No Coming Back From This Summer of Change
College football prides its place as a venerable institution. The tradition and history of the game is prized by giants such as LSU and minnows like Bowling Green. Saturdays in fall in America are synonymous with college football. All the certainty and status of years before is now in flux. The game is contending with a tidal wave of change in 2021. The pandemic has shaken campuses and athletics programs to their core, and with the Delta variant roaring to life - especially in the south - football is not in the clear. Next came name, image and likeness (NIL) rights, after a landmark Supreme Court ruling, which bestowed an air of freedom and license to student athletes, thrusting them from amateurs to quasi-professional mode overnight. One member of the Supreme Court, himself no stranger to the spotlight - Justice Kavanaugh - could not resist putting the boot into the NCAA, the game’s much maligned governing body, for making money off student athletes for decades, despite purporting to protect them. Justice Kavanaugh said the NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America.
The latest earth shattering move involves Oklahoma and Texas, two blue bloods of the game, who have opted out of the Big 12 conference to join college football’s most lucrative and competitive conference, the SEC. Money and tradition are staring each other down and it's clear which side is winning. I’ll begin by looking at conference realignment and exploring what all this change will mean for college football.
Conference Realignment - The Lure of the SEC
The gun was fired when reports emerged that Oklahoma and Texas wanted to join the SouthEastern Conference (SEC). A perennial winner of the Big 12, Oklahoma has produced explosive offenses over the past five seasons that featured back to back NFL number one draft quarterbacks. They are regular attendees at the playoffs but have yet to reach the championship game. On paper at least, with a defense rising under coordinator Alex Grinch, they have a chance for a tilt at a national championship this season and beyond. Joining the SEC presents them with an opportunity to play stronger competition during the season, while in turn being battle hardened in time for the playoffs. Oklahoma stands to gain from the competition on the field, as well as financially.
Texas A&M, which moved to the SEC in 2012, was not happy with these developments and has the most at stake with the possible addition of Texas. The news was broken by a Houston Chronicle reporter in the Aggies' market right before SEC media days appearances by Aggies head coach Jimbo Fisher and athletic director Ross Bjork. The Aggies need a program of the financial clout of Texas in their conference like a hole in the head. So they leaked the story. No longer being the sole Texas team in the SEC really hurts. The SEC voted unanimously to extend membership invitations to Oklahoma and Texas to join the SEC effective July 1, 2025, with competition to begin in all sports for the 2025-26 academic year. The move enabled the SEC, already the gold standard, to become college football’s super conference. 2025 is the official date but it is hard not to see lawyers from Texas and Oklahoma trying to speed up the process. Understandably, emotions have run very high in the Big 12. Losing Oklahoma and Texas is a body blow.. Conference realignment is only marginally tied to on-field performance. As the excellent Stewart Mandel in the Athletic writes, television value — nearly all of which comes from football — is the overwhelming factor when leagues consider adding new schools.
With Texas and Oklahoma defecting to the SEC, the Big 12’s remaining 8 college programs may be in for a torrid time as they consider their options. The Big 12 reported $253 million in annual television revenue on its 2019-20 tax return, most of that from a pair of 13-year contracts it signed with ESPN and Fox in 2012. 50% of those deals’ value was derived solely because of Texas and Oklahoma. Rumors are rife that the remaining Big 12 will latch onto another conference, safe in the knowledge that their own conference is dead. They’re in an unenviable position.
As the premier conference, the SEC is not short of television and streaming suitors. In December, the conference moved the ‘Game of the Week’ package from CBS, its longtime home, to ESPN/ABC for approximately $300 million annually.
The Student Athlete
A double whammy of NCAA rules changes and new state laws that went into effect on July 1 have provided athletes with varying degrees of new protections and opportunities to make money by selling their name, image and likeness (NIL) rights. Questions abound about the major shift in amateurism rules. College football has historically been marred by issues with boosters and players taking incentives and falling foul of the NCAA. Now the floodgates have opened. A barbecue restaurant in Arkansas sponsored the teams’ offensive line. In Miami, a gym owner offered to pay every athlete on the Miami Hurricanes roster $500 per month to promote his chain of gyms on social media.
The move has allowed student athletes to strike deals all over the country. High profile quarterbacks and social media stars have been the first to capitalize.
Alabama’s young quarterback Bryce Young has reportedly earned up to $1 million in endorsements before even throwing a pass as a starter. In a more alarming case, a high schooler in Texas - Quinn Ewers - has opted out of his final year of high school to join up with Ohio State and further his development without being redshirted.
The Supreme Court ruled against the NCAA issuing an opinion that dealt a significant blow to the organization's argument that it should receive special antitrust treatment because of its academic mission. The justice's ruling made it clear that NCAA restrictions - including on NIL activity - could face serious legal challenges in the future.
Cashing In On Tradition, Staying Alive
In my article from November 2020, I argued college football faced a reckoning with its players, the NCAA, and the long-term validity of professional amateur status. The model was redundant. Players were getting organized and represented.
A debate is raging between those who argue an arms race with money to the fore is debasing the inherent tradition of the game, and others who insist that this is where college football should be: embracing professionalism and free market principles, whilst satisfying the enormous alumni appeal and keeping live stream companies and major TV networks sweet. If there is a reckoning coming, the stark disparity between the top fifteen teams and the welfare of the rest. The smaller colleges are already reeling from the hit their revenues took during COVID when games against big name non-conference teams were scrapped. Those revenues are the lifeblood of smaller colleges. Without them, athletics programs will fold.
Another seismic change this summer has seen the college football playoffs proposed extension from four teams to twelve. If it opens up the upper echelons of college football to extend beyond the dominance of Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State, it’s likely to be a positive move.
Change is coursing through every conference in the land. Everyone is on notice. Times are tense in college football. One summer has already reshaped the existing order. Expect the unexpected this season.