College football realignment: Why not the English system?

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Once upon a time, conferences were straightforward. You had a group of universities within a bus ride of one another, and they played each other in football, baseball, basketball, and other sports. At the major university level, you had a dozen or so conferences, each with no more than 10 teams, and every team played every other team in football every year, and typically each pair of teams played home-and-home series in basketball and baseball. You had the Pac 8, Big 8, WAC, SWC, SEC, Big 10, ACC, Missouri Valley, and the Ivy League, plus a long list of independents like Notre Dame, Miami, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Florida State, and Tulane. There was a second tier of conferences like Southland, Big Sky, PCAA, Yankee, and MAC. Things were fairly stable for a long time.

Then in 1978 the two big Arizona schools split off to make the Pac 8 the Pac 10. Football independents formed basketball leagues to gain automatic berths in the ever-expanding March Madness tournament, and some of those basketball leagues added football later on. Title 9 encouraged schools to drop some of their men's teams -- e.g., Wichita State dropped football, Tulsa dropped baseball -- leading to a decline of conference cohesion. The SEC picked up South Carolina and Arkansas and split into two divisions, leading a few years later to the demise of the SWC, the creation of the Big 12, the expansion of the WAC to ridiculous extremes, and a period of great upheaval involving conferences with no strong traditions or geographic roots. I've lost track.

There's hand-wringing to our north: The Kansas City Star devoted its front-page Sunday headline story to the impact of the end of the Big 12 on their market area, accompanied by an image of tattered school flags for Mizzou, KU, and K-State in front of ominous storm clouds.

Well, we still have barbecue.

Our regional universities still boast impressive trophy cases. Memories of impressive tournament failures. Tickets so hot they spawn federal investigations. And researchers who can tell you the best way to mend a heart, grow some corn or plant a wind turbine.

Kansas City remains home to a pair of not-so-major-league sports franchises, affordable housing, a pared-down cell phone company, those oversize badminton thingies, a school district boldly lopped in half, a proud history of a musical genre few people listen to anymore and a funky, thriving arts district.

All is not lost.

But something is lost.

Last week's attack on the Big 12 could toss our loyalties and rivalries to the winds. At best it leaves the Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri campuses as well as Kansas City at the center of something lesser. Now the region is a hub of schools left behind by more sought-after universities tempted to hang with a cooler, better-heeled crowd.

There's at least one sensible voice in the story:

For some, in fact, college sports weren't worth building around in the first place.

"What's lost has already been corrupted," said Crosby Kemper III, director of the Kansas City Public Library and a member of this former cowtown's most prominent families. "We need to stop looking at the Big Eight, the Big Ten, the Big 12 and NCAA as things that bring prestige and make us a better community. They don't."

Maybe Kansas City could build a new downtown arena or an entertainment district to recover its municipal pride.... Oh, well.

The Sprint Center will be able to fill its dates with other entertainment, Schulte said, but they wouldn't offer the day-long and weekend-long events that entice crowds into KC Live in the Power & Light district.

"We need more people and more activity," he said.

Any dip in activity at the Power & Light district could further nick taxpayers. City Hall must pay for any fall off in the downtown entertainment district's performance.

Even before the Big 12 started to dissolve, the Power & Light district fell short of revenue projections. That meant the city has had to dip into its general fund to pay the debt on bonds sold to build the district. This year that subsidy might grow to $11.4 million.

"We've spent a lot of taxpayer money to build up a downtown area," said Stretch, an artist, restaurant owner and Tax Increment Financing Commission member. "Our taxes don't stop coming, and our bills keep coming."

A story in Saturday's edition focuses on the unseemly concern and impotence of Kansas and Missouri politicians about the situation.

As long as every conference is becoming unmoored from its historical roots, as long as TV revenues are driving realignment, why not toss everything and embrace a system that adds drama and dynamism to college sports: The English football system of relegation and promotion.

English football is organized like a pyramid topped by a tower. There are five nationwide leagues in five levels at the top. If you finish near the top of your league, you're promoted to the next highest level for the following season. Finish near the bottom, and you're relegated to the next league down. Below the fifth level, the leagues begin to divide geographically, with more locally-focused leagues at a given level the closer to the base you go. (Here's a graphic of the English football pyramid.)

In addition to league play, there's a 14-round, single-elimination tournament called the FA Cup that stretches out from mid-August to mid-May. Any team belonging to the Football Association can enter; members of higher-level leagues get byes to later rounds. Matches are assigned at random for each round, and rounds are spaced about two or three weeks apart. Theoretically, the humblest county league club has a shot at playing in Wembley in the Cup Final. Last year, 762 teams entered the competition. (Imagine an NCAA basketball tournament that included every member of the NCAA.) A smaller tournament, the Carling Cup, involves only the 92 teams in the top four levels of the pyramid.

In 2009-2010, Arsenal, which won the Premier League, played 38 Premier League matches (home and home against the other 19 teams), plus 17 matches in three tournaments: UEFA Champions League, Carling Cup, and FA Cup. That's 55 matches in about 40 weeks. Surely, American college football teams can play 30 games over the course of a school year, particularly if players are relieved of the requirement to attend class.

So here's my proposal. Put the top 16 football teams in the US in the 1st Division. The next 16 go into the 2nd Division, and so on down for the top 64 schools. The top four divisions would all be nationwide. Each team plays each other team in their division. The next level would involve four regional conferences of 14 teams each. That covers the 120 schools of the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-A). At the end of each season, the top and bottom four teams would be promoted or relegated. League games would happen every other Saturday. You could add the I-AA teams into the promotion/relegation system, too, playing in regional leagues organized in a couple of tiers.

Interwoven with league play, you'd have the American College Football Cup. For safety reasons, it should probably be limited to I-A and I-AA teams (about another 120 teams.) You could manage that with an eight-round tournament, but if you give byes to the higher level teams, it might take 11 rounds. So a lower-level team going all the way through the tourney could play a couple dozen games in a nine-month season. A higher level team could add as many as six games to its 15 regular season matches.

You could use the same structure for other sports, with no necessary connection between leagues in one sport with leagues in another. Kansas might be in the 1st Division in basketball and in one of the regional leagues in football.

At the top levels, the relationship between school and team would be one of licensing. The team would be entitled to use the school's colors, logo, mascots, and facilities, and the players would be entitled to take courses, should they wish, in exchange for massive fees from the team to the school. The teams would be expected to pay a salary to the players from their revenues.

In this system, no league gets stuck with a perennial laughingstock, mediocrity in one sport isn't a hindrance to excellence in another, no laughingstock is forever stuck in a league where they can't succeed, and, in true American spirit, there are no barriers to how high a team can rise. With teams moving up and down every year, there's more trivia to memorize and more opportunities for merchandising.

MORE: Tulsa World Sports Editor Mike Strain has been covering the realignment story extensively on his blog.

OTHER SPORTS: In a column from a couple of weeks ago, Bill Haisten wonders why the Tulsa Shock isn't playing at UMAC instead of the massively oversized BOK Center:

It doesn't make sense to air-condition, illuminate and staff a 17,839-seat BOK Center when the entire upper deck is unused (and shrouded by black curtains). But the WNBA insists on conducting its contests within super-sized arenas.

That column was linked by this blogger, Mister Women's Sports, who says the WNBA should look to another women's league as an example:

I have said in the past that the WNBA would be wise to CASE* Women's Professional Soccer (WPS). And while it would be wonderful to have all of the WPS teams playing in soccer-specific stadia (like Pizza Hut Park, hem hem), the league is aware that it has to grow into larger venues rather than book a barn and pay lots of overhead for wasted space. (* Copy and Steal Everything)

He goes on to explain why, given a choice between the San Antonio team and the Tulsa Shock, he'll go south to see a game:

If I spent say, $30 on a single ticket in San Antonio, I'd be very close to courtside under one of the baskets. If I spent that same amount in Tulsa, I'd have "goal line" seats if the BOK Center hosted indoor football. Which in so many words means that my concerns about the seating chart on paper were confirmed when I saw the interior of the BOK Center on national TV last night and saw how horrible the sight lines were in the $30-ish seats. No thanks. I want to see the stars of the WNBA, not the rear of the backboard all night.


Mad Okie comments:

So if it's all about the money, its time to stop the legal slavery, and pay the student athletes for the services they perform, for without the student athletes, there would be no revenues for these money hungry schools to be fighting over.

At this point Nebraska is poised to make 10 million more in their move... will the Nebraska taxpayers see a cut in their taxes going towards higher education?

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david large said:

great idea. i preach the high division for pay with no academic requirements regualrly in my barbershop. a few times i have discussed the english ststem for high school football, putting those together in college sounds great if therre is a way to linit the number of games to well below your totals in such a physical sport. also a longer off season is needed for strenth traing and recovery, players cannot build serious muscle while doing the cardiovascukar requirements of in season play. if there were a way to play 16 total games or so over 5 months, i think you have a very solid concept. david large johnson city tn

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on June 13, 2010 5:49 PM.

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