College football's Bowl Championship Series braintrust should have learned its most valuable lesson from the success of "American Idol": Fans first.
Instead, the BCS recently announced a revised Top 25 rankings system -- one-third media, one-third coaches and one-third computers -- to determine a national-championship matchup that will perpetuate the "we-know-best" mentality that ultimately cripples any business that ignores its customers.
Instead, the BCS appeared most concerned with appeasing the existing voting pool -- media and coaches whose incentives when ranking are so conflicted they make dot-com era investment banks seem on the level.
The BCS solution was a ranking system that increases the "human" factor and limits the impact of the computer polls, which have an image problem that makes the evil cyborg army of "I, Robot" look good.
Once again, the BCS missed the chance to expand the definition of "humans" and empower the fans, the very group that would lend unassailable legitimacy -- credibility and critical mass -- to the rankings process.
Forget the many reasons the existing pollsters have no business ranking college football teams; on its own merits, enfranchising the fans makes the most sense.
Including the fans makes sense
While other sports leagues, such as the NBA and Major League Baseball, allow fans to vote on exhibition All-Star Games, a college football fan poll would mark an unprecedented opportunity for consumers to impact real results -- helping determine the two teams that would play for the national championship.
For fans (and the leagues that service them), nothing is more empowering than a sense of inclusion in something of consequence. Making fans part of the ranking process itself would give them an even more vested interest in the outcomes:
These results are as good for the BCS and the media who cover it as it is for the fans themselves.
That sense of inclusion will lead to a critical mass of participation, and along with that, the validity of volume. Based on the argument laid out most compellingly in the recently published book "The Wisdom of Crowds," by James Surowiecki, there is a collective expertise of a massive fan base. In volume of games watched, highlights consumed and results analyzed, millions of voters easily eclipse the knowledge of a handful of media members or even the coaches themselves.
There is an economic rationale here for the NCAA and its TV partners as well: If millions of fans put two top 5 teams in the title game -- and it's a different pairing than either the coaches or the media -- which group does it make more sense for the BCS to listen to? I would ignore the coaches and pundits who complain about the fan matchup and put my money on the masses who actually generate the TV ratings.
Also, consider that the volume of voters will help keep any one group from dominating and offset the outliers; with millions voting, it would take a much larger effort than fans of any one school can muster in order to sway the results. The vast majority of participants will take their new responsibility seriously; an earnest, generally rational Top 25 will emerge as college football's golden mean.
How it would work
The real value of the system is in its easy implementation. Following the established models of the various pro leagues, which use online voting to help determine their All-Star Game participants, the voting process includes a simple one-time registration page (to counter fraud); it's an incredibly low barrier to participation, particularly given the unprecedented clout offered in return.
The NCAA and BCS media partners like ABC Sports and ESPN could promote the polling area, delivering the distribution necessary to reach the most voters. ESPN.com alone could deliver the critical mass. Unfortunately, it's already too late to change the system to include the fans' voice for Week 1 of the upcoming college football season, but it could certainly be ready by, say, Election Day. How appropriate.
Considering the stakes on and off the field, there will be three factors to plan for:
Fraud: In the event of a malicious hacker or a base of particularly rabid alumni intentionally skewing the polling numbers in favor of their team; the fan poll's simple registration requirement will help maintain the integrity of the system and alert of any unlikely blips.
Unfair access: Despite the growth of online services, there continues to be a socio-economic bias of who can log on to vote. The BCS would do well to consider a fleet of traveling vans with mobile Internet hook-ups to expand access to voting as widely as possible. Fortunately, college football's most core consumers -- college students themselves -- have near-universal Internet access. Ultimately, the fan poll system will be built on their energy and enthusiasm.
Wacky results: If that many millions of people want to see, say, lowly Duke play in the national title game, there's nothing left to say but: "OK, you asked for it!" But the fan poll also is hedged as only one-fourth of a complete equation, along the media, coaches and computer polls, each with a quarter of the say. (By the way: Results couldn't get much wackier than the computers putting undeserving Oklahoma into the title game last January.)
Respecting the fans
In the end, a ranking system driven by fans is, unlike the pitiful computer polls, bulletproof to negative public relations: Which media pundit will be the first to have the chutzpah to tell millions of fans they don't deserve a voice? Which coaches would blindly dismiss the judgment of so many fans, including many of their own teams?
Meanwhile, everyone is better off: the NCAA and its TV partners see increased interest in their sport, with many accompanying revenue opportunities (if it's anything remotely close to "Idol," they could make a mint). Coaches can use it to increase booster support. The media get more to talk about -- and perhaps even real influence.
And the fans finally get some say over something into which they invest so much time and energy. Given the Idol worship of the fan poll's entertainment analogue, the bigger question is why the BCS didn't incorporate this earlier. With the most recent revision to the ranking system and given how popular this could be, there remains a window of circumstance, time and opportunity to consider the fans.
Unlike "Idol," fan input doesn't need to be the only factor; there is a traditional and "expert" role for the media, coaches and, more recently, computers. But short of a true playoff, college football's ranking system will always be missing a critical component until fans' opinions are considered.
Dan Shanoff is a columnist for Page 2. His "Daily Quickie" commentary appears every weekday morning.