The debate had been played out by hundreds of people, across thousands of bars and homes, a million times over: should the college football post-season move from a bowl system to a playoff system? Invariably, the college football playoff debate included many of the same arguments: determination of a single champion, elimination of conference bias, valuation of conference championships, inclusion of worthy teams, and concern for the number of games in the season, among other arguments. Finally, in 2014, college football fans rejoiced as the college football post-season transitioned from the old Bowl Championship Series (BCS) to the new College Football Playoff (CFP) we have come to enjoy today. Overall, the CFP has been met with overwhelming support and success. This incredible success begs the question: why wasn’t the transition to a playoff system made sooner?

The answer to this question may come from an unlikely source: the U.S. patent system. It is widely understood that patents in the United States and abroad are obtained by inventors to capitalize on their ideas and inventions. Utility patents are frequently obtained by companies like Apple and Ford Motors to protect ideas such as software, mechanical systems, and methods of producing equipment. However, it may come as a surprise to many that even methods of playing a board game may be patented. For example, U.S. Patent No. 2,026,082 entitled “Board Game Apparatus,” is the underlying patent for the popular board game Monopoly. Similar games and methods of playing games have been patented over the years, including U.S. Patent No. 5,226,655 entitled “Apparatus and Method of Playing a Board Game Simulating Horse Racing and Wagering,” and U.S. Patent No. 3,454,279 entitled “Apparatus for Playing a Game Wherein the Players Constitute the Game Pieces,” the underlying patent for the game of “Twister.”

Returning to the questions at hand, the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) may not have been able to implement a college football playoff sooner because it had already been patented. U.S. Patent No. 6,053,823 entitled “Method for Conducting Championship Playoff” could have been one of the roadblocks standing between the bowl system and a championship playoff. Broadly, the patent is directed to “methods for conducting a series of sporting events” and, more particularly, to “an improved method for conducting a championship football tournament.”

What is even more interesting is that the patent specifically contemplates a championship playoff for NCAA Division I football. Furthermore, the issued patent incorporates many of the same elements which make up the current college football playoff system. Following a regular season of eleven games, teams would be ranked by a “poll configuration,” including two major polls: (1) a coaches’ poll, and (2) a writers’ poll, which may be subjective and/or objective. A weighted formula, which takes into account both the coaches’ poll, the writers’ poll, and a third independent poll would determine final regular season rankings. After teams are ranked, a championship playoff tournament would be created. Teams would play in a March-Madness-style knockout tournament until a champion was determined around New Year’s Day. Sound familiar?

To add to the intrigue, Mark Cuban, noted Texas billionaire, sports fanatic, and owner of the Dallas Mavericks, had long been a proponent of transitioning college football to a playoff format. In 2010, Cuban started a blog, formed playoff proposals, lobbied NCAA athletic directors, and even founded a company named Radical Football in an attempt to move to a playoff format. However, in a blog post dated December 17, 2010, Cuban revealed he received an anonymous letter advising him to tread lightly in attempting to form a college football playoff. In addition to advising Cuban not to “waste your money,” the letter informed him 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.”

Was this patent one of the reasons why a college football playoff took so long to implement? If so, what role did the patent have in shaping the college football playoff landscape we have come to know? The answers to these questions are still unclear. However, one thing is clear; those in favor of expanding the current college football playoff may cite U.S. Patent No. 6,053,823 as a source, as even the original patent for a college football playoff clearly states that a twelve-team playoff would be ideal!

Suiter Swantz IP is a full-service intellectual property law firm, based in Omaha, NE, serving all of Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota. If you have any intellectual property questions or need assistance with any patenttrademark, or copyright matters and would like to speak with one of our patent attorneys, please contact us.