Their office is online. Their budget, negligible. So in the big moneyed world of college football, how did Playoff PAC, a small group of young professionals, become a significant voice of opposition to the Bowl Championship Series?
"They've got their thing," Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive said. "I don't agree with a lot of the things they say; they extrapolate and draw conclusions in a hurry, but the First Amendment is alive and well. They're entitled to their view."
What began as a movement to change the system after undefeated Utah was left out of the 2008 BCS title game has developed into something larger. "There are too many things that are problematic separate from who gets to take home the trophy," said Matt Sanderson, a 2005 Utah graduate, and one of the group's founders. Though Utah has joined the BCS elite in the Pacific 12, Sanderson said Playoff PAC has "seen too much to let it go."
What began as a group of six 27-to-32 year olds has grown into an organization of about 30 lawyers and accountants who volunteer their time. Since its founding in 2009, the group has spent about $15,000, Sanderson said, with most of its funding going toward running its website, playoffpac.com.
"They've have had a measurable impact on the dialogue," said Danny Diaz, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee and Playoff PAC volunteer. "They have done it very effectively with nowhere near the financial support the opposition has."
For more than a year, Playoff PAC has focused on the unfolding Fiesta Bowl scandal. The Arizona Republic touched off the controversy in December 2009, reporting that Fiesta Bowl employees were encouraged to write checks to specific political candidates and were reimbursed by the bowl through bonuses. Shortly after that report, Playoff PAC asked Arizona's Secretary of State to investigate the allegations.
The end result: An internal report by the Fiesta in March detailed about $45,000 in reimbursements to employees for political donations, an apparent violation of federal and state laws. It also uncovered inappropriate spending, such as $33,000 for a Pebble Beach, Calif., birthday party for CEO and President John Junker (who was fired), $13,000 for the wedding and honeymoon of an aide, and a $1,200 strip club tab for Junker and two others.
A BCS task force determined on Wednesday that the Fiesta Bowl will keep its place in the BCS and pay a $1 million fine as well as being subjected to other sanctions.
"The Fiesta Bowl paid a $1 million fine, but got rid of John Junker's $700,000 annual salary and his massive expense account. I'd say the Bowl came out ahead on that transaction, wouldn't you?" Sanderson said Wednesday.
At first, Playoff PAC was a group of Sanderson's friends from law school (he graduated from Vanderbilt in 2008) and from Senator John McCain's presidential campaign, which Sanderson worked on. Now the group is comprised of graduates from BCS heavyweight schools such as USC and Texas. It also has turned to seasoned professionals for help with specific projects.
Marcus S. Owens, a former director of the IRS division that oversees nonprofit groups, and Joseph M. Birkenstock, a former chief counsel for the Democratic National Committee both signed a Playoff PAC complaint sent to the Internal Revenue Service against the Fiesta, Orange and Sugar bowls. The complaint, filed last September, claimed that the three bowls violated their tax-exempt status with excessive spending, such as the Orange Bowl's "Summer Splash" cruise to the Bahamas for athletic directors and conference commissioners, and their spouses. The bowls contend they are in complete compliance with IRS guidelines.
Sanderson said five tax attorneys and a CPA spent about 80 hours wading through a few thousand pages of public documents to research the complaint. "This is not my day job," said Sanderson, an election law attorney who works mainly with Republican candidates for Washington, D.C.-based firm Caplin & Drysdale and also the father of three young children. "This is just a time-consuming side project."
Heading into last week's annual BCS meetings in New Orleans, Playoff PAC released information from a public records request which showed that 9 of the 11 members of the NCAA panel that will help decide the Fiesta Bowl's fate attended a bowl-sponsored retreat, the Fiesta Frolic, that included free meals, resort rooms and golf outings.
The NCAA bowl licensing subcommittee, which approves certification of the bowls, met with Fiesta Bowl officials last week. "I am surprised that the NCAA doesn't have rules against accepting gifts from bowls, at least if you're on the subcommittee and regulating bowls and certifying bowls," Sanderson said.
BCS officials said any appearance of impropriety, contending that their impartiality has not been compromised. "If anyone believes that two rounds of golf and a dinner or two is going to affect someone's judgment, they're mistaken," BCS executive director Bill Hancock said. "These are ethical, smart, tough, thorough, quality people."
Since every Bowl Subdivision coach and athletic director was invited to past events, Nick Carparelli, chairman of the NCAA football licensing committee, says that the members of the committee aren't receiving any extra benefits beyond what is available to the entire FBS group. Even so, Carparelli, the Big East associate commissioner, said his subcommittee discussed the Fiesta Frolic recently. "As we move forward it may not be appropriate (to attend)," he said. "We haven't made that determination. But that's something we need to discuss for sure."
In addition, NCAA president Mark Emmert announced the formation of a task force last week which will examine the process and criteria for approving bowl games and study the oversight of bowl sponsoring agencies, conflict-of-interest rules and policies and reporting of financial management of bowl games.
Most BCS officials seem to view Playoff PAC as a noisome gnat. BCS executive director Bill Hancock called the group's work "sophomoric certainly in the early days." (Last fall, Playoff PAC released a video calling Hancock, "Baghdad Bill.")
"They want to end the bowl games," Hancock said. "They want to deny the athlete opportunity to participate in bowl games and they want to reduce the importance of the regular season and those are different goals from the goals of the people who are responsible for the games and the student athletes."
Though university presidents have consistently been opposed to a playoff, Sanderson said Playoff PAC's "active public record request operation" will continue with the hope of breaking up the BCS.
"I do think that from their public actions that they feel vulnerable for the first time in their 13-year existence. They are aware that they are being watched and closely scrutinized," Sanderson said. "I would say we're one scandal away from having overwhelming pressure from Congress, from every place, to move forward to a competitive post season. The signs are there. The Sugar Bowl and the Orange Bowl look a lot like the Fiesta Bowl when we first filed that complaint with the Arizona Secretary of State. I think that they are increasingly nervous about what is going to pop up next. For from our standpoint, we're sitting on a lot of information that we will be releasing going forward."