super bowling: models of risk-taking vs. yielding to self-interest.

It’s the last Sunday in the National Football League regular season, and eight of the 16 games have implications on who will make the playoffs and compete for the Super Bowl. By contrast, NCAA DI football will stage 34 post-season bowl games this year, only one of which means anything for the national championship.

Quick: Which system do you think is more popular? Which do you think was built on risk-taking and which is steeped in self-interest?

Just as it’s clear that many more people will watch Denver and San Diego compete for the final NFL playoff spot this evening than will switch over to see Northern Illinois play Louisiana Tech in tonight’s Independence Bowl, it’s easy to see the NFL is the king of all sports in America. But it took a lot of gambles to get there.

In the 1960s, the established NFL assented to play a championship game vs. the upstart American Football League. The title game became known as the Super Bowl, almost as a joke, and the first two years the NFL winner crushed its AFL foe. But before Super Bowl III in 1969, a brash QB named Joe Namath guaranteed his New York Jets, heavy underdogs in everyone’s mind, would beat the powerful Baltimore Colts. Namath and the Jets won 16-7 and, the stigma of inferiority gone, the NFL and AFL merged in 1970. In also embracing other risky ventures like Monday Night Football, the NFL has become a model league whose 2008 Super Bowl attracted more than 148 million viewers in the U.S. (making it the second most-watched program of all time).

If the race to the Super Bowl is the Eiffel Tower, the NCAA’s bowl season is a series of small erector sets. While every other NCAA sport has some kind of open championship (including Division IA, II and III football), DI football works with the Bowl Championship Series using computer formulas to select who plays in the national championship game. This is good news for this year’s title teams, Florida and Oklahoma (who have each lost once), but bad news for other teams who lost once (including Texas, Texas Tech, USC, Alabama and Penn State).

While fans, coaches and supporters of teams who miss out on the championship game complain, college presidents, bowl organizers and sponsors keep this unpopular non-playoff format in place, giving us things like the St. Petersburg Bowl (South Florida vs. Memphis), the Motor City Bowl (Florida Atlantic vs. Central Michigan) and Papajohns.com Bowl (North Carolina State vs. Rutgers). Sure, 34 teams get to win their last games, but 33 of them are just earning consolation prizes. Compare this to the DI basketball tournament — known as March Madness — where 65 teams chase the championship on the court.

To my point: How many of us have worked places where we were allowed to take risks in pursuit of excellence? How many of us have worked in places where self-interest stands in the way of greater success for customers and internal stakeholders? Where would you rather work?

For the new year, I urge workplaces everywhere to take more chances, when those chances can support better customer service, happier employees and improved solutions. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gearing up for a big day of important NFL games.

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