Some time while you're looking out over the television strip-mining camps that blight the otherwise handsome landscape of college football, imagine yourself as J.J. Gittes, the private investigator from the movie Chinatown.
In that story, near the end of a disturbing case that had taken over his life, Gittes orchestrated an audience with the Final Authority, a behind-the-scenes money-man driven by an unfathomable greed for more. Gittes, taking advantage of his rare opportunity, looked the man in the eye and asked: “Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat, what can you buy that you can't already afford?"
And that avatar of greed—now well represented by the money men who've spent decades buying up college football, and the presidents and athletic directors who have always taken their money—leers down at Gittes and responds: “The future, Mr. Gittes, the future.”
For college football it is that, and no more, and it is everything. This moment, with the money men having backed the sport into a corner, is about the future.
That Ship Sailed Long Ago
It will not be long until the old game of college football, its culture and structure and reasons for being, will disappear over the trailing horizon. Likely within the next decade the game played on fall Saturdays will bear a superficial but hollowed out resemblance to the game they played, with moderate and slowly-realized changes to its structure and purpose, for the first 150 years of its existence.
A new type of organization is pushing out from within, a hungry beast with dollar signs seared on its wings and a corporate spirit beating in its heart. Television networks and media conglomerates—and college football's enmeshed relationship with them—are forcing the new thing into existence. It looks like minor-league professional football, a boiled down Super League with a championship playoff and an even shakier institutional connection to the universities where the game was invented and built by students.
As the 2020 pandemic year drew to an end something called the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics published their in-house death warrant on the olde game. It wasn’t a shocking sentence, but more of a rational conclusion for anyone who had been paying attention. The Commission recommended the entire Football Bowl Sub-Division (F.B.S. or 1A) detach itself from the N.C.A.A. and govern its new league as an independent athletic property.
"Change is coming," said Arne Duncan, the former secretary of education and one of the commission's members. ”Whether that's at the state level or federal level, change is coming to college athletics. It's absolutely in the N.C.A.A.’s interest to control their own fate and to lead. I don't want to say this is their last opportunity to do that, but I will say they are running out of time.”
Arne makes a great point.
If the N.C.A.A. does not find a way to control what is now an almost certain crash landing of its enterprise, the loss of major college football could destroy what’s left of its 116-year-old association, or save it, depending on your perspective. The association, created in 1905 with the help of President Teddy Roosevelt to oversee college football, must give the sport a very-special treatment going forward if it's going to be kept under their umbrella.
'King Football', as reformers who resented its power used to say, is different because it is the obscenely wealthy monarch in college athletics. Men’s LaCrosse, to pick one game, would go extinct if it struck for a its own league, and so would every other ‘penny-ante’ game in the N.C.A.A.’s suddenly-shaky portfolio—with the lone exception of men's basketball, which is a marketplace contender. If the N.C.A.A. and its schools lose major-college football the entire system of college athletics will have to be reorganized, that's not even a question of debate, it is a fact.
ESPN described the Commission's process:
"After surveying a wide swath of college sports stakeholders, the group said it discovered that many leaders in the industry believe the time has come for significant change. It decided that the most effective way to solve a variety of problems is to separate football—an outlier of a sport because of the vast and quickly increasing difference in the revenue it generates."
"Every other sport looks like a duck and walks like a duck and probably is a duck," Duncan said. "That one looks like a pterodactyl. It's not like the others, and it's had a wildly disproportionate impact on everything else. It doesn't make sense."
What the commission is referring to, mostly, are the television dollars. With the advent of wide-open television policies in 1984, and the creation of dedicated conference networks in the ensuing decades, there was an incredible quality-of-life increase both for the programs themselves and fans of the sport. Being able to watch every game a given power-five team played throughout the season was unimaginable even into the early 1990’s, and so was the idea of getting paid for everyone of them. It was the beginning of a new era in college football.
At the present moment a collection of media conglomerates and distribution partners have committed more than $16 billion over a number of years to showcase major conference athletic competitions, overwhelmingly for the rights to football. That numbers is about to rocket even higher as the next round of rights negotiations are settled in the coming years.
When it comes to football, however, the initial media rights are strictly for regular season and league championship games, with the half-tapped post season another monster money machine waiting to be fully exploited. It is there, in the heavy remodeling of the sport's unique post-season, that the game will either separate from its past entirely, or shock the world by turning backward toward the 20th century and its bowl system. Any reputable sports book would give you better than 500-to-1 odds on the turn-back option.
The Fateful Decision
The autumn of 1998 was the beginning of the long countdown to the present moment, regardless of how many realized it at the time. Ninety Eight was the year the Bowl Championship Series went live, a portentous season in which the keepers of the college flame determined that crowning one true champion was at least as important as the unique traditions that distinguished college football from its professional cousins in the N.F.L. It might sound subtle but the shift altered the business of the game down to its DNA, and gave television the leverage it needed to finish its long takeover of the sport.
The long run prior to the BCS, whether you want to start at the beginning of the sport in 1869, or the opening of the Associated Press era in 1936, can be referred to as the Bowls and Polls era. Under that system a slate of teams with winning records were matched up in post-season "exhibitions", ranging from minor contests early in December to traditional and prestigious games staged on New Years Day in front of massive crowds at the country's most-historic stadiums. Half those bowl teams would end their season on a positive note, having won their matchup, while on January 2 a group of sportswriters and coaches put out a final Top 25 poll, crowning a mythical national champion or two by vote and voting a final ranking order for the rest.
The national championship was a big deal, for certain, but it was nowhere near the center of the sport. Unless your team was involved it was possible to have the greatest football autumn of your life and never really pay attention to who was voted the crown. The eleven game regular season, homecoming, the big rivalry games and conference crowns, were what mattered. There was no playoff and most of the time the sport's two best teams did not play in the post-season. It was irrational, weird, and beautiful beyond description. It was college football at its organic peak.
But as the aging bowl system bottomed out in the early 1990s, with attendance down, payouts down, and interest in the post-season flagging sharply, the sport's leadership came to believe a major change had to be made. It was a moment the television networks had been agitating for since the 1960s. The men in charge of college football began to plot out changes, trying to preserve the best of what was while reorienting the sport's post season toward a championship showdown. It may have been the only play, and in the end it may have been inevitable, but the consequences have hit home, with a large contingent of fans refusing to accept the inevitable fallout that has taken years to show its real effects.
Within eight years the bowl season raced through two proto-championship structures, the short-lived Bowl Coalition and then Bowl Alliance, before arriving at the fully-fledged B.C.S., a system that promised with mathematical certainty the two best teams would play in a national championship game every season. But under the B.C.S., to its credit, the bowl season still mattered and, despite minor disruptions to some traditional matchups, the championship game could stay a back-burner issue for everyone who wanted it that way. The B.C.S. gave fans of the sport a false sense of security that the traditional game had been preserved forever.
But the way the B.C.S. had been built, the very reason it existed, and its terrible flaws in ranking and selecting teams, pointed toward an obvious and inevitable future: a full-scale playoff to decide the championship on the field. College Football had become, for the first time in its history, a championship or bust sport, but its championship was incomplete. The television networks went back to work on the schools, seeking to rationalize the business of the post-season further.
During the decade-and-a-half run of the B.C.S. the participating conferences received a stack worth around $230 million to split between themselves at the end of each post-season. It was a massive haul. The bowls had been brought back to life but huge sums of money, the television people said, still were being left on the table.
With a payout that immense coming from a one-game national championship and a set of four unrelated but traditional bowl games, it was only a matter of time before it would be gathered into a larger portfolio. The timeline turned out to be sixteen years, which brought the sport to 2014, when the new College Football Playoff, featuring four teams in a three-game tournament, staged its first post season.
A group of six traditional bowls, the so-called New Year's Six, was picked to rotate the playoff's semi-final games through each season. The independent bowl games, like rival gangsters agreeing to sit down for an unarmed summit, found a way to organize themselves into a kind of cartel to extend their own existence, but it was only a reprieve, not an ultimate solution.
By 2018—the C.F.P's fourth year—the three-game final paid out an astonishing $550 million, nearly double the mega-lode produced by the B.C.S. in its 15th and final edition. For perspective, all 33 remaining bowl games produced around $100 million combined. It was the difference between the atomic blast of the B.C.S. and the hydrogen bomb unleashed by the C.F.P. There will be no going back as an expanded playoff could generate as much as four times the current number, meaning college football's post-season would approach $1.9 billion every season, for starters.
ESPN, the behemoth sports-television network, invested $7.3 billion to own the first 12 years of C.F.P. property rights. College football's post-season finally was approaching a scale the television networks found appropriate. They had convinced the always conservative colleges to expand to four teams but that was the beginning, not the end. That contract is set to expire in 2026.
The installation of the C.F.P. should be viewed as the coup de grace to anything resembling 'traditional' college football. The remaining bowl games, and even the four New Year's Six games not being used for the playoff semi-finals (with the lone exception of the Rose Bowl) cannot stand up under the weight of the playoff and will continue to wither until they are either incorporated into an expanded post-season, or cut loose to compete in a severely diminished bowl-game marketplace.
For many elite-tier programs the importance of the other bowls, what used to be fun, holiday showcases for the sport, have been permanently devalued. As a consequence of the playoff many of the game's top players are choosing to skip the post-season to avoid injury if their school is not selected. In isolation those two trends would cause a cascading effect for bowls as spectators declined to pay for expensive plane tickets, premium hotel rates, and jacked up game tickets to watch backups and underclassmen play in glorified exhibitions. That is what spring football is for, and it's nearly free. Viewed alongside everything else it is clear the traditional bowl season is in its terminal phase.
Why Change Must Come
There was a time when college football coaches were faculty members and during the off-season taught things like physical education and golf strategy to the student body. Regular students had a chance to get to know them and the football program was a semi-organic part of the university. Their salaries fell within a reasonable range of top employees and, post-1952, their teams appeared on television a few times every year. There have been excesses from the first days of college football but they were manageable because the sport had a far more human, as opposed to a detached, corporate, aspect. It is all business now and has been for many years.
Head coaches at major programs have gone from physical-education teachers to multi-millionaires with mansions and off-season vacation homes. They are CEOs of lucrative, professionalized organizations and they are compensated accordingly. Many of their assistants are paid in the millions alongside them, with university athletic directors and conference commissioners earning millions more to oversee the business. A strong power-five university rakes in anywhere from $50 to $150 million or more annually off of the market-strength of its football program, with a range in revenues depending on the situation.
In that old world, before the flood of money, a grant-in-aid scholarship and the privileges that came as a by-product of playing big-time football could be justified as fair trade for an athlete. After all, less than two-percent of college players had a legitimate shot at the N.F.L. and college football was an end in itself. Playing a game with the tradition and pageantry and passion of college football, often times in front of larger crowds than professional venues can hold, was a privileged experience. The fact they could take a free college education as well, at a time when a college education was fairly rare and worth a fortune in the marketplace, was regarded as a deal no teenager could be in a position to decry.
That argument died back in the late 20th century. The United States is a free-market country in which valuable talents are monetized as early as possible, with examples as extreme as 12-year-old social-media stars earning hundreds of thousands of dollars for making simple videos about unboxing toys or running neighborhood pranks. The idea that an elite athlete could be forced to train and compete in a massively profitable sport purely for the joy inherent in the achievement is indefensible. He must be dealt in like everyone else.
This, too, is why the older order is racing toward its extinction. In this new world the player will be compensated for his contributions in the open marketplace, far beyond the limits of an athletic scholarship. That is something the N.C.A.A. as its presently constituted would never allow, and may not be equipped to handle, and why big-time football may be leaving it behind for good.
The Knight Commission met with what will turn out to be the last old-order N.C.A.A. president in Mark Emmert, and presented their findings and recommendations. Afterward, the N.C.A.A. released an uncharacteristically ambiguous statement.
“The governance and oversight of college sports are determined by the presidents of the schools who participate. The nearly 1,100 presidents of NCAA schools have consistently sought to create the most effective and fair ways to support student athletes.
“Presently, the NCAA is discussing the long-term sustainability of intercollegiate athletics. These discussions are focused on promoting the education, health, safety and fair treatment of college athletes. N.C.A.A. members within Division I have long sought to include a diverse representation of schools while supporting all student-athletes in similar ways.”
For those who know how the authoritarian N.C.A.A. has ruled its realm for the last nearly seventy-five years, since Walter Byers built its enforcement arm, that statement is a marvel. In the past they would have laid down an iron law, with a promise of brutal punishment, for any school or group of schools that were conspiring to defy its organization. Rebels would have feared a dread punishment and rolled back any compromising public statements. The rebellion would have been quashed on the spot.
But the N.C.A.A.’s power has been decimated—just the perception of its weakness has done terrible damage—leaving an almost-open understanding that major college football is strong enough to stay or go, depending what's best for the sport. The rules enforcement division has become so toothless that it rarely punishes prominent football schools for rules violations, a situation that would have been unthinkable even ten-years ago.
The protectors of that crumbling castle fear, with good reason, they are about to be dragged out into the town square and deposed by their once-submissive aristocracy. They are preparing for the Revolution.
What Will Be Past
What college football has to offer, more than any other game, is a kind of living folk history. The sport grew up from the land, with deeply-rooted universities cultivating a regional product, from rosters full of local athletes, to intense rivalries with neighboring schools competing over the same resources. The universities were supported in many ways by the wealth of its people and the football team grew until it became, in the eyes of the people, an avatar for the local way of life. These were not cold-blooded professionals, but young, local champions—a kind of mobile expeditionary force built to win honor and glory for the homeland on the gridiron.
The fan's relationship to his college team was analogous to a patriotic relationship to his country. The team was in his blood, with school colors striping the flag he planted in its name. As a result of this special relationship, college football grew into the most personal of the great games, tied to identity and place in an organic way that no professional sport has come close to matching. And further, because the game developed contemporaneously with the United States as it put itself back together after the Civil War, it not only helped repair a cultural and social divide between the country's North and South, it played a direct role in shaping its culture over the next century.
But after 150 years college football has transformed from its more organic state into a semi-synthetic entertainment property. The game belongs now as much to the television networks as it does to any institution of higher education or its historic athletic conference. College football, like its unapologetically commercial-and-professional cousin, has been organized into a corporate-run revenue machine. While the N.C.A.A. once believed it had the leverage on the television market and its agents, the entertainment side of the sport has steadily and irrevocably drawn even, if not slightly ahead, in the relationship's power dynamics.
That amateur athlete of old is gone and the more rights-aware paid athlete is on the way. The regular season he competes in and risks his body for is worth a fortune to capital interests and an expanded post-season will be built to match it. College football has no choice but to confront and contend with these profound alterations to its game, but that likely will happen outside the structure of its current association, which is what the Knight Commission foresaw in making its recommendation. When it will happen is the next question.