COLLEGE FOOTBALL / GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI : In Weighty Debate, Money Would Tip Playoff Scale

Many a tree gave its life for the just-released "Report to the NCAA Special Committee to Study a Division I-A Football Championship," which weighs in at five pounds, numbers more than 350 pages and, like it or not, contains the blueprint for the game's postseason future.

The NCAA doesn't do this sort of thing for fun. If it goes through the trouble of assembling research groups, interviewing network television executives, football coaches, players, bowl representatives, conference commissioners, athletic directors, bean counters and, egads, even sportswriters and sports editors, you know there's something at stake.

In this case, it's dollars. A mesmerizing 101 million of them. And that's the conservative estimate.

Using a sample eight-team, seven-game national playoff model--which just happens to be the exact format the TV execs would love to see in place by the end of the 1996 season--the research group offered its findings to the 24-person Special Committee last weekend at Indian Wells. On Wednesday the NCAA went public with the numbers.

Presenting the figures that count:

--Such an eight-team playoff would generate, at the least, $101,240,000 in net revenue, which is nearly $63 million more than the bowls provide.

--Three of the four quarterfinal games would be played on New Year's Day, the other on New Year's Eve. The two semifinal games would be played Jan. 11, 1997--one before the NFL conference championship games, the other one for prime-time TV. The championship game would be played one week before the Super Bowl.

--The Rose Bowl, because of the Pacific 10/Big Ten agreement through 2000, would be all but guaranteed a quarterfinal game. The three remaining quarterfinal games would be rotated among the Orange, Sugar, Cotton, Fiesta and Citrus bowls. The remaining two bowls would get the semifinal contests.

Who gets the championship? According to the research report, the inaugural game presumably would go to a 100,000-seat stadium.

Let's see, there are two of those: the Rose Bowl (104,091), where the mean temperature during the month of January is in the mid-50s . . . or Michigan Stadium (102,501) in Ann Arbor, where the mean temperature is 24.6.

That means UCLA, if it were good enough, conceivably could play at home for both the quarterfinal and championship game. Just a thought for the Fairness Police to ponder.

--Ticket prices: $50 a pop for the quarterfinals, $65 for the semifinals, $80 for the championship.

That is, of course, unless Angelo Mazzone becomes involved.

--The remaining bowl structure (oh, good, another year of the Copper Bowl) would stay put. Or so they say. A more likely scenario: The non-NCAA playoff bowls become the NIT of football, or fade away altogether.

Of course, the authors of the research report emphasized that the sample format "does NOT constitute a recommendation" that a playoff be created. Maybe not, but it does offer an eye-popping account of the earnings potential and a sobering appraisal of the game's status.

"There's important work to be done," said committee member Bill Curry, the Kentucky football coach who previously argued against the idea of a playoff. "It's exciting to see this happening because I think this is a critical time for college football."

Curry hasn't found playoff religion just yet. He said he entered the committee process with an open mind and remains noncommittal as the group gets ready to convene June 2-3 at Kansas City. There it likely will decide to propose playoff legislation for the January 1994 NCAA convention (there are five format options in all), or simply pass on the idea.

"What will be decided in Kansas City, well, there's not a soul in that committee who knows," Curry said.

At the moment, Curry and the other committee members are back home spreading the word to their constituents. In Curry's case, it's the Southeastern Conference school presidents and athletic directors. And the news isn't always good.

For instance, 1994 television revenue for all bowl games was $36 million. The NCAA basketball tournament produced $137 million. And for the last six years, the NCAA tournament has had higher TV ratings than the highest-rated bowl game.

If money talks--and it does in college athletics--the university presidents, league commissioners and athletic directors will notice that TV rights fees for the bowls have increased about $6 million during the last five years, from $30 million to $36 million.

Basketball fees? From about $57 million in 1989, to $137 million in 1994.

Nor can the college football community ignore the TV ratings decline and the stagnating attendance figures, as well as the perceived general dissatisfaction with the polls and "mythical" national championship.

Said Brigham Young Coach LaVell Edwards, who has gone on record in the past as anti-playoff: "I think college football does need a shot in the arm somehow. Just what, I don't know."

And there's the rub--what size hypodermic needle do you use? By the looks of things, the NCAA would prefer the industrial-sized playoff shot, which is full of big money, but even bigger questions.

Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese has said support for a playoff isn't there, no matter how many research pages the NCAA churns out, or how often UCLA Chancellor Charles Young, chairperson of the Special Committee, suggests otherwise.

According to one prominent conference commissioner who requested anonymity, the SEC, the Big Ten, the Big East and, in all likelihood, the Pac-10, aren't in favor of a playoff.

"I will say this," Edwards said, "I'm much more open-minded about it. I like the process that's happening now."

Liking the process isn't quite the same thing as liking the solutions. Still to be determined are such itsy-bitsy considerations as school--as in, do the players actually attend classes or play football games from August to late January? And what about the players' insistence that they share in the revenue pie? (Forget it. The gender-equity people would have a fit.)

Or the more fundamental question: Why does there have to be a No. 1?

First things first. Someone is going to find a way to make a playoff work. Maybe work is the wrong word. More like, digestible.

In the end, money will have its way. Almost always does. It might not happen this time around--and if we were betting a malt on it, we'd say a proposal would die a messy death on the NCAA convention floor--but it will one day.

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