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Big Ten & Championship Attendance: It’s all about the Benjamins

After the CFP decided on who was “in”, the question is being asked: why are we playing?

NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Wisconsin vs Penn State Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State 38, Wisconsin 31

PSU wins the Big Ten Conference Championship.

And Ohio State, which Penn State defeated, goes to the College Football Playoff.

So, we have these championship games, and you start to ask, why?

So, according to the CFP, Penn State was not one of the four best teams, and therefore the Lions go to the Rose Bowl. Poor babies.

A history lesson before the attendance lesson

Who had the first conference championship game? SEC, right? Yup, but do you know how they did it? It was because of the Pennsylvania State Athletics Conference (PSAC).

Back in 1987, the D2 PSAC asked the NCAA to pass a rule allowing for a conference championship game. The PSAC had two divisions and was looking for an opportunity to showcase its division champions. And while it didn’t hold a title game until 2008, the SEC saw the rule change as an opportunity of its own.

A money-maker, a way to increase interest late in he season. What wasn’t there to love about a title game? And in 1990, when the SEC expanded, it was full steam ahead for conference championship games.

In the Jon Solomon article for CBS Sports linked above, he argues that championship games could disappear if the NCAA (CFP, whomever) decides to go to an expanded playoff. College presidents, as much as they love money, also love academics, and expanding the playoffs starts to eat into time that “student-athletes” are supposed to be going to class. And for some conferences, losing their title game could be a serious loss financially, although others think the financial windfall of an expanded playoff would offset that.

And the money, to me, is really driving all of this. And it is effecting G5, FCS, and even D2 schools in a round about way. As more money is funneled to the P5 schools, their salaries and other benefits keep rising, in effect widening the gap between the haves and the rest of the football world.

About those conference championship games....

By 2018, every FBS conference will have a championship game. And it is primarily because of the finances. But do people want to see them?

The P5 conferences hold their championship games at a pre-determined neutral site. The others go to the home field of the higher seeded team or some alternating system of division play hosts, the exception being the MAC. As a result, the P5 games generally have larger capacities and larger crowds. Yet, they still fill their sites better than the G5 and other conferences. The four P5 games had almost 85% capacity; the others a tad under 80%. The MAC, with a veritable home game for Western Michigan, almost topped the PAC-12 attendance, and did beat it in terms of percent capacity.

Is it expensive to go? Not really. From the CBS Sports story:

These are the lowest ticket prices on the secondary market for 2016 championship games: SEC $79, Big Ten $49, MAC $47, AAC $34, Mountain West $30, ACC $24 and Pac-12 $19. Tickets can be easy to get if championship games don't have the right teams in the right location, or if fans elect to save money for their teams' potential playoff games.

As you might expect, the SEC - the father of conference championship games - drew the best, both in total attendance and in terms of filling the building. It was followed by the Big Ten.

As for my question above: But do people want to see them? Does it matter? If TV rights fees and the opportunity to showcase and celebrate the conference is the bottom line, then these title games will continue. If the CFP wants to see champions in the playoff, then maybe they won’t. But if the CFP doesn’t care - or at least only uses a championship as one data point among many - then we will see these games played ad infinitum.

And if that happens, we’ll be writing about it here.