #3 in the country you were, as the expression goes, close but no cigar. Not even a chance at the cigar. Now reaching the Final Four has a heretofore unknown prestige. Also, the two Semi-Final games will likely be mega hits in TV ratings, which lead to the big bucks and recruiting bonanzas for the participants. It’s really quite brilliant. So much so I have a feeling the field may soon expand to eight teams. You watch and see.

Other Bowl Games also pay out whopping sums. The Fiesta and Orange Bowls shell out $18,000,000 to the conferences of the participants. Locally, USC is in the Holiday Bowl against Nebraska which pays each participant $2,825,000. UCLA plays Kansas State in the Alamo Bowl that pays $3,825,000. Not exactly chump change but a far cry from the $40 mil grand prize to the National Champion. For some reason all this money talk for amateur sports makes me want to take a shower. Perhaps one of the games should just be called the Money Bowl.

So dust off the Lazy Boy recliner, replace the batteries in your remote and set your DVR because by my count there will be 39 Bowl Games between Dec. 20th and the January 12th National Championship. However, the names of many of the games don’t quite have the charm of the past because of the corporate sponsors. (Just like in politics, all that dough has to come from somewhere.)

So, as you mark your calendar, please note that there’s a Chif-fil-A , Alamo, Outback, Tax Slayer, Foster Farms, and Go Daddy Bowls to name but just a few of the more mercenary sounding. At the risk of sounding cynical, it could be said that America loves football and corporations run America, so it’s a perfect pairing.

So get your beer and chips ready, and let the games begin. This year, there’s a lot on the line: prestige, pride, and more than ever, money. Lots and lots of money.

Jack also writes “Laughing Matters,” which appears every Friday. He’s at facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth or jnsmdp@aol.com.

Illustration courtesy Cary Shulman.

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