By Howard Berkes
The focus is college football but the look and sound are purely political. Taking a page from his own political playbook, the former campaign finance counsel for the McCain-Palin 2008 presidential campaign is taking aim at college football's Bowl Championship Series.
Washington lawyer Matthew Sanderson is co-founder of the Playoff PAC, a group dedicated to electing members of Congress who will throw the yoke of oppression from non-BCS college football teams that excel on the field but can't get into the BCS championship game.
Sanderson is a graduate of the University of Utah, an undefeated team last year when it beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. But Utah was left out of the national championship game, as are Boise State and TCU this year. Both are also undefeated and play each other tonight in what some are calling the "Separate But Equal" bowl -- but is officially the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.
So, Sanderson and his BCS-busting buddies at Playoff PAC have a TV ad ready to run in scorned non-BCS cities in advance of Thursday's national BCS championship game. The ad is planned for Salt Lake City, Dallas and Boise features TCU and Boise State and their stellar 2009 records.
"They went undefeated," it shouts in over-sized letters, as music pounds in the background. "And now?" it asks, as the music suddenly quiets. "They aren't playing for the national championship."
Then an unflattering photo appears of BCS executive director Bill Hancock, with a goofy smile framed by a bleached face as white as whale bone.
"You had a great season and you're to be congratulated," Hancock is heard saying, in a clip from a radio talk show. "They're undefeated but not everybody can play."
"Yes they can," the ad shouts in those big block letters. "It's called a playoff."
Now, Sanderson says there's more at stake than bragging rights. BCS teams get more money than non-BCS teams and not playing for all the marbles keeps the non-BCS teams from, well, becoming better educational institutions.
"That hurts these schools," Sanderson says. "It hurts their ability to raise money and attract students and recruits."
But to Hancock, the ad injects unsavory political tactics into a college sports dispute.
In an e-mail to NPR, Hancock says "Political smear ads have become an unwelcome part of brass knuckle politics. Let's hope they don't start spreading to college football."
Hancock also notes that TCU and Boise State are getting prime time coverage and a national stage and spotlight in tonight's game. "At the moment these great universities are celebrating and being celebrated," he adds, "some want to use it to drive a political agenda."
Sanderson says he's serious about electing to Congress candidates who would vote to reform the BCS system. Just last month, a House subcommittee passed a measure that would forbid the label "national championship" on any college game that isn't the final in a true playoff series. But the bill is expected to face tougher going in the full House.
Sanderson hopes the ad "will raise political pressure against the BCS."
(NPR correspondent Howard Berkes is based in Salt Lake City.)