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.

Head Coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide. Click image to expand.
Head Coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide

What's the biggest story in college football so far this season? The dramatic surge of Alabama in Nick Saban's second year? Early losses by Ohio State, USC, and Georgia, opening up room at the top for the Crimson Tide and others? I'd nominate the SEC's $2.25 billion deal with ESPN for rights to televise the conference's games through 2025. With an additional $55 million annually from CBS, the SEC will get $205 million a year over the life of the television contracts, a little more than $17 million per school per year. Those figures don't resonate with football fans as much as, say, the latest jockeying in the Heisman Trophy race, but it's these figures that will shape the game's future.

We've been hearing for years that big-time college football is becoming indistinguishable from the NFL. I disagree: College football is much more cutthroat and competitive. On account of pro football's revenue sharing—most importantly, nearly $4 billion in television money gets split up between the 32 NFL clubs each year—it's hard for even a lousy pro football team to lose money. NFL clubs do not constantly have to upgrade their facilities in order to attract players. Instead of recruiting wars, pro teams take turns selecting the best college players, whom they pay a fixed percentage of the league's revenues. NFL clubs also don't steal one another's coaches, and what they pay the men on the sidelines is not governed by fear of losing a successful coach to another team.

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College football programs share revenue, too, but not nearly as much and only within conferences. That's why the SEC's extraordinary windfall could change the basic structure of big-time football. (While basketball and other sports are included in the conference's TV deal with ESPN, football is the clear driving force.) In 2006-07, the most recent year for which we have data, Division I-A (now Football Bowl Subdivision) schools generated $2.04 billion in revenues. That same season, NFL clubs generated $6.54 billion (increasing to $7.09 billion in 2007), with revenues ranging from the Cowboys with $312 million to the Vikings with $182 million. Compare that relatively narrow range with that of the Football Bowl Subdivision, where the University of Texas led with $63.8 million in revenues and New Mexico State sat at the bottom with $1.1 million. The largest revenue for a school outside the six BCS conferences, TCU's $13.3 million, ranked 55th. Of the $2.04 billion in total revenue, nearly $1.8 billion went to BCS schools.

Whether the actual numbers are familiar, the huge gap between BCS and non-BCS programs is common knowledge. But let's dig a little deeper into the BCS conferences, where disparities are also striking. These are the average revenues for schools in the six major conferences:

SEC: $38.2 million
Big Ten: $33.7 million
Big 12: $24.8 million
Pac-10: $22.9 million
ACC: $19.5 million
Big East: $15.2 million

The SEC was already the wealthiest conference before its latest TV deals, which will nearly triple the league's annual media revenue. With its recently launched Big Ten Network, the second-wealthiest conference has seen its media revenue increase to $15 million per school per year. (ESPN dumped its billions on the SEC to prevent it from following the Big Ten to creating its own network.) With ESPN now so heavily committed to the SEC, there's little chance that any of the remaining four conferences will receive such a windfall. The six majors will begin to look like a top two and next four. (There's also the unique case of Notre Dame, which has a big-money contract with NBC through 2015.)

Why does any of this matter? It matters most because of the relentless and relentlessly increasing pressure on the lesser football programs to compete with the greater ones. It is ironic that we have heard much in recent years about a new parity in college football, wherein a school like Appalachian State can knock off Michigan, and South Florida, Wake Forest, and Kansas have contended for the national championship. The occasional upset and rogue title contender shouldn't obscure the fact that mostly, the same schools contend for the championship each year. Parity does not extend throughout the BCS conferences, let alone into the midmajors. The one-time appearance of a Utah or Boise State or Hawaii in a BCS bowl game is misleading. These outliers break through one at a time, then promptly lose their coach to a major BCS power temporarily fallen on hard times (or lose their star quarterback to the NFL) and once again take their proper places in the food chain.

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