College Football Is About to Change Drastically — and Not for the Better

Kansas St. vs. Texas A&M in 1998 — the kind of matchup that may not happen in the future. Photo: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

If you’ve somehow been distracted by war, democracy’s peril, or the loss of foundational human rights in America, you might have missed a major offseason development in college football. “Major” might actually be an understatement. Everything about the sport, and possibly about college athletics in general, is on the verge of changing forever.

Wondering what’s going on? Here’s an FAQ on the seismic shift now underway.

Okay, so what happened?
Last week, San Jose Mercury-News reporter Jon Wilner broke the massive news that UCLA and USC, the longtime Los Angeles rivals and linchpins of the Pac-12 conference, would join the Big Ten in 2024. Beyond the culture shock of having the traditionally midwestern conference expand so far afield (the Westernmost school before this was Nebraska)and the oddness of a conference called the Big Ten with 16 teams in it — UCLA and USC’s decision seemed like the death knell for the Pac-12 and, potentially, the ACC and Big 12 conferences.

Why would this move kill three different conferences?
UCLA’s and USC’s moves came on the heels of another dramatic shakeup. Last year, Texas and Oklahoma announced that they would be moving from the Big 12 to the SEC, a transition slated to happen in 2025, but which might come sooner. As with the L.A. schools, Texas and Oklahoma are the two biggest moneymakers in their conference, with the two largest fan bases. Their moves will give the SEC 16 teams as well, and it is generally understood that both the SEC and the Big Ten are looking to add even more. Schools are already reaching out to both conferences to join — the Wall Street Journal reports that ten have already contacted the Big Ten. This will further dilute college football everywhere else.

Why does everyone want to go to the Big Ten and the SEC?
Money, obviously. More specifically: television money. In a world of streaming and DVR and everything on demand, live sports — especially live football — is the most valuable TV commodity around. The two big players there are ESPN, which owns the rights to SEC broadcasts moving forward, and Fox Sports, which owns the Big Ten rights and is currently working with the conference on a new deal. These networks essentially tell the most powerful conferences which schools will bring them the best ratings, and the conferences absorb those teams accordingly. Gradually, the conferences have become less “bands of geographically and academically similar institutions” and more “programming slates.” ESPN wants ratings to justify its expenses (and dictate future expenses), so they encourage the SEC to add Texas and Oklahoma; Fox Sports (or whoever might be a part of the league’s broadcast rights) wants the same, and so here come UCLA and USC. The money is overwhelming: ESPN just signed a $3 billion deal with the SEC, and the Big Ten deal with Fox Sports (and any other network) could well exceed that. That money gets divvied out to all the schools in those conferences. Everyone wants a piece.

How do the other conferences survive if they lose all their good teams?
Yeah, that’s a problem. The highest-rated Pac-12 games usually involve USC and UCLA; same goes for the Big 12 with Texas and Oklahoma. Even if those conferences scrape together enough teams to hold on moving forward, they may well feel like the minor leagues with all the big names gone — the way conferences like the Sun Belt and MAC do now. Ultimately, the Big Ten and SEC may become the only two conferences that have high TV-ratings potential, and everything else might become the equivalent of the USFL.

That sounds like pro sports.
Now you’re getting it! This guy essentially predicted the NFL-ization of college sports ten years ago:

But haven’t people been saying for years that college football is professional anyway? Wouldn’t this just be bringing that out in the open?
This is the downside of claiming, correctly, that college football had essentially become semi-pro football: It eliminates any pretense that it’s not. It gives cover to people who want to jettison anything about the sport that isn’t a reliable revenue driver — you know, like those “traditions” or, “the things that made you love the sport in the first place.” It turns college football into semi-pro football. And that is something extremely different.

Say you’re a fan of Kansas State football. You’ve been watching the Wildcats all your life. You’ve seen them play the greats: Oklahoma, Nebraska, Michigan, Texas A&M, LSU, Oregon. You were there when they had a run as the No. 1 team in the country. But, unfortunately for you, your school doesn’t draw enough television viewers to be desirable to ESPN or Fox. So Kansas State doesn’t get to play for a title anymore, or even to play any of those elite teams. They’re not quality TV inventory, so no one cares about any of the history. Where does that leave you?

It’s not just Kansas State. How about Duke? Or Wake Forest? Or Stanford? All sorts of schools without a history of college-football success, or who just lack a wide regional television footprint, could all but vanish from the landscape. Put enough of those schools together and you lose a huge amount of the sport’s fanbase. And the fanbases who do make the cut might suddenly find themselves looking around wondering what happened to the game they grew up watching. As The Athletic’s Chris Vannini put it:

College football as we knew it is on its last legs. It will eventually be replaced by an NFL Jr.–type sport, and the TV executives who have long dreamed about this will finally get their wish for a simpler product to package. The people at the right schools will make a lot of money, and the fans at the wrong schools will be left behind. As far as I can tell from my Big Ten circles and what I’ve seen elsewhere, after the initial shock, the general reaction among those fans to the USC/UCLA news was mostly apathy. Sure, some are excited. Some hate it, too. Most felt powerless to do anything about it, a grim acceptance that the sport they grew up with is changing no matter how they feel. And these are fans of the winners in this game of musical chairs.

Yikes. How does this affect college basketball and other college sports?
No one knows yet, and, honestly, no one really cares. All that’s driving this is college-football television ratings. Yes, there’s a chance consolidation could eventually mean a March Madness completely dominated by the Big 12 and SEC, but it’s difficult to imagine things ever quite going that far.

Is there any way to turn this around?
There probably wasn’t any way to do so before USC and UCLA made their moves, but now, forget about it. Maybe the average college-football fan will just get used to a 32-team superleague, or even a 48-team one. But it’s clear that they don’t have a choice. There is no one in charge of college football right now, no one looking out for its best interest and the interests of those of its fans — you know, the people who pay for everything. There are just individual actors — networks, schools, coaches, administrators — doing what’s most profitable for them in the short term. It’s logical, in a cold-blooded way. But it sure feels like the sport’s existential peril is becoming less existential, and more tangible. College football is falling apart. And if enough fans feel like the thing they love has been reshaped into something they no longer feel a connection to, it won’t be those executives who suffer. It’ll be the sport itself, and the fans who are beginning to feel awfully stupid for dedicating so much of their lives following it in the first place.

College Football Is About to Change Drastically