College Football Is Now NFL Lite

A sport once defined by regional charm is awash in money and becoming more like the pros every week.

Photo: Dylan Buell/Getty Images
Photo: Dylan Buell/Getty Images

On Saturday afternoon, the college-football season begins in a location befitting this truly American sport: Dublin, Ireland. The Nebraska Cornhuskers (who usually play 4,409 miles from Dublin) will face the Northwestern Wildcats (3,653 miles from Dublin) in the grand tradition that is the Aer Lingus Classic. (This is the first Aer Lingus Classic.) The game kicks off “Week Zero,” the soft launch to the season that features mostly mid-tier, nationally irrelevant teams with modestly invested fanbases: the likes of Connecticut, North Carolina, and (my beloved) Illinois. These teams are there to whet your appetite for the real season, which kicks off Labor Day weekend, at which point college football, along with the NFL, begins to dominate every TV weekend until mid-February.

Football has always been popular in America. But television — which proved perfect for distilling football down to its essence, to make it comprehensible even to people who don’t really understand how it’s played — has been instrumental in transforming the sport into our new national pastime. Football has dominated television ratings for decades now; 31 of the 32 most watched American events in television history have been Super Bowls. And now, in the age of on-demand and streaming, football has even more command over the traditional TV landscape. Seventy-five of the 100 most watched shows on television last year were NFL games. (Overall, 95 were sporting events, two were political events, one was the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, and only one, CBS’s The Equalizer, was scripted programming — albeit scripted programming that directly followed the Super Bowl.) The top-two most watched network shows last year were NBC’s Sunday Night Football and Fox’s Thursday Night Football; third through sixth place were the pregame and postgame shows for those games. To state the obvious, sports retain their ratings because, unlike almost everything else in 2022, they are appointment television. Since you have to watch football games live, you also have to watch all the commercials that go with them. For an industry that has suddenly lost much of its captive audience, football can still park consumers in front of their televisions for three hours straight. And with the NFL so dominant, it’s is no wonder that network executives, like those who gave us those classics After M*A*S*H and Joey, are looking for spinoffs.

College football is actually older than professional football; it has been an American obsession for more than a century. But for the most part, it has been a regional one, confined to large swaths of the South (here in Georgia, people care about the Bulldogs more than they ever will about the Falcons) as well as the upper Midwest and parts of California. The game has always maintained a local focus: You wanted to beat your nearby rival above all, and the idea of a “national championship” was considered professionalized and crass. (For most of its existence, such a title didn’t even exist in college football.) The goal, if anything, was to make it to a bowl game in a nice warm location. To keep the tradition going at medium scale.

But television changed that. As the sport became more popular on a national basis and became more of a ratings powerhouse — seven of those 25 top-100 TV ratings events last year were college-football games — money poured in. In December 2012, ESPN paid $5.64 billion for the Bowl Championship Series, essentially giving it the right to air three college football games a year for the next 13 years. In December 2020, ESPN paid $3 billion to the SEC to move its games from CBS. Just last week, the Big Ten got $7 billion for its broadcast rights from Fox, CBS and, in a telling move, Peacock, NBC’s streaming service. The vision here is clear. There is nothing “regional” about any of this anymore. College football isn’t really college football anymore; it is now NFL Lite.

Just witness the seismic changes this money has already wrought. The Big Ten, attempting to sweeten the pot on its rights deal, added UCLA and Southern California earlier this summer, two schools that make no geographic sense for the conference, but which do allow access to a swath of the country that wouldn’t otherwise be interested in its TV network. That move was a response to the SEC bringing in Texas and Oklahoma for similar reasons. And it’s likely that the arms race between these two mega-conferences is only beginning. The fears that college football is about to become little more than a duopoly with every non-SEC or Big Ten school left standing out in the cold seem well founded. Once-proud rivalries like Oklahoma-Nebraska, or Michigan–Notre Dame, may be replaced by UCLA-Rutgers or Texas-Vanderbilt, matchups that carry all the romance and tradition of the Jacksonville Jaguars hosting the Las Vegas Raiders.

But that’s part of the plan. When the Big Ten’s broadcast deal begins next season, it will feature games at noon (on Fox) and 3:30 p.m. (on CBS), with a big wrap-up show on NBC at 8 p.m. ET. ESPN and ABC will be following the same schedule for SEC games. If these time slots look familiar, it’s because the conferences are aping NFL programming nearly down to the hour. And they’re doing so at the total direction of the networks. As conference commissioners try to kick the NCAA out of college football entirely, there’s no one in charge but the people bringing in the money. College conferences were once full of regional rivalries and schools that were both geographically and academically inclined. Now they’re all just pods of brands that maximize television ratings revenue. The Big Ten East might as well be the NFC Central.

This might not bother you if you’re only a casual fan. But for real devotees, the changes augur alterations to the sport that may make it unrecognizable over the next decade. Or, more accurately, a little too recognizable. But college football really isn’t the NFL, and it never has been. Treating it as such — like it’s simply television inventory — is a recipe for killing what has made it special for so long.

Diehard college football fans long argued that their sport is defined by passion, rivalry, and tradition. That was always a bit of a self-serving argument, often used as an excuse not to pay players. (Let’s remember how much of that $3 billion to the SEC and that $7 billion to the Big Ten is going to the players on the field: zero.) But there’s no question that the sport is in large part centered around ritual and reverence for the past — for crying out loud, that reverence for the past might get Herschel freaking Walker elected to the Senate. That idea is all but gone now. Television executives, and the league commissioners who have accepted their money, have definitively chosen to make college football something different. In the short term, this has proven to be a lucrative decision. In the long term, it may prove to be the opposite. The massive changes are coming next year, and they will not stop. So enjoy this charming opening Week Zero while you have the opportunity. There won’t be many more like it.

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College Football Is Now NFL Lite