College Football’s Sad Last Dance

2022 may soon look like an innocent time. Photo: Darren Lee/CSM/Shutterstock/Darren Lee/CSM/Shutterstock

It’s been clear for a while now that the coming season of college football will mark the end of the sport as we know it. So as things get going this weekend with the annual smorgasbord of Week Zero games — generally unappetizing matchups like Notre Dame-Navy (in Dublin!) and Ohio-San Diego State — it’s worth reflecting on the end of one era and the beginning of another, probably crappier, one.

The word on everyone’s lips is “realignment,” in which the big fish of relatively small conferences have decamped to bigger, more powerful competitors, resulting in some head-scratching lineups. (UCLA in the same conference as Rutgers? Arizona in the same conference as Cincinnati?) It’s best to conceive of realignment less as some kind of organizational adjustment and more as one of those game-show floating-cash booths with athletic department heads and conference commissioners grabbing every dollar they can before the air shuts off. It’s all about short-term gain, about maximizing every dollar, about eliminating the inefficiency of tradition and sentimentality and replacing it with whatever a random television exec who will move onto something else in a few years and never think about any of this again has decided a theoretical Johnny Six Pack is most likely to fall asleep to on a random fall Saturday afternoon. Meanwhile, the people who love college sports, who will still care about them in 15 years when that TV exec is gone, who want to watch this stuff the rest of their stupid lives, will be left with their sport in sorry, unrecognizable shape.

First, there are the obvious changes. This season will mark the last stand for the Pac-12 Conference with the league set to dissolve after losing a third of its teams to the Big Ten and another third to the Big 12. Poor Oregon State, Washington State, California, and Stanford will be left to fend for themselves. It’s also the last year the Big Ten won’t have UCLA, USC, Washington, and Oregon in it, the last year the SEC won’t have Texas and Oklahoma in it, and the last year either of those conferences includes an East and West division. And it’s the last year in which just four playoff teams will contend for the national title; the playoff expands to 12 teams in 2024, which will invariably lessen the value of the regular season and make each game matter a little less.

But the transformation goes well beyond schedule tweaks. Because the NCAA has essentially abdicated all responsibility for college football, there is no longer anyone in charge of the sport. Thus it has reached, as my colleague Jonathan Chait put it, “the culmination of a period of accelerating marketization.” The key word there is culmination. The reason conferences are grasping at every dollar right now is the understanding that, moving forward, there will be fewer dollars available. This is largely due to forces that have little to do with the product on the field. College football has been able to maintain its cultural power over the last few years because live sports have remained so important to television networks and streamers. But the entertainment business, as you might have heard, is itself going through a drastic period of transition right now. It’s clear that the current model — pay through the nose for live sports rights because they’re the one thing, along with award shows and political events, that people will watch live — is more of a last desperate flail than anything sustainable. That means the money spigot is going to dry up, and soon. It’s actually already happening: The first round of the new college-football playoffs coming next year currently does not have a television partner, largely because networks are no longer willing (or able) to spend so exorbitantly on rights fees amid their industry-wide malaise. Every move college football makes right now is dictated by what they think will convince TV executives to give them more money. But those moves are already proving less than effective. And considering the tumult in streaming and network media right now, it seems certain that, in five years or so, the business model for the sport, and these networks, will be entirely different. And that’s not even accounting for the fact that when legislators start stirring again about players getting paid — particularly in the wake of all those billion-dollar TV contracts — some of that pending revenue these schools are currently planning on is going to have to be split with the players, a process that’s going to be tortured and destabilizing in its own way. How’s this going to all turn out? No one knows. Meanwhile, along the way, the sport will have blown itself up trying to chase something ephemeral.

And then what happens? What happens when you’ve extricated tradition from the sport and made it clear you only care about milking every last dollar? As David Ubben of The Athletic has pointed out, the next stage of this isn’t conference expansion — it’s contraction. If college football has decided the only thing that matters is television ratings, conferences are going to start kicking out schools that don’t move the needle enough. Northwestern has been in the Big Ten for more than a century, but sorry, more people want to watch Florida State — they’re gone. Bye Vanderbilt or Rutgers or Missouri or Kansas State or Colorado or, eventually, anyone. Maybe you didn’t speak up for Oregon State when the Pac-12 collapsed. But someday, the ruthless McKinsey-esque nature zero-sum game that is college sports now will come for you. Is there a world where the top 12 teams by television ratings play each other, and only each other, all season, and every other program either doesn’t exist or fades into irrelevance? That’s what college football is currently clearing the path for.

Without the tradition and history that executives are systematically destroying, college football isn’t college football at all: It’s just a minor-league NFL. But that’s never been the sport’s appeal. We watch college football because we tailgate every weekend, because we’ve been to a game in Death Valley, because our family loves Notre Dame, because we never miss the World’s Largest Cocktail Party, because we love to get together with friends and drink bourbon and talk about college kids we will never meet, because our parents took us to Champaign when we were a kid and one time we met Dick Butkus. We love college football, and college sports, because they are personal, because they are a part of our lives and our parents’ lives and our children’s lives, because when Ohio State and Michigan play, no matter who is playing for those teams, the losing team’s fans and alumni are going to be depressed for a full calendar year. That’s what college sports is. And that’s what is currently being taken apart, all in the name of a desperate business plan that won’t even make any sense in five years.

Maybe I’m being a Cassandra about all this; maybe it won’t be so bad after all. But the future of this sport will definitely be very, very different from the past. So this season, enjoy college football — real, classic college football — while you can.

College Football’s Sad Last Dance