MORE CONSEQUENCES OF THE CORONA VIRUS
This could be subtitled “How the Corona Virus Completely Shifted the Landscape of College Athletics.” And if you had a subtitle to the subtitle, it would read, “It’s All About the Money and Football.”
In his very timely piece about how the College Football Playoff landscape seems destined to change because an expanded playoff can help make up the lost revenue, Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports can foresee an 8-team playoff as soon as the 2022 season with the possibility of further expansion to 16 teams. Thamel writes, “The 2020 season – whatever that looks like – is certainly not going to be the place where we see a different postseason format. Those familiar with the system say that putting changes in place for the 2021 season would be virtually impossible.”
Thamel backs this up by a poll by WatchStadium.com that showed 88 percent of athletic directors are in favor of expanding the playoff. The current playoff generates $470 million with each of the Power Five leagues receiving something around $70 million each, which distributes at $5.5 million. The Group of Five conferences get some crumbs and for all practical purposes, they’re frozen out of the current playoff.
Expand to eight teams and it would be impossible to keep at least one Group of Five teams out of the playoff. Try expanding without giving the Group of Five teams their seat at the table and watch how quickly Congress gets involved to bust up the playoff. Another outcome of an eight-team playoff would be the guarantee that all five power conference champs would get their champion in. The Pac-12 would be all for expansion since only two of its teams have made the playoff since its inception.
Estimates for the revenue produced by the eight-team playoff would be in the neighborhood of $850 million, and that’s considered a low-end estimate. How the money is divided will be a serious debate because not only will the best team from the Group of Five command one of the eight quarterfinal berths, but the Group of Five as a whole will demand – and get – a lot more money than they’re currently getting.
Could the eight-team format be bypassed for 12 or even 16 teams? One Power Five athletic director speaking to Thamel said, “I think we should do 16. If not, at least 12. That’s what everyone wants. That’s where the value is. Athletes want it, fans want it and TV wants it.”
That same AD went on to ask the question, “Has a [healthy] player sat out of a playoff game yet? Well, why don’t we play more of those.”
More playoff games also mean the Group of Five could demand a second seat at the playoff table. It’s something that will have to be considered, but whether it’s an eight- or 12-team format or all the way to 16, it’s going to mean more money. At time when a global pandemic is threatening the foundation of the current economic model of college sports of which football pays the freight, something has to change. There will be some bickering, yes, and the Power Five schools will claim – perhaps rightly so – that the UCFs and Boise States of the world stand a snowball’s chance in hell of winning a national championship, but expanded playoffs will provide the carriage and glass slippers that currently don’t exist for a college football Cinderella.
There will still be bowl games because while a trip to Shreveport might not send chills down the spine of SEC teams or SEC fans, folks in the Sun Belt or Conference USA or some league with a lot of directional schools will find opportunity to play the slots at any one of the dozen or so casinos in North Lousiana’s answer to Las Vegas rather appealing. ESPN is very aware that the Belk Bowl had better TV ratings than all but one college basketball game last season so it wants bowl games to continue. Therefore the 7-5 teams will still get their extra 15 days of practice and a trip to some “exotic” locale like Shreveport.
One last comment about the Thamel piece. When the playoffs expand, the athletic directors favor first round matchups on campus. That will be a real selling point since expanded playoffs will mean more out of pocket expenses for fans traveling to see their team play and a home playoff game would be a real boon for local economies of hosting schools.
THE PERFECT TIME TO SHRINK DIVISION I
When college football cranks up again, whether that’s the fall or February, it’s almost certainly going to be a 10-game schedule. It has to be 10 for a couple of good reasons.
The Big Ten (Plus Four), Big 12 (Minus Two) and Pac-12 all play nine-game conference schedules. The SEC and ACC both play eight conference games. There are four cross-conference rivalry games in the SEC that have to be accommodated: Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech, South Carolina- Clemson and Kentucky-Louisville.
Then there is Notre Dame, which is not a member of a conference but has standing rivalries with Southern Cal and Stanford from the Pac-12 and Navy from the American plus plays give ACC teams per year and one or two from the Big Ten. Southern Cal and Stanford aren’t going to drop that game that would be their 10th. Notre Dame would still have to drop two games on its schedule, but Notre Dame, Stanford and Navy won’t be part of them.
Everywhere in Division I, schedules will have to be altered. Florida would certainly drop its opener with D1AA Eastern Washington and would likely axe South Alabama, leaving New Mexico State (November 12) and FSU as the non-conference teams on the schedule. Although South Alabama is probably a much better game than New Mexico State, South Alabama also has to drop two games. Since Southern Miss is a bus trip game and UAB comes to Mobile to play in USA’s brand new on-campus stadium, Florida and Grambling are the likely teams axed.
The schools that will be hurt the most are the ones that need these will take a beating for a paycheck games the most, but all this will do is re-emphasize that Division I is bloated and needs to shrink. What better time to do it than following a 10-game 2020 season?
There are currently 130 teams in Division I. A reduction of 30 teams would not only strengthen Division I but would make Division IAA stronger as well. That is not taking into account the possibility that quite a few of the bottom feeders in Division I will even have a football program moving forward.
I have long contended that eight 12-team leagues would be the ideal setup for Division I, but with three 14-team leagues (SEC, ACC and Big Ten Plus Four) that eliminates the 12-team concept. The teams in the Big Ten Plus Four and SEC rake in very large end of year checks thanks to the success of their networks so try convincing two teams from each of those leagues that it would be in their best interests to find a new conference to play in.
It has been suggested that the current 65 Power Five teams stick together, but watch the lawsuits fly and count the hours until someone in Congress starts calling committee hearings with the intention of inclusion or else if it’s just the teams from the five most prosperous conferences and Notre Dame in their own division. The Mountain West and American would need to be in. Army would need to join the American to make that a 12-team league. The Big 12 Minus Two would need to expand. Whereas Notre Dame is a good fit in the Big Ten Plus Four, no one in that league is going to volunteer to leave so that the Fighting Irish can join. And, ND already plays five ACC teams yearly but there are 14 ACC teams already. So, Notre Dame to the Big 12 Minus Two and BYU also to make it a real Big 12. Imagine the religious rivalries. The Mormons (BYU), Catholics (ND) and Baptists (Baylor) all in the same league with whatever denomination TCU (Texas Christian University) is.
You would still have room for one more 12-team league and that could be made up of the best from Conference USA, MAC and Sun Belt. Everybody else would have to go to D1AA.
REALIGNMENT NEEDS TO HAPPEN, BUT IT WON’T
Adding Texas A&M made sense when the SEC expanded since it put the league in the homes of a state with 27,000,000 residents. Adding Missouri might have made sense from the standpoint of putting the SEC footprint solidly in the Midwest, but putting Mizzou in the SEC East has never and will never make sense, not when the closest schools are Vandy and Kentucky, both more than six hours of non-stop driving at 70-plus miles an hour away.
Now that Missouri has grown comfortable with its big SEC paycheck (nearly $46,000,000 last year), there is no interest in changing leagues in Columbia even if Mizzou makes far more sense in the Big 12 Minus Two.
Nebraska makes more sense in the Big 12 Minus Two than it does in the Big Ten Plus Four, but the $51,000,000 check that it earns from being in the same league with Ohio State and Michigan trumps going back to the old league where Nebraska always felt like a country cousin to Texas and Oklahoma.
West Virginia makes more sense as an ACC school but it makes more money in the Big 12 Minus Two (about $8,000,000 more) than it would in the ACC.
One league that definitely needs to realign is the American where, other than South Florida an hour or so down I-4, UCF’s next closest opponent is ECU, some 643 miles away. Temple and Houston are 1,547 miles away. The league logistics are terrible but what should UCF and USF do? As much as a league that would include Florida Atlantic and Florida International might make sense from a standpoint of fan appeal for travel, FAU and FIU are light years away in terms of competitive potential. Cincinnati and Memphis begged the Big 12 Minus Two to join and were turned down, just as UCF and USF made their big pitches without success.
Essentially, the American has horrible logistics but until someone comes up with a better idea, it’s the league they’re stuck with.
Realigning would be the smart thing to do for several conferences, but unless paychecks from networks shrink substantially, we’re not going to see much shifting except when Division I elects to shrink by 30 or so teams.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE MONEY AND FOOTBALL
Football is the engine that drives college athletics and the money potential of expanded playoffs will force an expanded playoff while offering a lifeline to some but not all of the Group of Five schools. A consequence of an expanded playoff could mean a permanent 10- or 11-game schedule to accommodate the extra weeks of the playoff. It’s going to mean the end of paycheck games for Division IAA which could result in the NCAA allowing a real spring game so the Division I teams can bring in a D1AA team instead of some glorified scrimmage.
Since 1990 we’ve gone from the Bowl Alliance to the BCS to the four-team playoff. In each case, money was the driving factor just as it’s going to be once again. The idea of an expanded playoff system will initially be about replacing the lost revenues from sports cut short by the corona virus, but in the long haul it will be about being able to continue to fund all those non-revenue sports. Except in occasional instances – like Duke, Kansas and Kentucky basketball – football income dwarfs what is made in basketball and any other sports. Without football, the other sports don’t exist.
So it will change. It will expand, sooner and not later, and as always it will be about the money and football. You can’t have one without the other.