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College Football’s Twilight

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books and culture

College Football’s Twilight

The sport as we know it is changing forever. September 2, 2022
Arts and Culture

On Thursday night, 69,000 people watched the Pittsburgh Panthers defeat the West Virginia Mountaineers in a hard-fought football game. The 38–31 contest was a throwback to another era, and not just in style of play. The “Backyard Brawl” always has an electric atmosphere, but this game was especially raucous—perhaps because fans have to get their licks in while they still can. The two schools are close to one another geographically, and their fans mutually disdainful, which makes for a heated rivalry. When the “Backyard Brawl” was first played in 1895, West Virginia won convincingly, delighting the home crowd. The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer wrote that the “Western Penn Foot Ballists” came to have fun, but they “had all they wanted of it, and went back home without coming anywhere near scoring,” leaving no doubt that West Virginia’s side “is as good as any of them in these parts.” For the next century-plus, the teams played nearly every year to packed houses, featuring such memorable games as Pitt’s 13–9 miracle slog in 2007 over a speedy West Virginia with national title aspirations. But suddenly the games stopped, with this season’s meeting the first since 2011 and just a handful scheduled for the future. In 2025, the rivalry will once again go on hiatus.

What killed the Backyard Brawl—and the Nebraska–Colorado and Nebraska–Oklahoma rivalries, the Kansas–Missouri Border War, and soon, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State’s Bedlam, Oregon and Oregon State’s Civil War, and Washington and Washington State’s Apple Cup—is realignment, a process in which university athletic programs leave their existing conferences for greener pastures usually far from the school’s geographic area. The new arrangements are established by one force, television networks, and for one reason, national ratings. The end of local rivalries means the end of bragging rights and entertaining games involving schools whose fan bases rub shoulders all year long. It also tends to coincide with the decline of one or both of the football programs. But it is just one indicator of a more depressing truth: college football as we know it is dying, and whatever replaces it won’t possess the outrageous charm and regional character that make it the country’s most unique sport.

Realignment is merely a symptom of the sport’s transformation. Facing massive financial pressure brought on by their own profligate administrative spending, universities with big footprints are abandoning their old partners to join up with higher-profile schools. Losing revenue as viewers cut the cord, television networks encourage the process, offering lucrative payouts to conferences that can collect as many nationally relevant teams as possible. Spurring all this on has been a well-intentioned suite of reforms to college athletics’ amateurism model, which raises the financial stakes for schools that want to field competitive teams. It’s part of a relentless push to broaden college football’s national appeal, professionalize its labor market, and whittle down the messy amalgam of 100-plus schools into a tidy group of a few dozen top “brands” that can play one another more frequently. That effort endangers the long-held customs and long-term appeal of a tradition with enough history to be regarded as part of American folklore.

If college football is as American as apple pie, then conference realignment driven by profiteering network executives is as American as Apple computers. In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled in NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma that the National Collegiate Athletic Association could not forbid universities to sell their own media rights. Schools banded together with their conferences, and most conferences banded together with one another, forming a cross-conference alliance that sold college football as a package to CBS and ABC. But in 1990, the Southeastern Conference (SEC) broke with that alliance and extended invitations to Arkansas, then of the Southwest Conference (SWC), and South Carolina, formerly of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). The idea was to make SEC football an attractive product in its own right, and it worked: CBS agreed in 1994 to pay the SEC $17 million a year to host its games, money the conference would distribute evenly among its members.

In what became a pattern, schools realigned quickly to capture TV money before reaching an unstable equilibrium that would eventually break. Two weeks after that SEC media deal, the Big 8, featuring Oklahoma and Nebraska, raided the SWC, then dominated by Texas, to form the Big 12. Independents such as Penn State found conferences where they could. Schools settled into their new homes and forged new rivalries. But a new cycle began again in the mid-2000s, when the ACC, wanting to keep up with its formidable peers, poached several desirable schools from the Big East. The Big East tried to replenish its ranks with schools from lesser conferences, creating turmoil in college athletics’ lower tier. In the early 2010s, the carousel started again. Revenue-generating schools such as Texas sought to increase their share of media-rights payouts, alienating former partners such as Nebraska, which bolted to the Big Ten, and Colorado, which joined the Pac-10. Commissioners floated ambitious plans to subsume entire conferences; these didn’t come to pass, but they heralded future chaos. The hollowed-out Big East collapsed.

Despite these changes, college football still resembled its old self. Schools were more or less grouped with their old rivals, playing teams more or less situated in their own regions. If the schools with agricultural and land-grant roots resented their richer and more lordly “flagship” rivals, every season provided the underdogs a chance to exact revenge. The Big Ten was still the midwestern home of smashmouth, plodding football, the SEC the place for speed and Southern pride. The occasional recruiting scandal notwithstanding, players were still amateurs barred from making money. The postseason bowl game system remained mostly intact, and some degree of parity remained, with 16 different schools competing for national championships in the 16 years of the Bowl Championship Series. You could go to the stadium or turn on the TV on Saturday and watch the same old pomp and circumstance that had been unfolding for decades.

It wasn’t until the mid-2010s that things began to change fundamentally. In 2014, the sport instituted a system in which the top four teams would qualify for a championship playoff. College football was becoming a truly national sport, with the bowl games that once signified a successful season devalued and a title-or-bust mentality permeating media coverage. Nationalization rewarded savvy programs that cultivated cool brands among recruits with short memories and dreams of social media fame. The teams that saw early success under the playoff model—Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State—amassed more and more blue-chip recruits, leaving once-proud programs—Nebraska, Colorado, Tennessee—in precipitous decline as they struggled to attract talent. Though the playoff system doubled the number of schools competing for championships (and talk of expansion loomed), just 13 schools made the cut in its first eight years. Fans began to complain that the top four teams seemed a foregone conclusion every year, and they were right.

Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Legal challenges to the NCAA’s amateurism model accelerated these dynamics. The organization’s “student-athlete” designation, which prohibited players from earning the revenue they generated for their schools, fell under legal scrutiny. Ed O’Bannon, a former UCLA basketball player, filed a class-action lawsuit against the NCAA, arguing that the amateurism model violated antitrust laws. The lawsuit petered out in court, but similar actions followed. In 2021, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in NCAA v. Alston that restrictions on “education-related benefits” for student-athletes violated antitrust law. In a concurring opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote that other NCAA rules “raise serious questions under the antitrust laws,” suggesting that the very concept of amateurism was legally suspect.

Suddenly, players could be compensated for their “name, image, and likeness” (NIL). This standard was meant to align with the Olympic model of amateurism in which athletes can sign endorsements, but enterprising boosters exploited the vague NIL rules by paying players unconditionally or to entice them to enroll at a university. Players also gained the right to transfer to another college without having to sit out a year, creating a real labor market and posing a challenge to rural programs that succeed by developing less-talented players. Wary of further legal rebuke, the NCAA couldn’t stop these changes.

Against this backdrop, yet another round of realignment kicked off in 2021, and this one was categorically different from the 1994, 2005, and 2013 realignments. Texas and Oklahoma, two schools that generate an outsize share of Big 12 TV revenue, decided to join the powerhouse SEC. It just so happened that ESPN had been negotiating with the conference for a new $300 million annual media-rights deal. Despite the network’s laughable insistence that it had had nothing to do with the decision, reporting indicated what everyone suspected: Disney was willing to pay more for a product that featured the two marquee schools. In July of this year, UCLA and USC announced that they were joining the Big Ten—that onetime stalwart of the Midwest. The Big Ten, too, had been in negotiations for a new media-rights deal, eventually announcing a record-breaking $1 billion annual contract with Fox, CBS, and NBC. The California schools had abandoned the Pac-12, which seemed to be on the brink of collapse, and its longtime partners, which were left wondering where they would wind up. Soon after, reports emerged that Washington and Oregon had engaged the Big Ten in talks, a move that would surely doom the Pac-12 to dissolution. Smart observers noted that these schools were likely positioning themselves for the brave new world of college football that would soon come to pass: with the foundation of the NCAA eroding, schools would need to pay players directly, and those that wanted to stay on top would need to bank on major yearly payouts from conference media rights.

College football media started looking ahead to a future of two super-conferences—an expanded Big Ten and SEC—paying their members massive sums of money and allowing them to secure top talent. That prospect would mean more eyeballs on screens as the sport unveils NFL-like schedules, in which a smaller pool of teams faces off against one another more frequently. It would also mean a fairer deal for players, who dedicate their young lives to violent exhibitions that generate tens of millions of dollars for coaches, administrators, and network executives. But it raised some hard questions for fans.

Will lower-tier programs earning far less per year from their conferences be able to compete on the football field? How many schools will be invited? Is there a place for successful but small-market programs like Virginia Tech or Oklahoma State? What will happen to the historic, cherished rivalries that give towns and states—let alone students, whose parents are paying eye-popping tuitions that presumably won’t be reduced—something to look forward to each year? And, if regional rivalries and the participation of dozens of universities across the country form an essential component of college football’s mass appeal, will the push for short-term revenue gains ultimately cannibalize interest in the sport?

These are hard, but not impossible, problems to solve. If the every-institution-for-itself behavior of universities and conferences is undermining the sport’s long-term future, then a centralizing commissioner who can guide its development could step in. But the obvious candidate for that job, the NCAA, lacks credibility thanks to years of mismanagement, ethical controversies, and its paralyzing fear of legally mandated disintegration. If the introduction of market pressures contributes to the sport’s competitive imbalance, then perhaps, as the writer Matthew Schmitz recommends, allowing players to unionize could afford them needed protection while “allowing for the restrictions on trade that would promote parity and engage a broader base of fans.” But administrators would probably balk at such proposals.

Ask yourself: If you were an exceptionally talented high school football player, where would you go to school? You’re being recruited by Nick Saban at Alabama and Ryan Day at Ohio State, and they tell you they can set you up for professional success. Maybe you’re from a midsize city with a decent program, or a faraway town with a proud football past. But you can always catch a flight home to your parents, and anyway, you’re too young to remember other schools’ glory years. Do you really want to play for your hometown team that might have a shot at going 8–4 and winning the Music City Bowl—or do you want to play for a major brand and compete in the national championship game in front of 100,000 people? Do you want to subsist on a meager NIL handout from a car dealership—or do you want the security of a six-figure paycheck from a donor collective? The decision is easy, and it’s your right to make it.

But when everyone like you follows a similar playbook, the attributes that make college football a uniquely American tradition will erode. What’s left will be a paler version of the NFL, albeit one that plays on Saturdays.

Top Photo by Michael Heiman/2020 Getty Images

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