As reported yesterday, Mark Cuban has set his sights on the deeply unpopular BCS postseason in college football, and that he in the exploratory stages of establishing and funding a playoff system with the intent of competing against the BCS. BCS spokesperson Bill Hancock expressed considerable doubt that Cuban would be able to accomplish that goal. Of course, if Hancock didn't say that he'd be fired on the spot, but that doesn't make his doubts entirely invalid. Cuban does, in fact, face a series of major challenges from the NCAA establishment in making this playoff system happen.
As Cuban wrote today, however, he faces another hurdle -- namely, that he's not the first person to have this idea, and those before him aim to profit off a playoff plan one way or another. Here's part of an e-mail Cuban received from someone reportedly represented by a major law firm:
My advise is, don’t waste your money. There are three perfected alternatives to the BCS. I own one, a guy with CBS owns another and a guy in Arizona owns the third. By that, I don’t mean the screw-ball ideas you see on the internet, but actual branded properties.
You should also consider that the playoffs are already owned by someone, as in, the patent for resolving the FBS championship by way of a playoff was issued long ago. It’s called a method patent, so be careful not to infringe it.
In his post, Cuban then rues the fact that people can be issued patents for this system without ever having the means or intent of actually implementing it, and that the patent system effectively acts as a roadblock to real progress on the football postseason front. He's right. For as pro-business as the USA is, its draconian approach to copyright and trademark law (and the sheer volume of professionals trained to exploit it) means that innovation is effectively bottlenecked by lawyers and patent filers in this day and age.
But read that e-mail carefully; there are (purportedly) "three perfected alternatives to the BCS" already owned, but according to both the e-mail and CBSSports.com's research, there's only one actual patent issued for a postseason playoff system. It's unclear what the other two patents address, and as of right now we do not know how CBS is actually involved in this patent situation, but insofar as issuing playoff bids goes, there's one system on the books. For Cuban, that's good news.
The patent in question is here, and it's pretty thorough -- as all good patents should be, really. It's owned by Marc Mathews of Chandler, AZ (presumably this is the "guy in Arizona" Cuban's unnamed e-mailer mentions), and it was issued 12 years ago. It's long, but here's the abstract, with one particular portion emphasized by us:
A method for conducting a championship playoff includes the steps of ranking participating teams after a regular season by adding the ranks of each team based upon at least two different polls, and assigning a final rank for each team based upon the summation of these polls. A championship tournament is then conducted with a plurality of rounds of events to reduce the initial number of teams to a single champion. In the preferred embodiment of the invention, one poll is a poll of sports writers, a second poll is a poll of coaches, and a third poll is an objective poll, with the first and second polls being weighted more heavily than the objective poll. Each round of events in the championship playoff would be played at different site locations. A secondary tournament would be conducted utilizing the highest ranked teams below those which are utilized in the championship tournament. The secondary tournament would include a plurality of rounds of events to narrow the teams to a single champion of the secondary tournament. The secondary tournament rounds are played at different locations than the championship tournament rounds, and are played on different days than the championship rounds.
This, of course, is the method by which the BCS selects its national championship participants, and it was every bit the canon in 1998 as it remains today. Therein lies the problem for Mathews and his patent. If Cuban doesn't use at least two polls, he's got a leisurely stroll past this patent. Here's the first method patented by Mathews, and the method upon which every single other method in his patent is based (again, emphasis ours):
1. A method for conducting a championship playoff among at least three participating teams, each team playing a plurality of games during a "regular" season, comprising the steps of:
ranking the participating teams after the regular season, comprising the steps of:
adding the rank of each participating team from a first poll to the rank of each team in a second poll to obtain an initial overall rank;
assigning a final rank for each team, with the lowest sum of the initial overall rank constituting the highest rank, and the highest sum from the initial overall rank constituting the lowest rank;
conducting a championship tournament with at least the three teams having the highest final rank, comprising the steps of:
conducting at least a first round of events to determine the two teams to play in a championship game; and
conducting a championship game with the two teams determined from the previous round of events, to determine a champion.
Again, this type of redundancy is typically seen as a strength of the BCS, but if Cuban, say, uses one formula to determine his postseason participants, even if it's a formula agreed on by several different participants, he violates neither this method nor any of the others in the patent (which, again, are all based on this founding premise).
All of which is to say, there is almost certainly a way for Cuban to get around the restrictions laid out by this patent (the existence of which is most certainly ethically dubious but generally accepted as "smart business" all the same), and opponents of Cuban's plan would be wise not to see this as an actual roadblock to a playoff but rather a weakness in the BCS's armor.