Is college football selling its soul and its future, by pursuing profits in ways that could irreversibly change its cultural meaning on campus and beyond?
I admit that such a question might take on greater urgency for someone like me who has been reveling in college football as a live, participatory spectacle for many an autumn at this point. I also concede that, on the surface, it may seem a bit daft to worry about where the sport is headed when more than 25 million people watched this year’s NCAA championship game and staggering television payouts have helped to boost gross revenues for the 25 most lucrative college football programs to $2.7 billion last year.
But these intoxicating financial benefits should not blind us to another, more sobering set of figures indicating that the sport is not quite the picture of health its overall earnings statements might suggest. According to a recent report, attendance fell by 7.6 percent between 2014 and 2018 at games involving the 130 big-time programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision, and the average turnout in 2018 was the lowest since 1996. Not only do major powers like Alabama and Clemson struggle to sell out their home games, but a 2018 Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that, on average, only 71 percent of those holding tickets for FBS games in 2017 ever made it through the turnstiles.
In fact, the money pouring into the sport may have triggered a backlash. Some of the income derived from billions in TV payouts has gone to support non-revenue-producing sports—from field hockey to track and field. Yet, that money also seems to have ignited an orgy of spending on new and upgraded football facilities and super-sized coaching salaries. With such expenditures now at levels too extravagant to be sustained by TV royalties alone, major programs seem more dependent than ever on bigger donations, not only from traditional high-dollar private benefactors but also from less affluent ticketholders as well.
Getting season tickets has long required ponying up, not simply for the face price, but for an additional “donation,” which assures you the privilege of making the purchase. These buy-ins can vary dramatically from year to year and school to school, but in 2018, first-time season-ticket purchasers at the University of Georgia were expected to show nearly $24,000 worth of “school spirit” on the front end before spending a minimum of $275 each for some of the worst seats in Sanford Stadium. These fans may be able to improve their views of the game at some point, so long as they maintain the appropriate level of annual “giving” as well.
The effective costs for donor-buyers under this arrangement began to bite a bit harder after 2018 when Congress finally blew the whistle on the egregious scam of allowing up to 80 percent of the amount of these coerced contributions to be written off as charitable donations. As a result, more fans are opting to discontinue their purchases of standard season-ticket packages—and thereby their donations as well—in favor of a cafeteria-style, pick-and-choose strategy through secondary ticket distributors like Stub Hub.
Consider the University of Texas, where, last year, season tickets for midfield seats would cost a fan $550 each, plus $3,500 in additional support. At current price projections, by availing himself of Stub Hub, the same Texas fan could get decent seats at all four of the Longhorns’ most attractive home games in 2020—against West Virginia, Baylor, Iowa State, and TCU—for a total of roughly $700. The savings from using Stubhub would leave more than enough to acquire an enormous state-of-the-art HDTV for watching the remaining Texas games (and many others besides) from the climate-controlled, beer-enhanced comfort of your man-cave.
Ironically, that is precisely what the people who are really calling the shots in college football these days—this is to say, television executives—would prefer that fans do. With their respective corporations shelling out so much for the rights to broadcast games, these executives understand full well that their bottom line is best-served by enticing college football fans to keep their gaze fixed on their flatscreens, and spurn the stadium for the sofa.
Having outbid CBS for the broadcast rights to Southeastern Conference football games, ESPN will soon be showering $63 million in annual TV revenue on every SEC school, thereby making relative pikers of those Big Ten Yankees currently scraping by on $52 million per member university. It’s a fair surmisal, then, that viewership totals weigh more urgently on the minds of network officials than do the comfort and convenience of fans who still like to consume their college football in person.
Accordingly, the balance of responsiveness is shifting further away from the concerns of fans who turn games into communal festivals, rich in customs from tailgating beforehand to belting out the fight song afterward. ESPN/ABC’s telecasts already account for 54 percent of the college football viewing audience, and its acquisition of the phenomenally popular SEC package stands to make it an even greater factor in the lives of fans who prefer being part of the scene to taking it in from afar. A single network conglomerate holding sway over so many games means its execs will be juggling kickoff times even more frantically, hoping to plug the most attractive matchups into the most desirable time slots without pitting them against each other. As a result, more fans, especially those who live at some distance from campus, will be forced to weigh their enthusiasm for actually being there against the inconvenience of leaving so early for noon games or getting back so late after those played at night.
Because all that network money has to come from somewhere, we can anticipate more and longer commercials in games that already subject fans’ patience, bladders, and backsides to what amounts to a four-hour stress test. Those who head from the stadium to the local motel instead of fighting traffic and fatigue on the long drive home are almost certainly looking at two-night minimums on rooms at grossly inflated rates. Throw in gas, food, and tickets for a family of four, and your credit card tally will scream of a weekend in Paris, not Clemson.
In reality, it’s not alums but students who have become college football’s most visible no-shows. Some of this has to do with the attractiveness of watching games on high-res TVs in close proximity to kegs and coolers at the frat houses, but there’s another technological troublemaker afoot. Slavish addiction to cyber-fixes has led to sustained whining about poor cell coverage inside stadiums, prompting massive investments in more bandwidth for young people who don’t find the spectacle of live college football sufficiently captivating.
The ineffectiveness of such efforts to date has so frustrated college football’s most famous coach, Nick Saban of the University of Alabama, that he resorted to using location-tracking technology and a rewards system to discourage students from leaving games too soon or arriving too late.
Some slippage in student attendance may be attributable to a larger problem: the sharp downturn in legislative funding for public higher education. That downturn has forced America’s cash-strapped public universities to recruit large numbers of out-of-state students. Representing a reported 59 percent of Alabama’s student body in 2018, out-of-staters may skip games in Tuscaloosa because they want to watch their real “home team,” which is playing elsewhere, on TV.
Failing to fill steeply discounted seats with students may not seem like a problem at this point if others are willing to pay full price (and more) for the privilege of occupying the same spots. But growing student disinterest in attending games has ominous implications for the future of the college football enterprise. In the years to come, alumni who couldn’t be induced to enter the stadium as students will be far less likely to be on board with the annual football ticket shakedown cruise than their elders have been.
Slumping alumni turnout stands to have indirect but unwelcome consequences for universities in their classrooms and laboratories as well. Development officers charged with bringing in private contributions to support academic programs rely heavily on home football games as propitious occasions for rounding up well-heeled old grads for a weekend of nostalgia-tripping pursuant to a flurry of check-writing.
Needless to say, over time, declining attendance within this demographic could end up depriving colleges of much-needed academic support. This support is so precious because, contrary to what some university administrators maintain, there is ample evidence that contributions for athletics come at the expense of those for academics.
This is the story behind the uber-competitiveness between today’s college football programs. The contest is about more than on-field results; universities compete over the price tags for football construction projects, the luxuriousness of locker rooms, the exorbitance of coaches’ salaries, and the vastness of stadium video boards.
In today’s winner-take-all culture, programs aspiring to no more than a reasonably improved record, topped off with a solid trouncing of the old archrival, are mocked as “losers,” not so much for a lack of achievement as for a want of ambition. The year-long obsession with making it into the hyper-hyped college football playoffs also means that once any self-respecting major college team has incurred two regular-season losses, its year is effectively “over,” and once-prestigious bids to major post-season bowls now seem little more than consolation prizes. Disappointed fans have shown so little interest in these contests of late that tickets can be had for a mere fraction of face value. And, judging from an average 35 percent decline in the viewership of the recent Sugar, Cotton, and Orange Bowls, many of them can’t even be bothered to take them in on the tube
Perhaps the most sobering indication of college football’s spiritual unraveling is that many players themselves no longer consider playing in bowl games worth the effort—or risk. Starting with LED scrolls flashing the staggering salaries of their former players now in the pros, coaches now sell recruits, not a diploma but an autobahn ride to quick riches in the NFL. It should hardly be surprising, then, if their standout upperclassmen announce that they will not be jeopardizing their own prospects for pulling down NFL paychecks by risking an injury in a meaningless bowl game. So it is no mere slip of the tongue when high school stars these days proclaim their excitement about spending the “next three years” at the school of their choice, for they mean to do precisely that and no more. They see themselves in an NFL uniform by the time what would be their senior collegiate season rolls around.
Patience does not come easily to players, many of whom have sorely disadvantaged families looking to them for relief. So few feel able to wait their turn while learning from the more experienced teammates playing ahead of them, and fewer still stick around to earn their degree. The recent relaxation of NCAA rules governing transfers has introduced a form of free agency in college football whereby players who have the requisite years of eligibility remaining can shop themselves around to teams who can promise the increased playing time necessary to win the attention of pro scouts.
There’s an argument to make that abandoning the enduring pretense of amateurism altogether simply would acknowledge the reality of college football as a business as well as a sport. Yet there is good reason to fear that football’s increasing importance as the former may be hastening its demise as the latter. Mounting indignation over the flagrant economic exploitation of uncompensated athletes subjecting themselves to the risk of serious physical harm on every snap is not just wholly warranted but long overdue. Such exploitation is endemic, of course, to the sinister contagion of unadulterated commercialism now enveloping college football at every level. Left unchecked, it promises to make exiles of the students, alumni, and loyal fans in general who long saw games, not simply as athletic contests, but the centerpiece of a deeply personal, culturally affirming ritual.
It seems unlikely that the extraordinarily rich streams of revenue currently disgorged by the college football cash cow will begin to dry up in the short run. But the future of college football is not foretold solely in exuberant projections of forthcoming profits, but in the ever-tightening camera angles required to spare millions of TV viewers the visually jarring impact of steadily encroaching swaths of empty seats within the stadiums themselves.