When the Horned Frogs of Texas Christian University (TCU) and the Bulldogs of the University of Georgia meet on the gridiron tonight at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, they won’t just decide the championship of the 2022 college football season among major NCAA universities. They will also reflect a sport at a crossroads, given myriad changes across the sport’s landscape.
For a sport with a history as long as professional baseball — Rutgers and Princeton played the first American football game in 1869, the same year the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first professional baseball team — college football stands in the middle of a tremendous amount of change, both on and off the field. And it remains to be seen whether and how a sport steeped in tradition, with its appeal to alumni who root on their alma mater, can adapt.
‘Wild West’ of Recruiting
Consider just some of the developments roiling the landscape in recent years:
Conference Realignment: Teams have spent the past several decades swapping conferences since the Southwest Conference began imploding in the late 1980s. But the revenue generated by big TV deals has accelerated the process in recent years, as schools play a game of “musical chairs,” whereby conferences seek schools in noteworthy media markets, while schools sell their affiliations to the highest conference bidder.
One of the biggest developments in recent years occurred this past fall, whereby USC and UCLA— two Los Angeles-based universities, one of which (USC) is private — agreed to join the Big Ten, a Midwestern-based conference comprised primarily of public, land grant institutions, effective in 2024.
Name, Image, and Likeness Revenue: A Supreme Court ruling allowed college athletes to receive revenue from personal endorsement deals, even if universities themselves do not pay athletes a salary. The ruling allowed athletes to profit from their labors, but it also means that the most sought-after athletes may effectively sell themselves to the highest bidder, by selecting the schools with the most and richest boosters, who can afford to fund the biggest NIL deals. In a worst-case scenario, NIL could widen the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots,” meaning all but a handful of schools would have little chance of attracting the athletes needed to compete at a championship level.
Transfer Portal: TCU first-year coach Sonny Dykes showed the potential of the transfer portal, when he attracted enough talent at skill positions to turn a team with a losing record last season to one playing for the national championship on Monday night. But allowing athletes to transfer schools every year, effectively turning them into free agents, makes retaining talent just as difficult a job as attracting athletes in the first place. In this brave new world, an athlete can change schools the second he gets benched by his coach, or jump ship to another university whose boosters offer more NIL money.
Add to all of that the announcement last fall that the end-of-year playoff, currently comprising four teams competing over a two-week span in early January, will triple in size to 12 teams and four rounds of games, beginning next year (i.e., after the 2024 season). Supporters of the expanded playoff claim that expanding the format, and guaranteeing more conferences automatic bids to the post-season playoff, will reduce (but not eliminate) the incentives for universities to jump ship to the most powerful conferences.
The Last ‘Real’ Rose Bowl
But the expansion of the playoff brings with it other consequences. Take for instance, the Rose Bowl, the grand dame of college football’s postseason. Held annually for over a century, the Rose Bowl has since the end of World War II featured the champions of the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences.
Those conference affiliations took a hiatus in several years after 1998, when an alliance of bowls finally reached an agreement to crown a national champion on the field. In years when the Rose Bowl hosted the championship game (or, more recently, a national semifinal in the four-team playoff), the Big Ten and Pac-12 ties did not apply. But the Rose Bowl tried to maintain the Big Ten/Pac-12 matchup whenever possible, until now.
Last Monday’s Rose Bowl between Penn State and the University of Utah represented the final version of the game guaranteed to feature a matchup between the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences. With the Rose Bowl hosting a national semifinal for the four-team playoff next January, and a quarterfinal or semifinal of the expanded 12-team playoff thereafter, any pairing of representatives from the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences would be purely coincidental. Thus a tradition lasting nearly four score years has gone by the wayside.
So too the Rose Bowl’s traditional start time of 2 p.m. Pacific on New Year’s Day — or on Jan. 2 when Jan. 1 falls on Sunday. (In the late 19th century, Pasadena officials worried that the Rose Parade might disrupt churchgoers attending services, and adopted a rule that the parade, and bowl game, would never take place on Sunday.)
The start time for the Rose Bowl may feel pedantic to some, but it reveals the larger shift in priorities. Starting the bowl game at 2 p.m. Pacific allowed attendees of the Rose Parade, which runs from 8-10 a.m. Pacific, time to walk, drive, or ride a shuttle the roughly one mile from downtown Pasadena to the Rose Bowl Stadium. Now, however, with the Rose Bowl serving as a national quarterfinal or semifinal in the expanded 12-team playoff, the bowl game could take place days, or even weeks, away from its traditional Jan. 1 date.
Football fans may not realize it, but the Rose Parade begat the Rose Bowl, not the other way around. The parade and festival began in 1890, but the first football game was not held until 1902, and did not become an annual event until 1916 — a quarter-century after the parade. And as “the granddaddy of them all,” the Rose Bowl birthed a series of imitators that led to nearly 40 postseason bowl games.
By discarding the Jan. 1 tradition for the game, the Rose Bowl is abandoning the history that birthed not just it, but the entire concept of postseason college football. To put it another way, the Rose Bowl has become the tail that grew so big as to wag the dog, a sign of the money pervading the sport.
Tradition and Loyalty?
Therein lies the challenge facing college football. Professional sports fans have sadly become accustomed to free agency, athletes leaving for greener pastures, and even teams decamping to other cities for better stadiums and more money.
But perhaps more than any other sport, college football appeals to a nostalgia factor that rapid and abrupt change can upend, eliminating historic rivalries and traditions passed down over generations. And with blowouts the norm in the four-team playoff (albeit not this year, which featured two thrilling national semifinal games), will tripling the size of the field lead to a more compelling on-field product? Quite likely not.
Colleges, conferences, and athletes all seem determined to earn more money, and the changes in recent years all point in that same direction. But sadly for fans, more does not mean a better product.