Why college football is more cutthroat and competitive than the NFL.

The stadium scene.
Nov. 6 2008 6:47 AM

Bowling for Dollars

Why college football is more cutthroat and competitive than the NFL.

(Continued from Page 1)

When an outlier breaks through to a BCS bowl, the relative distribution of revenues between BCS and non-BCS conferences is barely affected; the overwhelming majority of non-BCS schools are not affected at all. With the BCS adding a fifth bowl game in 2006-07, the six major conferences now claim nine or 10 huge payouts instead of seven or eight, and every big-conference school gets a share. Non-BCS conferences without a representative in a BCS bowl share almost nothing.The 11 highest football revenues in 2006-07 belonged to Texas, Notre Dame, Georgia, Ohio State, Florida, Auburn, Alabama, Michigan, LSU, Iowa, and Penn State. Notre Dame is a unique case, and we would certainly have to add Oklahoma (16th) and USC (just 21st) to our list of perennial contenders, but does anyone really doubt that the wealthiest programs will provide most of the contenders for national championships into the foreseeable future? (Should Texas Tech pull off a miracle this season, it will be a "miracle" precisely for this reason.)

While public attention is always on these top programs, the bottom ones face the most brutal challenges. An infusion of an extra $100 million or $150 million into a couple of conferences—for facilities, coaches' salaries, academic tutors, and all of the rest (though not for paying the "amateur" athletes, God forbid!)—increases the advantages for a few and raises the ante for the other conferences desperate to stay competitive. The programs with the highest revenues can cherry-pick the best athletes and then have the most resources to keep the weakest students among them on track academically. (Whether these resources translate into a good education is an issue for another day.) After three years under the NCAA's new initiative for academic reform, the Academic Progress Rate, only three BCS programs have been penalized (Arizona, Kansas, and Washington State), a tiny fraction of the non-BCS and Division I-AA programs that have been hit. While Toledo and LSU have to meet the same APR standard, only the latter can afford a $15 million learning center for athletes.

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Under Myles Brand, the NCAA is pursuing a two-pronged agenda: mandatory academic reform (via the APR), with a risk of losing scholarships and bowl appearances for failure to reach the minimum standards, coupled with voluntary fiscal restraint. Limits on spending, whether on coaches' salaries or facilities or any other feature of a first-class program, can only be voluntary, due to the risk of an antitrust lawsuit, such as the one in 1984 that ended the NCAA's monopoly on selling television rights.

College football's lack of spending limits means that high-revenue schools will forever be at a competitive advantage. LSU made $48 million off football in 2006-07 and spent $16 million. The University of Toledo made $1.6 million and spent $4.6 million. With state legislatures decreasing investment in higher education and nonelite private colleges facing their own financial squeeze, football below the elite level has become a loss-leader for luring in potential donors. Most college-football fans do not worry overmuch about the fate of Baylor and Cincinnati (bottom feeders in the BCS), let alone Toledo. But it's worth remembering that a lot of schools are spending educational dollars to subsidize athletics out of the desperate hope for "intangible" benefits, and a lot of athletes are making the academic sacrifices demanded at all levels of Division I without institutional resources to support them.

The media-rights windfalls for the Big Ten and SEC, then, will not introduce inequality into big-time football but rather reconfigure the inequalities that have long existed. The big winners will be the schools in those two conferences with smaller-budget football programs: Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Mississippi, Northwestern, Indiana, and Minnesota, all of them with football revenues under $20 million in 2006-07. But disparities within conferences will remain huge. With $63.8 million in revenue in 2006-07, Texas made $26.6 million more than its closest Big 12 rival (Oklahoma, at $37.3 million). Now the Longhorns are exploring the possibility of launching their own statewide TV network.

While a University of Texas TV network seems like an unlikely prospect considering that all of their games are already on TV, it's not surprising that college football's top tier is exploring such a move. (Like the SEC contracts and the Big Ten Network, the proposed UT network is for all sports, and the fact that the football games are already televised is what makes the prospect unlikely.) It is inconceivable to me that top programs will choose to share more revenue, and the NCAA is powerless to mandate such sharing. At some point, this inequality between and within conferences will become unsustainable for those at the bottom, perhaps even for those just below the top. Not by free choice but from overwhelming external forces, a dramatic reconfiguration of big-time football will come. What it will look like is unpredictable: Conference realignments that exclude the small-revenue schools? A single superconference along the lines of soccer's Premier League, with the remaining teams consigned to lesser status? What is clear is that whatever happens will be determined by those on top, while the rest scramble to salvage what they can.

Michael Oriard’s books include a memoir, The End of Autumn, and Brand NFL. He hopes that his co-produced film, Saving Football: America’s Game at the Crossroads, will soon be forthcoming.