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BCS Becomes Political Football as Lobbyists Blitz Congress

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BCS_LogoFOX.jpgHouse Resolution 390 will not result in troop deployments to Afghanistan, an overhaul of the U.S. health care system or the bolstering of an economy in tatters.

But because it advocates a new college football playoff format, the legislation, in the minds of millions of fans and at least a few congressional members, is all the same a matter of national import.
So considering a House of Representatives' subcommittee last week approved legislation aimed at dismantling the current system for determining a national college football champ -- the Bowl Championship Series -- expect an escalation in what's already been a robust federal lobbying and political influence effort by the system's supporters and foes alike.
The BCS itself has spent $670,000 on federal lobbying since 2003, when it began engaging in such activity, Center for Responsive Politics research indicates. The BCS coordinates college football's five premier post-season games: the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, FedEx Orange Bowl, Allstate Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl, plus a national championship game between the nation's two most highly ranked teams based on a complex system that includes two polls and six computer rankings.  
News Corp., which broadcasts BCS games on its Fox property, has also extensively lobbied Congress in opposition to H.R. 390, also known as the College Football Playoff Act of 2009. The pro-BCS Football Bowl Association, for its part, has spent $10,000 this year.
Meanwhile, the University of Michigan, Purdue University and the National Collegiate Athletic Association have lobbied on the separate, but similar H.R. 599, which seeks to slash federal aid to colleges participating in a Division IA college football season that lacks a head-to-head playoff. The Atlantic Coast Conference has lobbied Congress as well, to the tune of $250,000 this year. 
"When Congress knocks on your door, you have to have people respond. You want people in Washington to represent you," BCS Executive Director Bill Hancock told Capital Eye in explaining his entity's lobbying efforts. "With everything else happening in this country, surely Congress has better things to do than manage college football. It's something that Congress as a whole, I think, isn't terribly interested in. But we need to stand up for what we believe."
BCS opponents have likewise launched federal lobbying campaigns. 
The Mountain West Conference, for example, spent $250,000 on federal lobbying efforts during the first nine months of this year, CRP data indicates.

Both conferences aren't among the six NCAA conferences -- the ACC, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-10 and SEC -- that the BCS grants automatic births. And guaranteed inclusion in top-flight bowl games means big money for the lucky conferences' schools. Hancock maintains the BCS has actually helped smaller-conference schools earn money and national stature, citing wildly successful Boise State University as a prime example. 
The upstart Playoff PAC, meanwhile, hasn't spent money on federal lobbying, nor has it raised or spent any cash as of mid-autumn, according to the most recent federal campaign finance data available, which would not include data from recent weeks.
But the organization, which says it endeavors to mobilize support for a college football playoff regime and "elect pro-reform political candidates," plans to soon enter the congressional scrum on behalf of anti-BCS forces.
"We see ourselves as a grassroots movement, and we aim to ratchet up the political pressure on lawmakers," said Matthew Sanderson, a lawyer and Playoff PAC co-founder who during 2008 served as U.S. Sen. John McCain's presidential committee campaign finance counsel. "College football's reach extends well beyond the playing field -- football helps fund university's capital projects, it funds scholarships, other sports programs -- and there's an overwhelming majority who want change in college football. So we feel this is an appropriate issue for government to be spending time on."
Playoff PAC, which officially formed October 14, will likely release the names of its steering committee members sometime during the next few weeks, Sanderson added.
Some congressmen welcome the uptick in lobbying and political activity against the BCS.
For Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), sponsor of the College Football Playoff Act of 2009, the BCS discriminates against athletic conferences that aren't part of the six-conference automatic bid pool. It also all-but-eliminates highly ranked football programs such as Texas Christian University from national championship contention since they don't compete within an automatic-bid BCS conference, Barton has argued.
"For the congressman, it's a matter of fairness. The BCS is a cartel," Barton spokesman Sean Brown told Capital Eye. "From the minute non-BCS schools kicked off the ball in their first game this year, they didn't have a chance at the national championship no matter how hard they played."
And that's why Barton is all too happy to turn the BCS into the most political of political footballs, injecting Congress into a debate that others would just as well leave to college football.
Among those others: Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.), who last week voted against Barton's bill.
Although the congressman says he's personally no BCS fan, "he just respectfully disagrees that this is the way to approach the situation, with legislation," Barrow Communications Director Jane Brodsky said.
H.R. 390 now moves to the full House Energy and Commerce Committee, led by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). It's unclear what the bill's chances of passage are, although Barton spokesman Brown says he's confident the committee, of which Barton is the ranking Republican, will take up the measure sometime next year.

And President Barack Obama?

The nation's sports fan-in-chief hasn't recently addressed the issue, although Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has called on the president to launch an antitrust probe of the BCS through the Justice Department. 

But shortly after his election last year, the Obama made his disdain for the BCS clear.
"I'm going to throw my weight around a little bit." Obama said after his election last year, arguing that a college football playoff system is "the right thing to do."

The BCS, however, has an influential White House heavy of its own: Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush's former press secretary, whose sports public relations firm began representing the BCS last month.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dave Levinthal published on December 17, 2009 11:51 AM.

Capital Eye Opener: Thursday, December 17 was the previous entry in this blog.

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