Money, like water, is almost impossible to contain. Hold it down someplace, it’ll bubble up someplace else. That’s why the solution to what some see as college football’s current dilemma (money is crushing the sport) would be to stop attempting to contain the market and instead to allow the sport to generate even more money.
In case you’re not paying attention, the world of college sports is in flux. Pittsburgh and Syracuse recently declared they’d leave their long-time home, the Big East, and move to the Atlantic Coast Conference. West Virginia is leaving for the Big XII. The Big East may respond by expanding; Navy and Air Force are in the air.
Meanwhile the Big XII has only 10 teams this year (ironically, the Big 10, having added Nebraska from the XII, now has 12) and may be smaller in the years ahead. Or maybe not. It’s a moving target.
In a recent column, Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post lamented the “cannibalizing and the cowardly defections for TV cash, and the gummy toothlessness of the NCAA.” She added that the late Supreme Court Justice Byron White had predicted this chaos. “By mitigating what appears to be a clear failure of the free market to serve the ends and goals of higher education,” White wrote in a 1984 dissent, “the NCAA ensures the continued availability of a unique and valuable product, the very existence of which might well be threatened by unbridled competition in the economic sphere.”
But White’s proposed solutions, (he wanted to limit TV money and appearances to protect colleges from themselves), belong to a bygone era. In 1984 there were only three or four channels carrying college football, so there were only a handful of games on each week.
“[U]nlimited [TV] appearances by a few schools would inevitably give them an insuperable advantage over all others and in the end defeat any efforts to maintain a system of athletic competition among amateurs who measure up to college scholastic requirements,” he’d warned.
But simply look at the TV listings to see that the free market is working very well. A recent Saturday featured 33 televised games. Plenty of small schools were involved. Viewers could watch non-powerhouses including Yale, Cornell, Eastern Michigan, Louisiana-Monroe, Howard and Morgan State.