What's at stake in the mad dash for expansion cash? Only college football's soul
We’ve been told to believe, above all else, that money is everything in the latest iteration of college football expansion.
But money didn’t bring us to this point of no return, where college football—and college sports, by proxy—is hurtling toward the last move on the chessboard.
Money isn’t the reason college football grew from a regional sport to a national behemoth over the past two decades.
Money isn’t the reason college football is second only to the NFL in popularity in the United States.
The product is.
“I feel like we’re moving further and further away from what made us unique,” Syracuse coach Dino Babers said in April. “Where does it end?”
It ends here, in a seismic stalemate, a pause in the rush to change. The SEC vs. the Big Ten—and neither trusts the other. The loser: everyone else.
If college football expansion were a high school economics class, everyone associated would get a big, fat “F”—fail, on multiple levels.
The No. 1 priority in sales is your product. Above all else, a unique and strong product endures.
A product constantly reinventing itself—for the sake of reinventing itself and always searching for more revenue—is eventually left with no move to make. And what made it rare in the first place is long in the rearview.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to college football.
Two decades ago, college football was a regional sport with individual pockets of passion. As we head into the 2022 season, the sport is perilously close to imploding.
Despite sitting in the most fortunate economic situation in the history of amateur athletics, the idea raging through presidential offices all over the higher education landscape is college football contraction through expansion.
Two decades ago, the SEC distributed $96 million in media rights revenue to its 12 member institutions. Earlier this spring, the SEC announced it was distributing $777 million to its 14 institutions.
When Texas and Oklahoma are added to the equation and the new ESPN deal (beginning in 2024) is retrofitted, industry sources believe the SEC will distribute as much as $1.2-1.4 billion annually to the 16 schools.
The Big Ten media rights numbers are similar if not greater than the SEC. That’s two 16-team conferences towering above all in college football. But at what cost?
College football is slowly losing what made it unique, what made the product so desirable for so long. The fight was once about the soul of a sport.
Now it’s about the wallet.
Money is unquestionably vital, the fuel of growth and future potential. But—and here’s the key—so, too, is what we’re walking away from without a breath of hesitation.
We’ve gone from celebrating what makes college football unique—every Saturday matters—to accepting some are better equipped than others. Then doubling down on it.
We’re eliminating the fabric of the sport, what’s real and tangible dissolving amid a crush and rush of progress. The romance of the sport, the pageantry of its teams and traditions and campuses, has been replaced by something called the Annual Average Value (it’s a TV term, essentially calculating the value of one school to a conference).
How about the AUV—the Annual Unique Value, the undeniable DNA of college football that made it so attractive to television suits.
It’s the Rose Bowl, where the elite of the Big Ten and Pac-12 play. It’s Texas vs. Texas A&M, and Nebraska vs. Oklahoma and the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party and the Backyard Brawl.
It’s The Game and the Territorial Cup, the Holy War and the Civil War. That’s right, the Civil War.
It’s the white Penn State jerseys and kaleidoscope of Oregon. It’s Saturday Night in Death Valley and the smoke in the Orange Bowl (that monstrosity of an NFL stadium in Miami Gardens will have to work). It’s Bedlam and The Border War.
This is what built college football, yet for some reason, we now hear that the Association of American Universities apparently will be a critical factor in further Big Ten expansion.
Uh, fellas, the AAU called. They’re busy trying to, you know, lead throughout the United States and beyond.
Football might have to wait.
One decision. One reactionary, maybe even involuntary, decision from the Big Ten to add USC and UCLA has college football staring at a dramatic revolution threatening the very recipe for success.
There will be better games, better matchups. A new group of fans will be reached and learn to love the nuances of the white-knuckle, three-month demolition derby.
Because a strong product endures.
Especially if the soul and the wallet can find a way to coexist.