The New Look of College Football

Now that the football season is over (and how ’bout them Chiefs?) let’s think about the future of the college game. There was a fascinating piece in the Athletic about this today. It gets complicated and detailed, but let’s focus on the big picture.

What’s the animating force behind big time college football? The “student-athlete”? Get serious. The fan “experience”? Only if you’re willing to buy the rights to buy season tickets and spend money on food and drinks in a suite.

What’s driving the changes in college football is television revenue. The major conferences sign multi-year, billion dollar deals with the networks and the streaming services and it’s those contracts that dictate everything else.

To get the most lucrative deals possible you need three things. First, you need coast-to-coast reach. There are two reasons for this. The first is that you want to get into the big markets on both coasts. But the second less obvious reason is that you want your league’s games spread out over an afternoon and evening so that you can get coverage for your games all Saturday long — not to mention any other day you can fit in. This is the reason that the Big 10 expanded to Rutgers and Maryland on the one coast and soon to UCLA and USC on the other. All of the major conferences are going to need to follow suit. Those that can’t will go out of existence or be relegated to what is essentially a de facto division II status.

Will the rest of the nation ever care who wins Paul Bunyan’s Ax? Probably not, but it’s enough to juice the TV market in the Upper Midwest even in seasons when neither Wisconsin or Minnesota are competing for anything else.

The second thing a conference needs is as many big rivalries as possible. So, for example, the Big 10 has Ohio State and Michigan built in every year. And now they’ll import UCLA vs. USC. The SEC has lots of these kinds of game, with Alabama vs. Georgia maybe being the classic of them all. Then there’s Notre Dame against Stanford, Army vs. Navy and the like. Maintaining those rivalries, importing existing ones to your conference and drumming up new ones is the name of the game. This is why Wisconsin and Iowa now compete for the coveted Heartland Trophy. The idea is that even in years when one or both teams are mediocre (that is to say, most years) the game will still pull in some eyeballs.

The third thing is competing for national championships. The NCAA will accommodate this by expanding the college championship playoff to 12 teams in 2024. No doubt some day they’ll add even more, but the idea is to spread out national championship bids to all the remaining conferences.

And it’s likely that “all the remaining conferences” will, some day, get down to as few as two (the Big 10 and the SEC) but probably no more than four. And the total number of teams in the top tier will have to be big enough to cover all the time slots on the networks and to fill the profitable bowl game matchups but not so big as to dilute talent. (There are only so many guys who can play this game at a high level.) I’m guessing we’ll wind up with 40 to 60 teams in what will essentially become the high minor league for the NFL. (Not that it’s not already, but it will be more openly recognized.)

I’m fine with all this. It’s just where the free market and all that money are headed. Trying to stop it is like standing in front of a speeding freight train. What matters most to me is that the players get their fair share of all that money.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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