Is BCS Backlash Hurting or Helping College Football?

The 2008 college football season comes to a close tonight as Oklahoma and Florida face off in the BCS National Championship Game. As usual, the only major sport that has no playoff system has followed up a thrilling season with a seemingly arbitrary matchup, leaving several equally deserving teams out of the running for the championship. The Bowl Championship Series uses a combination of "Top 25" polls and so-called "computer rankings" that grade teams on factors such as strength of schedule, quality of wins, etc. to determine the two teams that will compete in the title game. Rarely does the college football community agree on who the two best teams are, and of the 11 seasons of the BCS, seven have ended with disagreement over who should play for the title: Florida State/Miami in 2000, Colorado/Nebraska/Oregon in 2001, LSU/Oklahoma/USC in 2003, Auburn/LSU/USC in 2004, Florida/Michigan in 2006, Georgia/Ohio State/LSU/Oklahoma/Virginia Tech in 2007, and now Florida/Oklahoma/Texas/USC/Utah in 2008.

In each of these years, angry pundits and fans — particularly fans of those schools left out of the title game — condemn the BCS as an unjust, biased system that fails to achieve its most basic objective of determining a true "best team" in college football. Despite all this, the BCS lands one major TV contract after another. Fox picked up broadcast rights in 2006, and ESPN recently inked a deal worth 50% more than Fox’s, which will start with the 2010 season. On the surface, the TV deals sound outrageous to fans, given the unpopularity of the current system. But have the BCS’s problems translated into problems for the sport in general?

Hardly. For all the controversy it creates, the BCS certainly knows how to spark a good conversation, and all the arguing over which one-loss team is better than all the other one-loss teams has only served to put more eyeballs in front of the TV and in front of the computer during the season.

Whether in spite of, because of, or irrespective of the BCS, online interest in the college football season has continued to rise year after year. FoxSports.com has seen substantial growth in its college-football viewership since Fox began its partnership with the BCS in 2006, despite the TV network’s dearth of regular-season broadcasts. The ESPN brand is obviously the most recognizable in the sports landscape, and their season-long TV, radio, and magazine coverage has naturally contributed to ESPN.com‘s growth in recent years. But the biggest gainer has been Yahoo! Sports — the true leader in sports on the web — which has actually doubled its college football traffic in the past four years, thanks in part to its acquisition last year of Rivals.com, a top source for college sports and recruiting news.

Each new season generates a new controversy, and each new controversy generates more traffic across the interwebs. ESPN’s new deal to keep this horrible system festering for four more years will likely ensure that all those angry eyeballs stay tuned. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to prepare to curse this system for the entire four-hour telecast tonight that I will, of course, watch intently