For many of us — certainly for me — late August is the most magical time of year. The agonizing wait is almost over; the first college football fixture of 2021 kicks off today. At noon (Central Time) in Champaign, Ill., the eyes of the nation will be fixed on the visiting Cornhuskers of Nebraska. Not, of course, because the Huskers are any good (this isn’t 1998). But because the Big Ten Conference moved this fixture forward to “week zero,” as we’re calling it. Why move it up a week before most other schools kick off? Television, stupid. If you can’t beat ’em, sell your product where and when they’re not selling theirs.
Growing up in England, I wasn’t born to college football. I fell in love with the game as a young man on a visit to Tuscaloosa, Ala. An American friend drove me — then a starry-eyed immigrant “fresh off the boat” — out from Atlanta, where I was studying. On the way he gave me the necessary backstory of the Crimson Tide’s many national championships: the greatness of Paul “Bear” Bryant, why Alabama’s fight song invokes the Rose Bowl, etc. These weren’t halcyon days for the Tide. This was 2003. The University of Alabama had just precipitously unhired a brand-new head coach for the moral indiscretion of visiting a strip club. Still, as we drove up U.S. Highway 82 into an otherwise unremarkable midsized American town, I was overawed by the enormousness of a stadium built for putative amateurs, and by the innumerable RVs filling every available square inch of real estate within ten miles of campus. As an obsessive fan of one of English soccer’s most relentlessly disappointing middleweights, I felt that these were my people. I wanted to know what they loved about this game, and I was going to love it, too.
There is nothing quite like game day on campus. Fans wait all year for a season intoxicatingly intense because of its tantalizing brevity. Your beloved alma mater will likely play no more than eleven meaningful games, a couple more if they’re good, lucky, or both. Stadiums worthy of Roman emperors stand empty all year but for the pomp and pageantry of half a dozen home fixtures. Every moment is magic — every road trip, every drumbeat, every smoked rib, every parking-lot cornhole game, every cold beer, every post-touchdown embrace, the heartache of every last-gasp loss. It’s infectious, addicting. Fans want as much of it as they can get. Naturally, they’ll pay to get it.
College football’s modern odyssey dates to 1984, when, in the case of Oklahoma Board of Regents v. NCAA, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the National Collegiate Athletics Association’s monopoly control of television rights. Where once there had been a single weekly national broadcast of one big-ticket game, other games being broadcast only locally or not at all, the new medium of cable television offered a world of opportunity. Schools and conferences struck their own separate deals with broadcasters, reaping increasingly vast monetary rewards. The richest conferences — the SEC and Big Ten — now distribute around $50 million annually to member institutions from this revenue. (Of course, this wealth funds new facilities, pays for nonrevenue sports such as women’s volleyball, and enriches coaches and administrators. The actual football players just continue to play, get injured, and take cash handouts on the sly.) By the early 2000s, almost every Division I college football game was being televised somewhere, at least regionally if not nationally. The advent of online streaming apps a decade ago completed this market saturation.
Which brings us back to Nebraska’s game at Illinois. A crowded media marketplace necessitates a little creativity to draw an audience. On fall Saturdays, the earliest games kick off at noon Eastern. Half a dozen games will run concurrently in every time slot, spread out across every available channel. If there are commercials on ESPN, you can jump over to Fox. If your game on FS1 has become a tedious blowout, you can tune in to the surprising upset brewing over on the Big Ten Network. If your cable provider is one of the many that don’t carry the Pac-12 Network, don’t worry; you can tune in to the ACC Network’s exclusive (!) coverage of Georgia Tech’s nonconference home fixture against some directional-Florida commuter school.
The field has become so crowded that more and more games are moved to odd times. The more desperate the conference, the odder the time. Spare a thought for the underprivileged Sunbelt Conference’s Coastal Carolina, whose undefeated regular season was one of very few uplifting storylines in a miserable 2020. This year’s edition of the Chanticleers will play games on four different days of the week, including two Fridays, three Thursdays, and a Wednesday (yuck!). Even the thoroughly aristocratic Pac-12 isn’t immune to such humiliation. Stranded on the West Coast and increasingly desperate for market exposure in more-football-mad and thus more-lucrative time zones, the Pac-12 Conference offers a weekly bill-topper on Friday nights. These seem mostly to consist of Southern Cal’s vanishing playoff hopes being ritually sacrificed on the altar of Nielsen ratings in a turnover orgy at some inhospitable destination like Pullman, Wash. But, the ratings . . .
I’ll confess to being part of the problem here. Heck, I’m the whole problem. I’m that guy who after midnight on a Saturday is sitting up in bed, watching BYU–Boise State on his laptop while his saintly wife doffs an airplane-travel sleep mask and wonders how the preceding twelve-hour marathon failed to fully scratch my college-football itch. Like a growing number of Americans, I even have television only to watch sports. I turn on for English soccer, college football, and basketball, and nothing else. I mean nothing; even the stuff you’re supposed to watch. I haven’t watched an inaugural address or State of the Union in more than a decade. That’s how I regain most of the happiness I lose by cheering for mediocre sports teams.
And I’m not alone. As recently as 2013, more than 100 million American households paid a monthly cable bill. Paid television was a multibillion-dollar industry increasingly reliant upon sports. Since the advent of DVR technology, consumers have been able to record shows and skip the commercials. But advertisers know that junkies like me will always watch ballgames live. Cable subscriptions — a nonfactor in the history of college sports prior to the ’90s — became the dominant factor driving structural decisions by the 2000s.
Historic conferences based on shared culture and geographic proximity were reformed in the endless quest to capture larger market shares of the great white cable-subscription whale. The Southeastern Conference began this process in 1990, absorbing Arkansas and South Carolina. This exploited an NCAA bylaw allowing leagues of twelve members or more to host a postseason championship. Suddenly the bi-divisional football-conference championship game was big billing. The Big Eight poached half of the remaining members of the undermined Southwest Conference to form the Big 12. Bigwigs at the University of Texas and their resentful little brothers in College Station didn’t care what happened to their ancient and storied rivals such as Texas Christian and Southern Methodist. Who turns on the TV to watch them, anyway?
This madness reached its seeming apogee in 2010–14, when the Big Ten Conference expanded to 14 members. They included, among others, Rutgers, a school whose footballing greatness peaked in 1872 with a solid runner-up finish to Princeton in the first collegiate football game ever played. It’s been downhill since. But no matter; New Jersey is, apparently, in the “New York City market,” where cable TV is lucrative. The Big Ten’s oft-cited emphasis on “academics” does not appear to incorporate basic numeracy or geography.
In 2021, as the lavish glory and ritualized tribalism of America’s most unique game returns, the sport’s landscape is in greater turmoil than ever. In June, the Supreme Court delivered a landmark ruling in Alston v. NCAA, denying de facto antitrust exemptions to collegiate athletics’ business model of strictly capped education-related compensation for “amateur” athletes. While not technically opening the way for payment of salaries to the players whose work (and grievous bodily injuries) generate these billions of dollars, this ruling made clear that further legal challenges to the NCAA’s creaking framework will likely prevail.
Further, the television marketplace is changing. Online streaming services have mortally wounded the cable-TV model. By 2023 fewer than 70 million households will pay a monthly cable bill, while some 40 million subscribe to “over the top” services such as YouTube TV. Sooner or later, major-college athletics will move to subscription viewership, à la Netflix and Disney+. In that brave new world, content is king. Thus, last month, the SEC and Texas and Oklahoma Universities stunned the college-sports world by announcing a betrothal that leaves the Big 12 on life support. Administrators in the Big Ten, Atlantic Coast Conference, and Pac-12 panicked, talked for a few weeks, and then unveiled a three-conference “alliance” whose initial substance amounts to one nauseatingly vague and hypocritically self-righteous press conference.
Where is it all going? Renewed realignment, with the remaining Big 12 leftovers to be carved up for creation of four 16-member super-conferences? Offsetting pairs of conferences, two aligned with Fox and two with ESPN, akin to the NFC’s relationship with Fox and the AFC’s with CBS? Payment of football players in salaries commensurate with the revenue they personally generate? Cancellation of unwatched “nonrevenue” sports, long subsidized by the one game that generates 90 percent of the cash? Who knows? Truly, no one has a clue. The only actual revelation at the “alliance” press conference this Tuesday was that the men in charge of three of the sport’s most powerful four conferences are groping in the dark.
All we can say for sure is this: So long as the crazy, beautiful, brutal, infectiously compelling games go on, the process of monetizing them and governing the distribution of that cash will be chaotic and grotesque. And so long as irrational football junkies like me are tuning in to watch marginally significant games kicking off at stupid o’clock, the money that turns everything beautiful to ashes will keep piling up.
Sorry, y’all. I’m not going to stop. Let the games begin!