Should we worry about the future of college football?
That’s not a question that was on my mind. When I look at college football, I see a sport that, for all its flaws, is flourishing. It’s wildly entertaining. It does well financially, even if we question the way some of those dollars are allocated. And for all of our concerns about the way it chooses its champion(s), college football remains on an evolutionary quest to get it right.
And yet, my TMG colleague Tony Barnhart raised the should-we-worry question last week in such a thought-provoking way that I would like to add my two cents. Or two bits. Or two bitcoins.
First, I do not worry about anything involving sports, except maybe when I am playing a long par-3 over water. I worry about cancer, traffic, weather and the future of the Republic.
But that’s semantics. Should we be concerned about where college football is headed?
Let’s take a look at the questions Tony raised. They are good ones.
ATTENDANCE IN DECLINE: This does not surprise me. There are many reasons for it: Hefty ticket prices. Although that doesn’t seem to bother people who chose occupations more lucrative than journalism. Which isn’t hard to do.
Ever-changing kickoff times are a factor, I believe. If it’s an 11 a.m. game, maybe you want a Friday night room. A 2:30 game? A Saturday night room. Try doing that at Penn State or LSU on short notice, when kickoffs are announced a week before the game.
I received a survey from my alma mater, Wisconsin, that asked what kickoff time I preferred? 11 a.m., 2:30 p.m. or night games?
I wanted to write in 1 p.m. Remember those?
And face it, as Baby Boomers age, the appeal of tailgating declines. And Baby Boomers move the needle.
Here’s another big one: The HD TV experience. My friends get mad at me when I say, ``If you really want to see a game, it’s better seen on TV.’’ Of course, you lose the atmosphere—the thrills and camaraderie, the emotion. I am not saying it’s better to stay home. Because there is nothing like the gameday experience in spectator sports.
But the TV is a way better alternative than it was back in the day.
And the food and beverage (not to mention plumbing) can be awfully good at home.
That said, people want to be there. If attendance dips a bit, I don’t think that’s a huge cause for concern. Teams that win will sell tickets.
Here’s a problem: I don’t think it’s a big deal if Michigan, for example, only sells 105,000 of its 110,000 tickets. But if they budget for 110,000 tickets sold—and they do—that’s a whole different question.
STUDENT ATTENDANCE: Call me a cynic, but I wonder if schools wouldn’t mind selling more tickets to fans and alumni at higher prices. Of course, you want students—who are after all, future alumni—to start drinking the Kool-Aid when they are students.
But again, I don’t think a little attendance slip is a big deal.
PLAYERS LEAVING EARLY: Obviously, this is disruptive from a competitive standpoint. But other sports have undergone dramatic personnel changes and thrived.
College basketball has its one-and-done. Old-timers will remember when baseball’s reserve clause guaranteed that teams kept their players.
If players want to skip their senior seasons (or their bowl games), it is understandable. For all the rah-rah stuff, college football is big business for schools and coaches. Why should players be pawns?
THE TRANSFER PORTAL: I have no problem with this. It actually could be beneficial, by allowing schools to fill personnel holes while giving players more freedom of choice.
Yes, there will be problems for schools that might have to fill gaps when players depart. But that’s the history of sports. Players gain mobility; teams find new ways to adapt by bringing in players creatively: Free agents in pro sports. Jucos in college sports. And the transfer portal also make it easier to fill needs.
This isn’t really a new thing. When I was at Wisconsin in the early 70s, I remember one January when the Badgers hockey goalie went down with an injury.
What did coach Bob Johnson do? Got on a plane to Ontario, came back with a goalie and got him enrolled for the second semester.
FANS ARE TRAVELING LESS: See the above about declining attendance.
Another factor is what I call NASCAR Syndrome. I covered open-wheel racing back in the day of The Split. when rival Indy-car leagues divided their audience, and NASCAR zoomed to the top in popularity.
The NASCAR growth was so phenomenal that it couldn’t go on forever. Even when stock-car racing inevitably slipped in attendance and ratings, it still had awfully good numbers.
There’s an element of that in college football.
THE COURTS: Again, legal challenges will cause moments of upheaval and require adjustment. But this is an evolutionary price of progress.
Colleges have done a great job of keeping a lid on player compensation. I am not sure where that should go, or where it will go. But in every sport, players have gained more rights—and I believe that is inevitable in college sports. A challenge, yes? A long-term detriment? No.
Old-timers will remember when baseball owners that letting players move around through free agency would ruin the sport. How did that work out?
AND FINALLY: Here’s how Tony wrapped up his essay: ``College football will continue to change. And all of us will have to change with it. But it’s going to be just fine.’’
I could not agree more. For all of college football’s troubles and uncertainties, it remains a terrific sport.
Let me say this: As a kid growing up in Chicago, I was a pro-sports guy. Especially the Bears. While I still enjoy pro sports when they are good, my main focus has shifted over the years to college football and basketball.
Here’s why: The college games are filled with emotion. Unlike pro sports, where talent is tough to beat, inspired efforts can carry the day at the college level. That means college sports are more unpredictable—and more entertaining.
Also, college teams have more ways to play the game. In the NFL, the playbooks don’t have nearly as much deviation.
Here’s another reason: Fewer games means more excitement. When you win or lose a college football game, you have moved forward or backward in a very real way. (That’s also more true in college basketball than in pro sports.)
And the big reason, of course, is that the vagaries of college football leave the door open for. . . lots of debating.
Does college football have problems? Yup.
Don’t we all?