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.
Still, the constant churn of conferences isn’t healthy for the sport. No fan wants to be left wondering what league his school will be playing in next year. And the reason schools are so antsy and eager to leave traditional alliances is because they want to make certain they remain eligible for college football’s broken postseason.
The answer, then, is to fix the bowl setup. Doing so, as Yahoo! columnist Dan Wetzel has written, would generate more money. Lots of it.
“College football defies all business logic by outsourcing its most profitable product to third-party bowl games. The Bowl Championship Series not only fails to capitalize on the enormous potential of a multi-week tournament, it sucks hundreds of millions of dollars out of college pockets,” he wrote last month. Under the BCS, a chunk of revenue goes to bowl games.
Those include the Fiesta Bowl, which spent some of its money on “adult entertainment” (a strip club) and $33,000 on a four day birthday party for the bowl’s CEO. The bowls are certainly fun and lucrative for those lucky enough to work for one. But the rest of us would prefer to see a championship tournament to crown a real champion. This would also increase revenue for NCAA schools.
“Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has acknowledged a playoff is worth three-to-four times what the BCS delivers. Based on bowl revenue from 2010-11, that’s about $1 billion. And Delany made his prediction long before the current explosion in live television rights fees,” Wetzel writes. “A single playoff share (earned by each game appearance) could easily top $30 million per game, each round adding to the total only without all crippling costs of attending a bowl. Successful conferences could make hundreds of millions. Everyone could get some big money.”
It’s too late to go back to the conference structure that existed in the 1980s. As Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim explained, two things have driven the consolidations: “Money and football.” Ironically the Big East, the conference that made Boeheim a champion, was launched to maximize basketball revenue for a bunch of northeastern schools and is now being destroyed in favor of football revenues.
Still, it’s never too late to unleash the power of the free market. Doing so would bring more money, and eventually more stability, to college sports.