The reputation of college football's Bowl Championship Series (BCS) is so bad that the group finally went out and hired a PR firm to help. They recruited former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who runs a communications company with prominent sports clients. Then they debuted a new Twitter feed (@insidethebcs), which almost instantly became the mockery of the sports-media universe, and a new web site (PlayoffProblem.com), which makes health-care-reform astroturfing seem subtle in its approach.
The BCS is so uniformly disliked by college football fans and media alike that it feels like the sports PR challenge of the decade -- even Mike Vick could say "I'm sorry" and move on; the BCS system is locked into place for years to come (with plenty of financial incentive and ESPN's marketing power behind it). And yet that is the single-biggest advantage that the BCS has going for it: The system isn't changing.
So I guess I'm not quite sure why the BCS felt the need to try to manage its image or popular perception. The BCS will never -- never -- get sports media on board. Nevertheless, no matter how the media might howl, fans both tune in en masse for the title-game and ultimately accept the result.
Nevertheless, the BCS has decided to mount a p.r. offensive. They can certainly try (even if I personally don't support the BCS system in its current form).
My problem, then, is with their current tactics. As long as you're going to attempt to win a p.r. battle, they are going about it in all the wrong ways -- knee-jerk Twitter accounts, like they are rotely checking the social-media box, and ridiculous pop-up Web sites.
Per Fleischer's expertise, they are mistakenly trying to use political tactics to solve an apolitical problem. Sports fans -- and especially sports media -- are not like "regular" partisans engaged in a political battle... and the political media landscape couldn't be more different from the sports-media landscape.
But that's not to say that there aren't more effective tactics the BCS could try. I'm not guaranteeing anything except a greater chance of success than the current efforts, admittedly a low bar.
And so as the college football regular season reaches its climax this weekend and the BCS system prepares to generate the title-game pairing, here are four suggestions I would make to Fleischer and the BCS to more effectively manage public perception:
(1) Rebrand. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean something like AOL's rebrand du jour -- adding a punctuation mark at the end -- although "BCS?!" as the official brand would be winningly self-deprecating. But like AIG, "BCS" is tainted beyond repair, with no positive brand equity to salvage. They need a new name that tacks directly into the strongest position of their detractors: Call it "The Playoff."
(2) Don't be defensive. Stop trying to claim that the current system is ideal; it's just the system we have. Acknowledge the problems. But recognize that while critics may be noisy, they haven't actually affected any change. Most fans enjoy a good title-game pairing and, unless they are the few aggrieved fans of a spurned team, largely overlook the side controversies that pock-mark the season.
(3) Co-opt the critics. Currently, the formula that determines the BCS (and the two teams that would play for the national title) comprises coaches, computer data-crunching and human "experts." All the inputs have their flaws, but one way to mitigate the critics is to let them in the door: Leverage the new partnership with ESPN to import their experts and also incorporate the "BlogPoll," a weekly poll that includes 120 leading college football bloggers. (Disclosure: I am a voter in the BlogPoll.)
(4) Include the fans. By far, the most important solution. Give fans a stake in the process and their sense of ownership will balance out their minor irritation with teams that are left out. Embrace the openness, inclusion and empowerment that fans have come to demand through Facebook, Twitter and blogs. Set up a simple, social registration system that lets any fan have a say. And make it a meaningful (25 percent) part of the formula.
Sorry, playoff fans: The BCS system of matching two teams for the national title, leaving plenty of other worthies out, is not going to change anytime soon. But what can be changed -- the name, the decision-making process, the involvement of the fans -- is not just powerful, but well within the power of the BCS to fix.
The BCS is pillioried for its exclusivity. Its solution lies in inclusiveness.