Fox faces BCS contract challenges


NEW YORK -- In the 10-year history of college football's BCS system, no season has ever been marked by as much rankings disruption or controversy.

And perhaps no college football season has ever mattered as much to a network.

Fox, which on New Year's Day will air the first of its four-game BCS package with the Sugar Bowl, is entering the second year of its bold plan to try to turn the college football postseason into a franchise as big as the NFL playoffs or March Madness.

Topsy-turviness ruled college football his year, as teams slid into, out of and back into contention. Low-profile teams like Missouri and Kansas ruled the polls for much of the year, likely giving Fox Sports execs the cold sweats. In the end, a team with a national following, the Ohio State Buckeyes, ended up in the Jan. 7 championship game in New Orleans against LSU, another school with a storied history and the first two-loss team in BCS history to play for the title.

The other BCS bowl games, which include smaller-market teams like West Virginia and Hawaii, may depend more on matchups than on built-in fan interest to attract viewers. "The hard-core person is going to be watching these (BCS) games," said David Carter, founding director of USC's Sports Business Institute. "The question for Fox is: Will the casual fan tune in to the game?"

The entry of a two-loss team has also fueled the chattering classes of a sports nation, who say the current system should be scrapped for a playoff tournament.

It's impossible to draw a direct line between controversy and viewership; some say that all the discussion keeps college football in front of fans in a December light on games. "All the talk creates an awareness of the sport that I think will trickle down to the BCS," sports consultant Neal Pilson said.

Still, Fox is in the difficult position of peddling games played in a system most fans don't like. A Gallup Poll this year showed that a scant 15% of respondents preferred the BCS approach. "If you poll football fans, they overwhelmingly say they want (a playoff system)," Fox Sports chief Ed Goren said. "But we're thrilled with our relationship. We knew what we were signing on for."

Fox paid a reported $320 million for the rights to air four out of the five BCS games annually through 2010 (the Rose Bowl stayed with ABC). The network essentially bet that even though the games lacked the definitiveness of a pro league's postseason -- and even though Fox owns no rights to regular-season college games -- it could still turn the BCS contests into major television events.

Last year's ratings indicated an early victory. The network garnered an impressive 29 million viewers and a 10.6 rating among adults 18-49 for the championship game between Ohio State and Florida.

Fox was confident enough in the title game's appeal that it upped the ad rates this year by about 18%; it now costs nearly $1 million for a 30-second spot. The network says it has sold out its inventory on all four of its BCS games.

Fox Sports also faces some nonfootball complexities in the 2008 BCS season. With the WGA strike decimating primetime schedules, the net will lose a key advantage -- the ability to promote one of its flagship shows.

The BCS package was seen by many TV insiders as a way to promote Fox's traditionally muscular midseason lineup, which last year included "American Idol," "24" and the heavily hyped "Drive." This year, the network will use the games to promo "Idol,' "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" and "Prison Break" but of course won't be able to include "24."

Still, Goren said that "one of the things we've been fortunate with at Fox is that we have more original programming launching in January than anyone else." Fox execs also say that close games can come from out of nowhere, giving juice to contests that on paper might not be as intriguing, like the Boise State-Oklahoma Fiesta Bowl matchup did last year.

Experts note that growing parity in college football is indeed the biggest challenge for any network airing bowl games, but they add that there's little any network can do about it.

"In terms of national appeal, you're more dependent on the quality of the game if you don't have the high-profile teams," Pilson said. "You'd like to have USC and Notre Dame every year. But that's not the way the world works."