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VOL. 45 | NO. 41 | Friday, October 8, 2021

College football’s future? Follow the money

UT would likely be part of new elite, but what about Vanderbilt?

By Rhiannon Potkey

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Change has historically come slowly in college sports. Multiple NCAA committees, competing interests and regional traditions have combined to stall the pace of movement.

But the wheels have started to spin much faster in the last year, forced by the judicial system and societal upheaval, leading to outside compensation for players, relaxed transfer rules and conference realignments.

What additional changes can we expect in, say, the next five years? As with just about everything in sports, follow the money.

That likely means bigger conferences, an expanded playoff and a continued shift away from amateurism.

It also could mean top conferences culling football programs that don’t generate bowl revenue or TV interest. Vanderbilt, for example.

“There is a lot of uncertainty in college sports right now,” ESPN college reporter Andrea Adelson says. “Every athletic director I talk with doesn’t really have a good answer or gauge of what things will look like in five years, except to say they are not going to look like what it is right now.”

The COVID-19 pandemic sparked some of the change. People realized how much faster things could be done and started to force the action.

As the NCAA struggled to put together a universal, coherent plan, conferences were empowered to take charge and make decisions on their own.

Athletes felt emboldened to speak out against certain policies, opening the door for even more changes.

Within the span of just a few months, a one-time transfer exception in football was passed, name, image and likeness rights were granted to college athletes, a potential expanded College Football Playoff format was unveiled and Oklahoma and Texas announced they were leaving the Big 12 for the SEC.

The seismic move by Texas and OU triggered more realignment, with the Big 12 adding UCF, Cincinnati, Houston and BYU to fill the void.

Texas and OU are scheduled to join the SEC in 2025 – it could happen earlier – to increase the number of schools to 16.

It could be the start of a “superconference” era in college football.

“I think eventually we are going to only have two bigger conferences that aren’t really regional. I think it’s trending in that direction,” says David Ubben, a national college football reporter for The Athletic.

“Presidents at some of these colleges will be looking at their budget saying, ‘Yeah, we are making $35 million in TV money here, but we could go to the SEC and we can make $60 million.’ If you are a really big football brand, you are going to be attractive.”

Although the idea of power programs joining forces generates excitement over future matchups, not everyone believes it’s best for the overall health of college sports.

“I am concerned,” says Pat Forde, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. “I don’t think Texas and Oklahoma going to the SEC is a good thing, and we are starting to see the chain reaction of that with the destabilization of the Big 12 leading the Big 12 to raid the American Athletic Conference.

“Once again, it is the big trying to get bigger and stronger and richer and everybody else is just kind of left to fend for themselves.”

Football – and the TV money it generates – has long been the cash cow for larger college athletic budgets. Administrators often make decisions based on what’s best for the football program, even if other sports are left to deal with ramifications like longer travel and the loss of some traditions.

“If you are talking about adding eight figures to everyone’s bottom line, priorities change,” Ubben says. “We have seen that over and over and over the last 10 years and the last 20 and 30 years with rivalries and things that make college sports college sports.

“They aren’t as important when there is that much money to be made.”

Before OU and Texas announced their surprising move to the SEC, the biggest news in college football was the potential for an expanded College Football Playoff field.

The CFP management committee devised a proposal to increase the field from four to possibly eight or 12 teams. The earliest a new CFP format would be implemented is 2023. The current 12-year television contract with ESPN runs through the 2025 season.

But after the initial excitement over the idea, momentum slowed in recent weeks once conference realignment was set in motion.

“The reason the brakes were slammed on it in my opinion is because people don’t trust ESPN at this point,” Forde points out. “People look at ESPN and say you are not dealing with everybody as equal partners. You have given the SEC most-favored-nation status. We want a more diverse broadcasting partnership with the playoff.

“We want Fox, CBS, NBC or someone else involved.”

The NCAA’s power to regulate college athletics has eroded, and it does not have control of the annual football championship. Its future could be decided as soon as November.

-- Shutterstock.Com

The NCAA does not control the football championship, and the organization’s standing has weakened in other sports as well after several missteps.

Gender equity issues were revealed during this year’s NCAA women’s basketball championship, NCAA women’s volleyball championship and the Women’s College World Series in softball.

Despite ample time to prepare, the NCAA was caught flat-footed on NIL. State legislators passed laws allowing athletes to make a profit from their name, image and likeness, essentially forcing the NCAA to loosen all its restrictions.

The slow and confusing process of investigating programs for potential rule violations is a constant source of consternation among colleges, athletes and fans.

In November, the NCAA is holding a constitutional convention that could radically reshape the NCAA’s role in college athletics.

“Outside of some kinds of rules that are changing, I think the NCAA is going to become less and less impactful,” Ubben acknowledges. “I think the pandemic really laid bare how little the NCAA does when the conferences were meeting every day and athletic directors were on calls every day and the NCAA wasn’t providing any type of guidance.

“They had developed no plan in such a tumultuous time. The conferences realized this, and I think that is only going to grow more as time goes by.”

ESPN’s Adelson wonders if amateurism will soon end for good, allowing schools to start paying players a salary along with their scholarships.

“For me, that is the biggest unknown,” she adds. “All these college football programs will be jockeying for position to put themselves in a spot where they can be the ones to be able to give the max amount of benefits to their student-athletes if the courts allow there to be payments to players at some point down the line.”

As for where Tennessee and Vanderbilt will fit in the college football landscape in five years? That remains to be seen.

Both are in their first year under new coaches, with Josh Heupel trying to lift the Vols back to national prominence again and Clark Lea trying to lift Vanderbilt out of the SEC basement.

“I think Tennessee is always going to be OK because it is such a big brand and they have all the trappings of a big-time college football program,” Ubben says.

“But I would be more nervous if I was Vandy and a smaller program in a big conference. You wonder at some point if you outlive your usefulness in this consolidation. Conferences may decide they only want the big brands if there is money to be made.”

Given how much is at stake beyond just the results on the field, college football will always hold a prominent place in the sporting landscape.

How much different will it look in five years and how quickly it happens remains an intriguing guessing game.

“If you look at the history of college football, there are always changes and realignment and that is always part of the sport,” Adelson adds.

“Anybody who thinks this is it and we are going to be good here isn’t paying attention to what history tells us.”

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