In 1984, in the case NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, the Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA’s practice of limiting the television exposure of college football was a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act.
For all practical purposes, that was the beginning of the end of college football as we once knew it – a game rich in tradition, played on Saturday afternoons in autumn, in a blessed rhythm of the season.
The NCAA is, and almost always has been, a paragon of hypocrisy. Yet, there was a time when the organization almost believed what it was talking about. There was a time when Walter Byers pretended to serve the best interest of “student-athletes.”
Those halcyon days ended when college football television rights were put in the hands of college presidents and athletic directors. The game became the most lucrative “amateur” sport, when fixed for inflation, since the Romans turned slaves into gladiators and marched them into the Colosseum to kill one another.
The networks provided the weapons and sold the ads.
In the 1990s, Notre Dame broke away from the College Football Association, an early negotiating arm for a consortium of conferences, to negotiate its own deal with NBC. Then, the SEC followed suit with ABC. Soon after, the CFA was disbanded because, essentially, college presidents and athletic directors don't want their hands tied when it comes to making money on "student-athletes."
Granted, I’m dancing through a lot of history here, but the gist of it all is this: college football is not about tradition anymore; it’s a TV show.
Conference realignments − aren't they grand? − continue apace (because TV money); UCLA and USC are jumping to the Big Ten in 2024 and Texas and Oklahoma are jumping to the SEC in 2025 (because TV money); UCLA-Cal will go the way of Oklahoma-Oklahoma State and Oklahoma-Nebraska (because TV money).
Remember when Friday night was for high schools, Saturday afternoon was for colleges, Sunday was for the NFL and Thursday was for waiting for Friday? For 100 years it was thus. It was tradition. Remember?
Ohio State-Michigan, the paragon of rivalries, will remain pure, right? Well . . . There were so many years when a Rose Bowl bid, the ultimate prize before the four-team playoff came along, was on the line in The Game. That went away when the four-team playoff system came along. The new 12-team playoff system, which will kick in with around $2 billion in annual television revenue by 2026, will stich in another alteration.
OK. But even if The Game will never again be the “Game of the Century” as it was in 2006, when No. 1 Ohio State’s victory over No. 2 Michigan gave the Buckeyes a Big Ten title and put them in the mix for a national championship, there will still be Games like last year, when Michigan ended an eight-year drought and killed Ohio State’s chance at a conference title and a berth in the playoffs, right?
Well . . . When the new age of the 12-team playoff dawns, The Game will still be an all-time great rivalry, but its implications will have to do with playoff seeding and a first-round bye. It’ll be the Game of the Week. And it won’t be played at noon, it'll kick off at 9, because that’s what the network wants.
I've been for expanding the playoff system, mostly because it was inevitable (because TV money). As power has concentrated in the SEC and Big Ten (because TV money), widening the playoff field takes a lot of meaningless bowl-season games into a different stratum, brings more conferences into the postseason picture, generates interest among more fans and can help reverse the trend of declining attendance across the board. Who doesn’t like playoff races?
Yet, I would submit, it won’t change the balance of power.
According to USA Today, the 30 most lavish athletic departments have operating expenses of more than $100 million (led by Ohio State). Of those 30 departments, the SEC and Big Ten dominate (11 schools) followed by the ACC (four), the Big 12 (with two – Texas and Oklahoma, which will be jumping to the SEC) and the Pac-12 (two, Arizona and UCLA, which will be jumping to the Big Ten).
An expanded playoff system will remain rigged for the Super Two conferences because they have more money, and it has nothing to do with NIL. Indeed, the playoffs will become so lucrative that, at some point, players will have to be paid a salary. And justly so.
And then what you’ll have is a minor-professional system, played Thursdays through the weekend, and maybe on Tuesdays, with relative few contenders who will have to play a 16- or 17-game schedule to get to the title game (because TV money).
That’s an inferior version of the NFL, but without the tradition.
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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: College football, once rich with tradition, is just another TV show