Right now, college football is the most financially successful it has ever been. But if the schools aren’t careful, their entire operation could fall apart.
College sports’ relentless focus on TV money has given fans lots of stuff they never asked for and, in many cases, don’t want.
The Big Ten’s desire to reach the New York TV market gave fans Rutgers, which has gotten drubbed in almost every sport. An obsession with ratings gave them Friday night games, which fans and coaches hated.
Elsewhere, it’s led football teams to play weekday games, which has led to class cancelations. That’s just at rich, powerful schools.
For everybody else, the TV gods have been even more demanding. The MAC didn’t play a single Saturday conference game in November. It’s pushed the Mountain West to play tons of late games, a source of frustration.
Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson: “We get told directly by media/TV partners that ‘the later you play, the more value you give us.’ “— Nicole Auerbach (@NicoleAuerbach) July 24, 2018
In leagues big and small, TV has forced athletes to travel long distances, sometimes on short turnarounds and school nights.
The money doesn’t always do much for fans.
Programs aren’t likely to add new sports like lacrosse or hockey. At the lower levels, cutting sports is more likely, as New Mexico’s doing right now. Across college football, attendance is down, but tickets aren’t getting appreciably cheaper. If tickets, food, and parking are expensive, start times are inconvenient, and games feature opponents fans don’t care about, what’s keeping fans engaged?
In the Big Ten, a TV mega-deal with ESPN and Fox has pushed school distributions above $50 million a year. At the conference’s media days, I asked commissioner Jim Delany how that windfall has benefitted fans. His response:
It allows for the development of venues, academic support, psychological support, travel. So if you’re a fan of a Big Ten institution, typically fans support not only football and basketball but to a lesser extent Olympic and other sports ... I think it allows us to recruit nationally. It allows us to have financial aid packages to the maximum allowed by NCAA. It allows us to have the broadest base programs in the country. We have nearly 10,000 students participating and $250 billion of financial aid.
So it simply allows for a platform that provides high-quality educational and athletic opportunities. They’re really unequalled among the major conferences in the country. Without those resources, we’d be unable to have a presentation and an opportunity set that I just described.
That’s a fair answer. The Big Ten has a lot of sports and a lot of things to spend money on.
But the Big Ten was also able to sponsor those sports, often at competitive levels, when school payouts were in the high $30 millions.
The No. 1 constituency for a league should be its players, but it’s hard to see how any of those investments directly benefit the fans — especially if they don’t watch Olympic sports.
Here’s the thing, though: Someday, massive TV money should start to dry up.
Before cord-cutting became a viable option, if you wanted to watch your team, you needed cable. That high demand meant ESPN, Fox, and conferences like the Big Ten could bundle their channels into every basic package, pocket a fee, and make money whether you watched or not.
It was one of the biggest reasons the Big Ten added Rutgers and Maryland. After all, if you could get BTN on every cable package in Big Ten territory, then adding markets like New York, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. would mean even more money.
Now, cord-cutting is an option. Ratings for sports networks aren’t always excellent in the first place — only so many people need to watch Eastern Illinois-Arkansas in Week 1 on SEC Network — and consumers are dropping cable in droves. Conference USA’s TV revenue is way down. Comcast is poised to drop the Big Ten Network from basic cable packages over a fees dispute. If it can happen to the Big Ten, it can happen to anyone.
Maybe conferences will find new partners to stream their games. That’s possible, but unless a conference is able to, say, boost every Netflix’s subscriber’s fee by $2 a month to include Michigan games, the gravy train won’t continue uninterrupted.
Making matters worse, lots of athletic departments struggle with financial management even in the best times. Tons of schools across the country are facing huge athletic deficits, and that’s in a system in which players aren’t paid.
If TV money drops from “ludicrous” to simply “lots,” the Ohio States and Alabamas will be fine. Plenty of other schools will get around a loss in TV money by planning carefully. But not everyone will.
One way to plan for the future is to think about fans for a change.
College fandom is different than pro fandom. College fans are more likely to stay engaged through tailgating, by connecting with old friends, and by rooting for (or against) teams they have history with. They want start times that can accommodate traveling to and from the stadium, without ruining tomorrow’s workday or school night. They want to be able to buy a hot dog and a soda for their kids without having to file a FAFSA.
It’s important for leagues to get this right now, even if it means a short-term revenue hit. College students, with lots of debt and lots of things competing for their time, have easy reasons to back away from their schools’ sports. Those students will then become 30-somethings, with less disposable income than 30-somethings used to have.
Athletic departments need to make it easier, not harder, for fans young and old to love their teams. You don’t do that with schedules so bloated that a student might not get to see a conference football opponent his entire time on campus. You don’t do it by charging 60 bucks a ticket for a game against a lower-level team, forcing your best game to be on a Friday or super late at night, or loading your non-conference schedule with paycheck games.
Making these changes might require someone to be the bad guy, but it’ll make programs stronger in the long run.
An AD might get crushed for slowing down coach salaries or falling behind peers in an arms race. But if that’s what schools need to do, that’s what needs to happen. Spending a gazillion dollars probably won’t improve recruiting enough to take your team to the promised land anyway, unless those gazillion dollars goes into the uh, bagman fund.
There’s enough money in college sports to prepare for the future.