Tuesday, January 6, 2009

College football and the BCS National Championship Game

Number 1 ranked Oklahoma will play number 2 ranked Florida Thursday evening in the Bowl Championship Series' National Championship Game, which this year will be played at the Orange Bowl. The championship game is the culmination of a sequence of "bowl" games that the BCS organizes, in which the most successful college teams each season play a final post-season game.

College football doesn't host playoffs. The "championship" game matches the two highest ranked teams at the end of the regular season, based on a more than usually uncertain ranking system (since some of the highly ranked teams will not have played each other). Sports Illustrated just published a story, before the championship game, saying that some of the early bowl games had low Nielsen ratings (which measure television viewership): Ratings are proof the addition of fifth BCS game officially a failure. The article notes
"By removing the top two teams from the existing BCS bowls (Rose, Fiesta, Sugar and Orange), the remaining lineup gets unavoidably watered-down. "

Utku Unver and Guillaume Frechette and I wrote a paper which showed that (under earlier versions of the BCS system) the championship games drew enough extra television viewers to make up for the lower viewership in other bowl games that (consequently) had neither the top nor second ranked team playing in them. (See also this interview about the origin of the BCS system (to which I devoted an earlier post).)

So, while the most exciting thing for some people Thursday evening will be the final score, I'll be waiting to hear the final Nielsen ratings.

(Our European colleagues are always bemused by the large role that college plays in the life of American football players, not to mention the role that football plays in the life of American colleges. While some professional sports have minor leagues or the equivalent, colleges serve that role for football. But that's a story for another time.)

10 PM update: here's a Washington Post story on the more than usual uncertainty in this year's rankings, which may lead to a lack of consensus that the winner of the championship game is the best college team. (The president elect for one is on record as thinking that a playoff system would be more rewarding...)

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