Nick Saban's scheduling plan would kill non-Power 5 football teams, including his alma mater
On his way through the ESPN “car wash,” Nick Saban spelled out his vision for how the college football season should be structured. His plan was reasonable and pragmatic. It would cure much that ails college football scheduling. It would also provide a grim outlook for Group of 5 and FCS football.
Saban’s plan would be to have Power 5 teams play a 10-game conference schedule and two non-conference Power 5 opponents. Kirk Ferentz and others have put forth similar ideas before. This plan makes a lot of sense for Power 5 conferences and teams.
It makes sense for competition. A 10-game conference schedule ameliorates the conference cohesion and schedule disparity issues with expanded conferences. Teams playing 12 real football games and games against two Power 5 non-conference opponents gives us more data and better data to choose a Playoff team. It would incentivize teams to play tougher opponents rather than padding the schedule to get to six wins.
It makes sense for the entertainment product. Better competitive games are more appealing for fans. Right now, Alabama fans pay for seven home games. Three of those games in 2017 are against Fresno State, Colorado State and Mercer. Those three games are meaningless to everyone not involved with the money changing hands.
As I’ve written before, such changes may prove necessary for college football to survive. The present model depends on a large casual audience and substantial subsidies from monthly cable subscriber fees. The future of linear television is in stark decline. Neither may exist a decade from now. Those fickle college kids who, even at Alabama, show up late, leave early, and might not show up at all for the FCS game? That’s the core audience in 15-20 years.
College football will have to attract fans by offering the best quality product for television and in-stadium viewing. That means better games. This is all before we discuss potentially existential changes to the sport. The lingering amateurism question has not gone away and might cost money to resolve. The worse continued medical research looks for football, the more expensive it will become to insure.
The safest route for the Power 5, or whatever future iteration derives from it, would be to close off scheduling amongst themselves in a manner Nick Saban described. Of course, what works for the Power 5 would come at a major cost to programs below it. Group of 5 and FCS football programs are not awash in TV money. They depend on scheduling lay down games against Power 5 juggernauts like Alabama to stay afloat.
For example, let’s consider Saban’s alma-mater Kent State. The Golden flashes just signed an agreement with Georgia to get blown out in Athens in 2022 for $1.9 million. One can feel the Georgia fans quivering with excitement already.
That $1.9 million is vital for Kent State. In 2016, the school brought in $26 million in athletic department revenue. So, a $1.9 million fee would make up about seven percent of total revenue. But, in reality, it’s much more than that. Kent State received $19.3 million of the athletic department revenue from internal subsidies (74 percent). Toledo (53 percent) was the only MAC program receiving less than 60 percent subsidies.
Such subsidies, often coming directly from students in fees amounting to hundreds or thousands of dollars per year, might not be sustainable. A year ago, students and faculty at Eastern Michigan wanted to drop FBS football. That’s why Kent State plays at least two, sometimes three of those games to collect paychecks.
Even climbing the Group of 5 ladder, the prognosis does not get much brighter. Of the seven AAC schools with available data in USA Today’s database, Memphis (37 percent) was the only school receiving less than 40 percent of revenue in subsidies. Those schools might be living the relative dream, playing only one Power 5 road game for money.
Those schools are not thriving now, and it’s really difficult to see them surviving without the money games from the major conferences.
Empathy from the Power 5 for the have-nots won’t be a factor. Those schools are out for themselves. The increased Playoff revenue could have been a tool to promote parity. Instead, it has been used to entrench disparity. The Power 5 took a lion’s share of the new revenue and made it virtually impossible for a non-Power 5 team that isn’t Notre Dame to earn a Playoff spot.
The wrench would come from the lesser teams within conferences. Schools such as Vanderbilt want a system where going 2-6 in conference means going to a bowl game and constitutes a successful season. Under the current format, we now have more bowl places than bowl eligible teams produced. So, teams don’t even do that. Four FBS wins plus one FCS win can be enough.
Of course, if things get truly desperate with TV revenue, the lesser Power 5 programs could get cut out of the mix as well.