College football’s major conferences have seen television revenue surge. This rise, though, has corresponded with declines, in both attendance and ratings. Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports wonders whether this is fatigue with the over-expansion and monetization of the sport. He asks whether college football has peaked and cautions against further change.
We disagree with this assessment. College football has not peaked. It has not reached its full maturity. Far from changing too much in the modern media climate, the sport’s hidebound culture has hindered it from adapting enough.
Football is a better television product. It can be terrible live in stadium. Tickets are expensive. Field views are imperfect. Fans spend four hours watching mostly suspended animation. It can be a battle against boredom, dehydration and the elements. Large HD flat-screens are affordable. More games are shown. More devices can show them. Television is where the money is and where the future fans will be. No lament will alter this balance. If college football is flagging on television, that should not surprise. The sport has not optimized itself for it.
The NFL was built through decades of stability, concerted effort and sound business strategy. College football stumbled ass backward into becoming a multi-billion dollar industry. It rose to its present heights because ESPN, Nike and other corporations recognized untapped potential in the 1990s and wrote progressively larger checks. The sport’s convoluted, decentralized power structure does not encourage growth. Often, it actively undermines it.
Look at the playoff. It took 15 years of BCS controversy and strife, countless arguments and months of negotiation to add one game to the postseason. One game! Nearly everyone felt this game was an improvement. The benefits were obvious: it will more than triple the sport’s postseason revenue. Even then, the change was bitter and glacial.
Conference commissioners, moreover, have seen the future. They realize an eight-team playoff would be fairer, more rational and more popular. They recognize it would more than double the expanded postseason revenue from the four-team playoff. Their response to this vision: throwing in as many roadblocks to implementing it as possible.
Schools could have created their own postseason system that would have been sensible, compelling and earned them all the money. Instead, they farmed it out again distributing hundreds of millions to demonstrably corrupt bowl committees. Did Jim Delany fight for home playoff games that would have given Big Ten teams a better chance to win? No, he fought to keep the Rose Bowl relevant.
The postseason is not as good of a product as it could be. The same is true of the regular season. Conferences have billions riding on having enticing football television inventory, yet exert no control over non-conference scheduling. It is left to athletic directors and coaches. Not surprisingly, schedules benefit athletic directors and coaches.
Home games generate the most revenue and are easier to win. Consequently, big teams play almost every non-conference game at home. Bowl games let coaches and ADs claim progress and collect bonuses. Schedules make sure reaching a bowl game is as painless as possible. Resulting September slates are brutal, spilling over with fait accompli non-conference games. If ESPN did not engineer lucrative neutral site games and the SEC did not schedule a few early conference games, the first month of the season would feature almost no prime television inventory.
Regular season schedules are weaker than they could be. Even individual Saturdays are poorly planned. Conferences compete with one another. Each backloads its schedule for late afternoon and night games. The result is an insipid collection of noon games and the top four conferences each playing a prime game at the same time Saturday night. The games undercut each other. It’s no shock ratings are down.
Critics warn that college football may become too much like the NFL – being competitive, popular and ridiculously profitable is a bad thing, apparently – but it is this despised NFL that could provide a template for college football to enhance itself on television.
Rationing prime content is pivotal. ESPN pays $1.9 billion per season for Monday Night Football. That game has a concentrated audience. It does great cable ratings. That one game earns more than double the television rights fees paid to the SEC, the Big Ten, the Big 12 and the Pac 12 combined for an entire season. College football is missing an opportunity.
The sport is still in the warlord stage of political development. Pretend the big four conferences become partners instead of competitors. Those conferences merge their first-tier football rights during the next round of negotiations. They sell packages on the open market. They offer a Friday Night game, a Saturday Night game and two double afternoon packages on Saturday. The prime games are spread out between those packages.
Could networks afford not to get into the bidding? How much would FOX pay to have the best college football game of the week on Saturday night for an entire season with minimal competition? Maybe not $1.9 billion, but the packages combined should generate far more than each conference currently makes selling competing first-tier rights.
Moreover, if selling quality football games becomes the primary collective interest, it would improve the regular season. Big teams easing into September drags down everyone. This would lead to more inter-conference scheduling agreements and more big games during the regular season. That would help with attendance.
Tangible measures of college football’s popularity appear to be flatlining despite the increased revenue. That’s not a sign the sport has become too much of a business. It’s a sign the sport has not become enough of one. Corruption, muddled vision and decentralized power prevent the sport too often from acting in its own self-interest. College football caters to too many entrenched interest groups ahead of its fans. If that does not change, fans with far more entertainment avenues will start turning away.
[Photos via USA Today Sports]