SPORTS We ran an FSU football playoff conspiracy theory by...

We ran an FSU football playoff conspiracy theory by a sports businessman

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You don’t have to look hard to find conspiracy theories about why 13-0 Florida State was left out of the College Football Playoff in favor of 12-1 Alabama.

The playoff selection committee’s stated reason, of course, was that the Seminoles were a different team without star quarterback Jordan Travis. FSU’s weaker schedule didn’t help.

Message boards and social media have other ideas — namely that ESPN was pulling the strings on the selection committee. The playoff’s broadcaster either wanted to protect another partner (the SEC) by picking the Crimson Tide or wanted Alabama to boost TV ratings.

There’s no evidence to support the arguments, unless you think the order of helmets behind analyst Kirk Herbstreit was a sign. ESPN partners with the ACC, too, and committee chairperson Boo Corrigan is the athletic director at an ACC school (North Carolina State) that would have made more money with FSU, not Alabama, in the field.

Regardless, we ran the root of the theory by Ray Katz. He’s the chief operating officer of the media rights and business firm Collegiate Sports Management Group and teaches at Columbia University’s sports management program.

Would Alabama be a larger draw for casual fans in a way that FSU wouldn’t be?

“I’m not going to say Florida State would not be,” Katz said. “I think it’s an incredibly compelling story.”

Ray Katz is the chief operating officer for the Collegiate Sports Management Group. He also teaches at Columbia University.
Ray Katz is the chief operating officer for the Collegiate Sports Management Group. He also teaches at Columbia University. [ Courtesy of CSMG ]

FSU would have added a different name-brand program to the field. Alabama has only missed the playoff twice in 10 years; FSU has qualified for the semifinals once (2014). The Seminoles overcame Travis’ injury to win the ACC as Mike Norvell’s four-year rebuilding process culminated with a perfect season. It’s easy to envision that story attracting viewers.

But the data on Alabama’s dominance is overwhelming.

The Crimson Tide averaged 7.3 million viewers over the 11 games tracked by Sports Media Watch. The dozen FSU games with available data averaged 4.2 million viewers.

“Every week that Alabama is on any kind of reasonable TV platform, they kick butt,” Katz said. “That’s just the reality of the situation…

“I think it’s a Nick Saban effect to some extent. He stirs up the pot. You either tune in to watch him win, or you tune in to watch him lose. That’s just a fact.”

Alabama's win over Georgia in the SEC championship game drew 10 million more viewers than Florida State's win over Louisville for the ACC title.
Alabama’s win over Georgia in the SEC championship game drew 10 million more viewers than Florida State’s win over Louisville for the ACC title. [ BEN FLANAGAN | al.com ]

That fact has attracted the interest of politicians.

State Sen. Corey Simon, the former FSU star defensive lineman, wrote on social media after last week’s decision that ESPN has a “vested interest in the SEC participating in the CFP.” U.S. Sen. Rick Scott has asked to see any correspondence between committee members and ESPN and/or the SEC. Gov. Ron DeSantis has set aside $1 million in his proposed budget for possible litigation.

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Katz said he has a “real problem with all these popularity contests and prognostications.” How big of an underdog FSU would be in the playoff shouldn’t be a factor.

But if Katz had to buy into an alternative explanation, his wouldn’t involve TV ratings.

“My conspiracy theory is — if there was a conspiracy theory — it’s about them defending why they are going to 12 teams,” Katz said.

When the field expands from four teams to 12 next year, teams that play in the first round and keep winning will play two more games than they would now. The longer season adds more wear and tear on players’ bodies and will cut into students’ class or free time, depending on the schedules.

Katz said an exclusion like undefeated FSU provides a reason to justify expansion; the Seminoles would have made a 12-team field.

“It defends that,” Katz said.

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