Could the College Football Bubble Burst?

The 21st Century has been great for college football because it’s been bad for nearly everything else.

For the entirety of the 20th Century, the sport was undervalued. It is now on the verge of being overvalued.

This shouldn’t be the time to be discussing the potential burst of the college football bubble. The season is rapidly and finally approaching. The newly launched SEC Network is depositing checks with many zeroes into the bank accounts of ESPN and SEC schools. The forthcoming college football playoff will add many more zeroes to many more bank accounts.

sec network launchHowever, the more I hear college presidents and conference commissioners speak, the more I’m worried we’re losing the plot.

There’s no going back on the events of the past three years, when Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany mentioned adding a 12th team to even up his conference and all hell broke loose. The Big 12 nearly died. The Pac-12 nearly ruled them all. The Big East did die. As did the WAC. Texas doesn’t play Texas A&M, Kansas doesn’t play Missouri and West Virginia doesn’t play Pitt.

Up until the 1998 season, college football crowned a mythical national champion. Think about how absurd that is as we enter the playoff era – in 1997, there only two undefeated teams and they didn’t play each other.

While some mistakenly credit the BCS for driving interest in college football, it was merely the notion that fans wanted a true national champion. The BCS, for all its flaws, did that. It was a 2-team tournament that left out many willing participants over the year, but it served its purpose.

At least, it served the purpose that its founders wanted it to. Everything else that followed – the double-hosting model, the 12th game, the conference realignment, the skyrocketing TV deals, the new networks – were not in Roy Kramer’s mind in the 1990’s when he first suggested the BCS.

It’s worth noting here that college football is not more popular than it was 10, 20 or 30 years ago. With the exception of the epic Texas/USC Rose Bowl, the ratings for title games have not matched the peak of 2000 and 2001. This past title game between Florida State and Auburn was only the 9th-highest rated in the BCS era.

While there are more games on television, the audiences do not match the heyday of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Florida State/Notre Dame in 1993 drew 22 million viewers. It was the most at the time since the 1991 Orange Bowl, which would have out-rated every BCS title game save one and was going up against the Sugar Bowl.

That’s a long way of saying college football has not grown in popularity in 25 years. The competition has weakened. Thanks to DVRs and Netflix, entertainment programs have shed millions of live viewers. Other sports, namely baseball, have seen its national audiences massively decline. Before LeBron arrived, the NBA was in the same boat.

College football survived and thrived in large part because it was different. There was timelessness to the sport that made it stand out. The rivalries. The tradition. The conferences. The bowl games. New Year’s Day. It begat a product that was greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a testament to the game that it was able to withstand the monumental stupidity of the “double-hosting” BCS model for nearly a decade.

johnny football money fingers
Yet, as we stand on the precipice of another season, there is a never-ending discussion and debate about money. It starts with a college football playoff that is trending toward chaos as things like “strength of schedule” are held up as criteria without any insight into how or why. There remains disagreement over whether to include the “best” teams or the “most deserving” teams.

The Power Five conferences have pushed for autonomy, which in turn has reignited the notion they would break off and form their own Division 4, a sort of NFL-lite that no one is clamoring for.

The moat guarding the big boys gets deeper by the minute, as this horribly depressing article on the future of Navy football illustrates:

"I have no idea what's going to happen. We'll try to make the best out of whatever rummage is left. It's like a tornado comes through and we'll try to rebuild our house with the scraps that are leftover," [Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo] said. "I've seen some of these things coming for a long time. I don't like it and I don't think it's right, but it's reality. What can we do?"

The best way to describe what makes college football came from President John F. Kennedy, when he asked, “Why does Rice play Texas?” College football was never about the money. It was about Rice trying to beat Texas. Now, they don’t even get a chance to.

So when does the bubble burst?

Is it when cable finally goes a la carte and millions of people balk at paying for ESPN and ESPN2 and Fox Sports 1 and BTN and the Pac-12 Network and the SEC Network and...?

Is it when the Power Five finally break off and college football turns into small-town version of the NFL?

Is it when high school sophomores start signing with agents?

Is it when the SEC expands to 16 teams and Alabama plays Tennessee once a decade?

College football has changed in almost every conceivable way in the past quarter-century. The revenues have skyrocketed to a once-unthinkable degree. There was a romance to college football – the mythical designation of its national champion served to remind. That romance is long gone. Does that matter?

For 2014, it does not. If the leaders of my favorite sport keep going down the path motivated by greed, it will. 

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