Proposed grid playoff could make NCAA billions
Swiss firm is trying to convince ADs it will work

Published: Sunday, June 27 1999 12:00 a.m. MDT

The debate about whether or not the NCAA should stage a Division I-A college football playoff is about as old as Joe Paterno's tinted, Coke-bottle glasses.

While such discussions have been raging for years, mostly hypothetical in nature, a new wrinkle in the longstanding, controversial issue has materialized in recent months.It's a big wrinkle, too -- big as in $3 billion big. It's spokesman Jim Wheeler, who has been crisscrossing the country this year lobbying for the NCAA to scrap the current bowl system in favor of a 16-team football tournament that would decide a legitimate champion and provide a mind-boggling windfall, to the tune of $3.006 billion over eight years, for all Division I-A football institutions.

So who is Jim Wheeler, and how can he parade those bold promises and astronomical figures in front of the nation's athletic directors, conference commissioners and university presidents?

Wheeler, a 30-something University of Oklahoma graduate and former Sooner wrestler, is the vice president of International Sports and Leisure, a global marketing corporation based in Lucerne, Switzerland. Among the ISL's current client base includes the women's World Cup soccer and pro tennis' ATP Tour.

Established by the founders of adidas athletics equipment, ISL is a privately held mega-company laden with vast capital and vast resources.

The firm is guaranteeing $3.006 billion to Division I-A football schools over eight years in exchange for the right to promote and put on a college football playoff. That would mean $300 million a year into the coffers of the 112 Division I programs. Their total bowl take now is about $135 million.

Wheeler knows his proposal is far from being a done deal and even if the offer were accepted by the NCAA, a football playoff is several years away from being implemented. "So far, I've just stirred the waters," Wheeler told the Deseret News this week.

Yet ISL has caught the attention of numerous athletic administration officials. ISL's proposal would do much more than crown an undisputed champion every year (like every other NCAA sport). It would also create a more level fiscal playing field for all Division I programs.

Indeed, ISL's plan would help mitigate the financial problems faced by many schools that are cutting men's sports to start up women's teams to comply with Title IX guidelines -- such as what BYU did earlier this year when it decided to drop men's gymnastics and wrestling.

By the same token, the NCAA itself is struggling financially. It recently lost a $54 million lawsuit in a restricted-earnings case. Of course, NCAA schools are forced to foot the bill for those losses.

Therefore, even though the ISL plan may sound too good to be true, plenty of ADs are buying into it.

"It's tough to argue with," said outgoing BYU athletic director Rondo Fehlberg. He, along with Utah's Chris Hill and six other Mountain West Conference athletic directors, listened to Wheeler's presentation at the league's inaugural meetings in April.

"I was impressed by the proposal," Hill said.

Wheeler is in the process of visiting all the conferences to pitch ISL's proposal. The MWC seems to be solidly in favor of the plan he is placing on the table. The league is "100 percent" behind it, Fehlberg said.

"The way I understand (the proposal), it would be a good thing for our league," he added. "The MWC would support a playoff proposal, subject to our presidents' ratification. The situation we're in, not just as a conference but as the NCAA, almost requires us to look very carefully at an NCAA playoff."

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