Updated: May 22, 2020
So who’s minding the store? Let’s be honest, the NCAA is toothless and the Power Five conferences call the shots. Who's got a better idea?
BY BUDDY MARTIN
GATORBAIT EDITOR AND COLUMNIST
Now that we are pretty sure there will be students on a campus most places this fall, it looks increasingly like there is going to be a college football season. On Wednesday the NCAA Division Council voted to allow football and basketball athletes to resume “voluntary” on-campus workouts beginning on June 1. Every day we get another sign that football is about to be a reality.
There is more than a good chance teams will get back to the field. We’ve all been hoping and praying for that to happen, without jeopardizing the health and welfare of many others. Of this I am certain, however. We need college football. Our economy would take a huge financial hit without it and so would our mental health. ESPN reported this week that the 65 power five schools would lose more than $4 billion if there was no football season, including almost $19M in football ticket sales.
I have no earthly idea about how this season will look or how it will be played out, but hey, we’ll take it. It would be asinine to suggest that I, or anybody, has the answers.
Meanwhile, college football needs a makeover. Why not now? It’s big business and it’s time to stop treating it like a lemonade stand.
I’m fairly optimistic. Gator fans were heartened midweek when this report came out that President Kent Fuchs was optimistic about UF’s “ability to safely host students on campus for the fall semester, with adequate measures in place to ensure that.”
I like to think this Pandemic has afforded the CFB brain trusts ample time and opportunity to noodle out some new ideas and options. First keep people safe, but aside from Covid-19 what about the overall health of the sport?
More than ever, money is going to be scarce. This calls for a new day and a new way. Let’s not kid ourselves about the problems that were already here before the Pandemic—shrinking attendance, lack of leadership and vision, an archaic playoff system and poor governance by a makeshift organization.
While cash-rich schools like Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Florida would survive because they have built up big reserves, some programs at smaller schools—even the schools themselves—will shut down.
Oddly, in a game where the bigger schools were wallowing in money, presidents and ADs were already squeezing the lemon for more. Six SEC schools started selling alcohol. Successful programs like Alabama are tracking students to find out why they are staying away from attending games on Saturday. Concession prices have been lowered at places like Clemson. Ticket prices at some of the biggest venues – like Ohio State – were not raised.
And stay tuned for a lot more to come once the reality of nearly 39 million Americans being unemployed begins to hit CFB in the pocketbooks.
However, I can’t help but to ask: Isn’t it time to stop putting a band-aid on a deep wound like it’s a paper cut?
So who’s minding the store? Let’s be honest, the NCAA is toothless and the Power Five conferences call the shots. Now is the time for leaders to emerge and protect this beautiful sport. And they are emerging.
Scott Stricklin’s leadership has been one of the bright spots in the SEC and Florida’s numbers were increasing before the Pandemic, as noted by Robbie Andreu of the Gainesville Sun in January:
"They showed up — giving UF its first increase in home attendance since 2015.
They showed out — creating a loud and electric atmosphere that helped the Gators go 6-0 at home, including a defining victory over then-No. 7 Auburn that propelled UF into the Top 10.
The Auburn game was a sellout, with 90,584 filling The Swamp to capacity. That crowd helped play a role in the school experiencing an increase in home attendance for the first season in three years.
The Gators averaged 84,684 fans per game, an increase of 3% from 2018, when the average attendance was 82,328. Florida Field was at 95.6% capacity for the 2019 season."
That’s the good news. What’s the bad? Wait for it … because it’s coming. So get ready.
College football’s void in leadership at the management level has produced an obsolete way of thinking, powered by greed and stupidity. And the financial reality is that there’s not going to be enough money for 130 teams to field major college football programs.
Some painful decisions need to be made about preening the FBS field in order for CFB to display its product on the best platform that will produce the most revenue. With stadiums perhaps empty, the revenue stream that matters most -- as the NFL has discovered – is television. And especially with only a smattering of fans socially distanced by space in these huge college arenas. Or worse yet, empty.
We all hate to admit it, but settling for canned crowd noise may be the best we’ve got.
Athletic Directors, their constituents and conferences need to start becoming pro-active. And yes, you can plan for the unknown and yet unrealized.
Think hurricane season. Projections are for a worse-than-usual season. The storms they are a-comin’. Down here in Florida we start designing a protocol and hopping into supply line for batteries, water, lanterns, generators and food stuffs every summer in anticipation of some violent weather. This year I may buy a generator for the first time ever and I’ve lived in Florida all my life – maybe with the next stimulus check.
There is simply no excuse why a better plan can’t be designed for this wonderful sport which is embraced by nearly 48 million fans with about 170 million TV viewers. With more fans doing social distancing and opting for experiencing game-day without stadium seats, tailgating spots in places like Baton Rouge, Tuscaloosa, Athens, etc. are at a premium. So you can probably add a few hundreds of thousands more TV sets to that number. I once attended an LSU-Florida game that had 80,000 tailgating outside Tiger Stadium.
There won’t be those average crowds of over 100,000 at Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State, Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU anymore – nor will there be more than 80,000 at Steve Spurrier-Florida Field. And by the way, with overall attendance already down and many fans opting out of buying overpriced tickets in favor of a stay-at-home experience, some schools shrinkage in stadium size was already an agenda visited.
It’s all about the armchair fan now anyway, so feed the monster. Give them better games, more post-season and enhanced broadcasts. Ratings will go up and ad revenue can help offset the loss of ticket sales. Time to face reality and make a change—not in the near future—now.
For over 30 years I’ve been drum-beating for modifying the system – and I don’t mean just the playoffs. I’m no Rhodes Scholar, but even I figured this out a long time ago. As we were reminded by Michael Jordan’s "The Last Dance" series, TV is King Kong; college football is an extraordinarily valuable television product and must be marketed as such, now more than ever before.
This needs an emergency makeover, not in 3-5 years, but NOW! Here’s an idea: The Power Five Conferences can ditch the FBS in favor of forming a National College Football Super Conference.
Sorry, not everyone can be invited. This is not NCAA football welfare. Only about 50 of those 130 FBS schools can make the cut. (And if you were ever wondering, “FBS” stands for College Football Subdivision. Subdivision?)
We need better games on TV. Essentially, we need a Cupcake-Free Zone, and we should severely penalize teams that play directional schools or other sacrificial/cannon fodder lambs. Power Five on Power 5. Only a 10-game schedule plus conference championships, followed by the playoffs.
Conferences could be restructured with regard to geographical proximity. A few radical thoughts: How about Missouri and Texas A&M going to the Big 12? The SEC can pick up Georgia Tech again and maybe Clemson. Perhaps even Florida State. You get the idea. Other conferences can follow suit.
The FBC needs to become the new Division II, with its own playoffs and bowl lineup, with more weeknight games on TV. There’s money to be made there and the FBC could own a huge chunk of the early bowl games – and maybe even in the spring.
I hear you critics saying: Those smaller schools need that money from playing against Power Five schools to support their whole athletic program. Fine. Throw in the added incentive of monetizing spring games. This is not football welfare. You want an idea on how to make them some money? Schedule an FBS-FBC spring game and charge $10 more a ticket. It’ll even get on ESPN or Fox if you make it more like a real game.
And now for the playoffs: Let me dust off my old hymnal book and sing a song I wrote more than 30 years ago when I first proposed Buddy’s Plan: 80 teams, eight finalists. (Or pick your own set of numbers). Which more than doubles the number of post-game payoffs and offsets some of the deficits.
There’s not time or room here to break down the entire playoff system, but eight teams means four more games with premium TV packages and under the new TV contracts that could mean huge dollars. The simple math should be sobering enough to the College Football Playoff Committee and ADs looking for cash in these trying times. How about another $15-20M for each of the conferences?
People are waking up to the fact that the new normal is going to be football games played in empty stadiums – at least for a while. However, as Kansas State AD Gene Taylor said this week, most programs have enough money to stay afloat until 2021, at which time we’ll all be on the same team rooting for an effective vaccine.
The time is now. Please college football, start setting the agenda.
Meanwhile, keep this in mind (as I’ve written here before): During a deadly bubonic plague that killed 100,000 in 1666, Isaac Newton dropped out of school in Cambridge and moved to a farm just north of London to begin his work that led him to becoming the co-founder of Calculus. Surely during these trying times college football leaders can begin developing a new path to a better way.