While the masses clamored over Playoff ‘expansion,’ the real college football brokers continued the inevitable march toward ‘contraction’
In June, a spurt of headlines told college football fans that an expanded, 12-team Playoff was likely coming to college football. Finally, teams like UCF and others would have access to the college football postseason. While much of the media and fans (and university leaders) applauded this move to expand the postseason to allow more teams to participate, the real players in college football were working behind the scenes toward moves that would continue to contract the sport. Contraction is college football’s future, not expansion.
Back in the early 2010s when college football last had a round of conference realignment, the word expansion was used most commonly. The SEC expanded to include Texas A&M and Missouri, the Big Ten expanded to add Rutgers and Maryland, etc. But most fans fail to remember that this round of realignment, too, was about contraction. Prior to this period of realignment, we had essentially a “Power 6.” After this period, we were officially a Power 5, after the Big East imploded and the remnants turned into the AAC.
Make no mistake about it, the Texas and Oklahoma move to the SEC is the biggest move yet in modern college football and is absolutely a move of contraction. How? Isn’t the SEC expanding? Yes. But the Big 12 is doomed. Programs like Oklahoma State — good programs, but not necessarily elite brands — will get hit the hardest. While the strong conferences such as the SEC and the Big Ten remain strong, can attract the best brands and programs across the land, the rest of the college football world will devolve into a larger “Group of 5”-like state.
The consensus view is that the SEC is in excellent shape for the current environment and whatever the future brings. The fact that Oklahoma and Texas just jumped aboard will quiet any doubters there. But the Big Ten, too, is in excellent shape. In fact, the Big Ten again outdid the SEC in terms of revenue generated and distributed to each member school in 2020:
- Big Ten: $768.9 million
- SEC: $728.9 million
- Pac-12: $533.8 million
- ACC: $496.7 million
- Big 12: $409.2 million
Per School Distributions
- Big Ten: $54.3 million
- SEC: $45.5 million
- Big 12: $37 to $40.5 million
- Pac-12: $33.6 million
- ACC: $30.9 to $37 million
Whatever the future looks like, the Big Ten and the SEC are secure and ready. The question then becomes, what happens with the Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC?
The Big 12 is in a precarious position with its two most powerful brands exiting. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said that the remaining Big 12 members can expect to earn about $14 million less per school after Texas and Oklahoma are gone. That data point speaks to one thing: contraction.
There is talk about the Pac-12 and Big 12 merging or forming some sort of partnership. The Pac-12 is not in a great position, but more due to self-inflicted wounds. Bad leadership and strategic missteps have led the programs out west to a place of quasi-stability, but indeed a leg behind the Power 2 especially when considering revenue.
Regardless of how the Big 12 and Pac-12 work together or don’t, there’s not a clear answer for these conferences to regain a position in the college football world alongside the Big Ten and the SEC. How long until a program like Southern California says, “We’re out of here,” dealing the final blow to the so-called Conference of Champions?
The ACC is perhaps the most fascinating conference to watch in the years ahead. Desperate to catch up to conferences like the SEC, the ACC members swallowed hard in 2016 and agreed to lock up their TV rights with the conference through the 2035-2036 season in conjunction with the announcement of the forthcoming ACC Network and continued partnership with Notre Dame.
The winners in this deal were the small players in the ACC. They were able to lock themselves in the room with Clemson, Florida State and Notre Dame (kind of) and throw away the key. Who cares if the room was taking on water and on its way to the bottom of the ocean?
Since this deal was made, a number of key developments have occurred. First, TV and media have completely changed. The 5 years between the 2014 launch of the SEC Network and the 2019 launch of the ACC Network might represent the biggest shift in TV consumption in decades. While consumers shed their cable TV subscriptions and Netflix marched toward 200 million global subscribers, the ACC planned and launched a network built for the previous era of TV.
Next, Clemson became one of the most dominant programs in the country. While the Tigers reached the College Football Playoff 6 straight years (2015-2020) and won 2 national titles, the gap between them and much of the ACC widened.
Lastly, while the 20-year ACC lockup might give the perception of stability for now, we saw recently that bigger and bigger obstacles will be tackled as the premier brands and programs in college football move toward their true market value.
Because college football is not a single organization, but instead a collection of independent actors working in self-interest, economic forces will continue to enact change. Conferences and programs will slowly, consistently move toward their true market value. It’s why Texas and Oklahoma can wake up one day and ask themselves, “Why are we subsidizing the rest of the Big 12?” and seek better fortunes with Greg Sankey & Co.
If you think this is a one-off scenario, let’s consider a hypothetical situation. The estimates of future SEC revenue with Texas and Oklahoma in the fold are massive. One estimate says it could reach $1.3 billion annually in just a few short years. That comes out to over $80 million per school. If you’re Clemson in 2026 and you just received a check for $35 million from the ACC and you see Vanderbilt getting $80 million from its conference, do you think Clemson is going to be happy?
You might think that Clemson is content to sit in the ACC even with lower payouts since it maintains traditions and is an easier path to the Playoff. That’s what fans will think. That’s not what administrators and powerful boosters will think. As the gap widens between revenue for a program like Clemson and schools in other conferences, Clemson will view this as a major risk. If Clemson is pulling in half the amount of revenue as schools in other conferences, the future of the program starts to become at stake.
I strongly believe the ACC’s situation is untenable. Yes, the grant of rights lock up prolongs the current makeup, but the destination is inevitable.
The role of the College Football Playoff
Before we get to some predictions, let’s circle back to the College Football Playoff. I find the timing of the “expansion” announcement to be quite ironic given what was happening behind the scenes with Texas, Oklahoma and the SEC. I view the College Football Playoff exactly like I view conference realignment. It has been and always will be a contraction event. The college football world always looks at expanded access incorrectly. Even when we went from the BCS to the four-team playoff.
When the sport went from a 2 to 4-team setup to determine its national champion, it wasn’t without unintended consequences. As Nick Saban has warned for years, with increased attention on the Playoff, the remainder of the bowl system suffers.
In 2016, Saban said the following, “By having a Playoff we would minimize the interest in other bowl games, which I think is sort of what happened and I hate to see that for college football.”
Three years ago, Saban said, “I stood up here 10 years ago and said, as soon as we do this, it’s going to diminish bowl games, the importance of bowl games. Everybody would just be interested in the (Playoff).”
This year after the news of potential expansion of the Playoff, Saban echoed similar sentiments on the Paul Finebaum show.
Renewed talk about @CFBPlayoff expansion has not changed Nick Saban's mind on the issue:
"Maybe the Playoff and the bowls can't co-exist, but if they are going to co-exist, maybe we should try to leave 'em pretty much the same." pic.twitter.com/rqG4ARU1zf
— Paul Finebaum (@finebaum) April 27, 2021
What Nick Saban has correctly identified for 10 years is contraction of the college football postseason. Remember, contraction isn’t always an abrupt elimination of something. It can be more subtle. Contraction can look different ways. It can be an undermining, making something less important, making something be of less quality, etc. And yes, usually as that process happens, it leads to elimination eventually.
As the College Football Playoff was introduced and as it likely will expand, other postseason games become increasingly meaningless. This doesn’t mean there won’t be fun bowl games or that some teams won’t really appreciate having the opportunity to play in a particular bowl game. But it does mean that situations like Florida having most of its best players sit out the 2020 Cotton Bowl become more common.
The College Football Playoff will expand, and it will be a heavily marketed public relations chip to play by the major conferences that are increasingly soaking up the most resources in college football. It’ll be a tool used to “throw a bone” to those programs that find themselves on the outside looking in. It’ll be a tool used to manipulate the media who are obsessed with postseason format to distract them from seeing the real game being played.
Enough rambling. What’s all this mean for what actually happens in the future? Because of how college football is structured, the road ahead is always a bit messy. Even if you can identify an ideal structure, it’s nearly impossible to land on it, because you have independent entities all working with self-interest in mind. But that doesn’t mean we can’t predict what will happen.
Here are my predictions … some bold, some not-so-bold.
The Big 12 and the Pac-12
The gap is going to continue to widen between these conferences and the “Big 2” of the SEC and Big Ten. These conferences might continue to exist as independent conferences for decades. They might merge or just announce some scheduling partnerships. The AAC might merge with the Big 12 as well. The point is that it doesn’t really matter. They’re likely going to continue to fall behind regardless of what the structure of each conference may be.
Will a program like USC jump ship? I think it’s very possible for the same reasons I outlined above with the Clemson hypothetical. If you’re the premier brand in a conference full of lower-tier programs, the tension is going to increase.
I tend to think the ACC is doomed as it is currently constructed. The tension will continue to increase between the handful of football powers and the rest of the conference as conferences such as the SEC announce larger and larger distributions to its members.
Could the ACC get to a point where it moves to unequal distributions where Clemson is getting a boatload more money from the ACC than Wake Forest is? It’s possible and it would reduce potential tension down the road, but that seems like a very difficult thing to reach an agreement on as a conference.
While you’ll continue to hear that the ACC is fine because of the grant of rights lock up, each year that passes means the exit fees get lower and lower. If other conferences are offering more and more revenue while the exit fees decrease each year, eventually there’s a breaking point.
What about Notre Dame?
While Notre Dame is indeed the biggest prize for a conference to grab, the longer Notre Dame holds out, the more leverage it likely has. Also note that Notre Dame’s agreement with the ACC means they can’t join any conference other than the ACC through the 2035-2036 season. But like I mentioned above with the ACC, as that timeframe gets reduced, getting out of such an agreement becomes more possible.
I believe Notre Dame eventually ends up in a conference, and the Big Ten is the right fit. If the vast majority of TV/streaming revenue is flowing through two large conferences, I think Notre Dame eventually joins the party. However, this might be years away. Maybe many years.
Does this ruin college football?
I can see the temptation to think so, but I think that concern is a bit overblown. The true joy of college football is watching your team compete against other teams, both bitter rivals and others. That doesn’t change. While we love to talk trash over conferences, most conference affiliations outside the SEC and maybe the Big Ten are fairly meaningless.
Scheduling can always be sorted out in whatever ways are deemed best to maintain traditions and rivalries while also providing enough variety each year.
Conferences in the future might not be cohesive, regionally-tight groupings like we’ve known for years. Perhaps they look more like the AFC and NFC of the NFL. If that’s the case, college football will still be great. You’ll still love rooting for your team.
And of course the greatest tradition of all in college football: complaining about college football … will still be in full effect. Whether it’s conference structure, the postseason or scheduling tactics, there will still be plenty to complain about. So don’t worry. The game you know and love will remain. Try to enjoy it.